Donald Trump’s decision to participate in a town hall on CNN on May 10 is a small masterstroke for his campaign. In saying yes to the “fake news” channel he usually slams, Trump kills, by my count, five birds with one stone.
First, he outwits Ron DeSantis, who has eschewed non-right media in a play for MAGA votes. DeSantis has been at war with mainstream broadcasters for a while now. He blocked them from last year’s Sunshine Summit in Florida. He turns down network appearances and boasts of freezing out the MSM, but that’s only allowed them to distort his views and actions without a challenge (the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, the “racist” attack on African-American studies, etc). This was clearly an effort on DeSantis’s part to put meat on the bones of Trump’s rhetoric about the evil, dishonest “enemy of the people.” But MAGA voters thrill to the rhetoric and to the sight of Trump on every page and screen in the country. DeSantis chose to show his populist bona fides by disappearing. Trump’s town hall leaves the second-place Republican looking one step behind and too clever by whole.
Second, Trump’s town hall lays down an implicit challenge to Joe Biden. The president now more or less avoids TV appearances, stoking continued suspicions about his physical and mental fitness. Can he sit across from a reporter or voter and take unscripted questions? Trump is about to do it for an extended period of time. And whatever else Trump is, he’s a robust presence on camera. This contrasts with the shrinking, ever more inward-directed mien of Biden. The comparison will be unavoidable, even if Trump controls himself and doesn’t explicitly direct us to it. His appearance puts pressure on Biden to make himself available to the press and it excites concerns about Biden’s health.
Third, by gifting viewers to the ailing CNN, Trump zings Fox News, which he’s now come to view as an enemy. Trump asks for bottomless loyalty and offers none. Once cozy with Fox, he now sees the network as a DeSantis ally and has accused Rupert Murdoch of “aiding & abetting the DESTRUCTION OF AMERICA.” Why? Because depositions in Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox revealed that network executives didn’t really believe the 2020 election was stolen. If Trump can no longer get Fox to do his bidding, at least he can make it pay, in viewers, for its betrayal.
Fourth, if the town hall yields CNN a large viewership, it will ensure that the media remain addicted to all things Trump. Donald Trump feeds on attention, and networks know Trump is good for ratings. The media’s “Trump slump” in the wake of his losing the 2020 election was a real phenomenon. He knows that CNN is in turmoil and its ratings are plummeting. This, from Trump’s standpoint, is leverage. They need him. And if they get a significant boost from his town hall, it won’t be lost on other outlets. The Trump-media symbiosis of 2016 did both parties a world of good. He’s looking to rekindle the relationship.
And fifth, Trump’s making a deal with CNN is unexpected, and doing the unexpected is part of his allure. His impulsiveness and inconstancy fascinate. Sometimes this makes him ridiculous, as when he improvised on light and disinfectant to combat Covid. But many who claim to be sick of the man nevertheless retain their capacity to be shocked by him. If a typical presidential candidate agreed to a CNN interview, no one would care. When Trump does it, he brings with him a context that renders it instant news. People are already losing their heads over it.
Common sense says that the more people are exposed to Trump, the more they’re bound to disapprove. His vulgarity and dishonesty should make it inevitable. But if it’s inevitable, why are his detractors upset about his going on CNN? Because when you’re as familiar with someone’s flaws as we are with Trump’s, those flaws can start to seem prosaic. His manifold sins and transgressions are as well known to us as the alphabet—and there are only so many letters. The only thing left to discover is that you might actually like something about him, after all. I don’t know whether Trump can make that happen on May 10. But his merely agreeing to appear gives his opponents and enemies plenty to worry about.