Liberals are outraged at CNN for hosting Donald Trump’s town hall on Wednesday. On Twitter and elsewhere, moderator Kaitlan Collins is getting slammed for not—somehow—vanquishing Trump for all time. But that’s not her job. And at her job, Collins was great. She fact-checked Trump doggedly from beginning to end, like a rapid-fire search engine in human form.
Liberals are furious because it didn’t work. Trump didn’t stumble, lose confidence, or rephrase his thoughts. And from the audience’s reaction, it’s clear that he didn’t lose face among supporters.
The question is why.
It might be useful to figure this out sometime between now and November 2024, at least for those who don’t want him reelected. There are several reasons that fact-checking Trump is a dead end. First, catching him in a lie is like knocking Larry David for being uptight. That’s the act. That’s the brand. Trump’s appeal is that he doesn’t play by the rules that traditionally govern political debate and performance. He doesn’t think his significance—his greatness—rests on his facility with facts, and he knows his base doesn’t think so either. He’s the guy who channels mass rage, picks fights, gets revenge, and makes deals. That’s it. You want truth? Try math or religion. For Trump, truthfulness never enters the equation. Maybe he believes his lies, maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he gets a kick out of being the world heavyweight champion fabulist. But whatever he thinks about lying, there’s zero moral content attached.
Second, everyone lies now. Sorry, but it’s true. Trump ushered in, or hastened, an age of bipartisan, institutional, cross-cultural fabrication. And we’re talking whoppers here. Public-health officials lied about the necessity of school closures and the efficacy of masks (two opposite mask lies at different times). The bureaucratic and media elite lied about the likely origins of Covid 19. The press lied about the “peaceful” nature of BLM riots. Twitter lied about its policies. The entire medical and psychological establishment lies about the differences between male and female.
It’s not just the establishment that lies. In response to these “official” lies, anti-establishment types tell lies of their own. They lie about the safety of vaccines. They lie about Russian and Ukrainian deaths in Putin’s war. They lie about January 6 being an inside job.
And we can’t forget Joe Biden, who lies when he whispers and lies when he shouts. The president lies about everything from his policy record to his relationship with his son to his academic credentials. Biden has told three different lies about being arrested. In one, it was for civil-rights activism. In another, it was for trying to see Nelson Mandela. In yet another, it was for sneaking into a women’s dorm.
Lying isn’t special. It’s the default mode of public debate in the 21st century. If Trump does it more than anyone else—and he does—it shows how well-suited he is to his time and place.
Third, Trump’s factual lies are irrelevant to his supporters because he speaks a deeper, non-factual truth to those who fall for him: Everything is broken and unfair, and I alone can fix it. Against this, facts are footnotes to be skipped over. It doesn’t really matter to the Trump faithful whether the 2020 election was stolen. What matters is that in a world so crooked and corrupt, you might as well pronounce it stolen. It’s a poetic truth. And, sadly, in an atmosphere of ceaseless falsehoods, it resonates with more and more Americans.
What has worked against Trump? You could try telling him to shut up. That’s what Joe Biden did during their debate in 2020, and it was a big moment for him. But a moment isn’t a plan. You could focus attention on his low character. But, like dishonesty, baseness is his brand. And it was well established when he got elected the first time. Trump can’t be scolded or shamed off the stage.
What can be done—and it isn’t the responsibility of a cable-news moderator—is to offer voters an alternative brand, something charismatic and interesting on its own terms. And it wouldn’t hurt if that brand had some reverence for truth and dignity.