OPINION: Real show at CNN town hall was the audience, not the stage

Donald Trump spent 70 minutes at a CNN Town Hall on May 10, 2023 with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins. (Screenshot)

Credit: Screenshot

Credit: Screenshot

Donald Trump spent 70 minutes at a CNN Town Hall on May 10, 2023 with CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins. (Screenshot)

Who needs a poll for the 2024 GOP presidential primary when you have Wednesday’s CNN town hall audience rooting and tooting for former President Donald Trump, the more outrageous his statements the better?

The early reviews of the event weren’t pretty. Even CNN’s own media critic, Oliver Darcy said it was “hard to see how America was served by the spectacle of lies that aired on CNN Wednesday evening.”

But I disagree. America was served by seeing, live on television, the ongoing devotion of Trump’s biggest supporters, no matter what he says, what he’s done, or what he continues to lie about.

The same people who used to wait for Trump to be “more presidential” when he was in the White House are now the ones waiting for the GOP base to come to its senses and get behind one of the other Republicans who could beat Joe Biden in 2024. But the CNN town hall revealed, early and often, that’s not happening.

The group of self-identified Republican and undeclared voters at New Hampshire’s St. Anselm College was mostly male, mostly white, and mostly older, so a good representation of the GOP primary electorate that will choose the party’s next nominee.

Any question of how they would receive him, just a day after he was found liable for sexual abuse and defamation, was answered with the rousing standing ovation that the former president received as he strode onto the stage.

As he delivered his familiar combination of bluster, sarcasm, botched facts, and insults, the crowd cheered. The bigger and more audacious the claims, the better. They laughed. They listened. They loved the show.

While reporters were dutifully pushing out fact-checks on Twitter and MSNBC declared it would not “platform” Trump, they might have all done better to look at the effect Trump’s words are continuing to have on this slice of the GOP electorate.

Just like in 2016 and 2020, familiar insults from Trump, about women especially, won laughing approval.

“You’re a nasty one, I tell you,” he said to CNN host, Kaitlan Collins.

“Ha ha!” laughed the crowd.

When Collins asked Trump about being found liable for sexually abusing columnist E. Jean Carroll, he declared her “a whack job.” Good one!

The place was in stitches by the time he landed the punch line about their encounter — which he said never happened — in the 1990s.

“What kind of a woman meets somebody and brings them up and within minutes you’re playing hanky panky in a dressing room?”

The crowd went crazy.

He even went for a laugh, and got it, when he was asked why it took him hours after the Jan. 6 Capitol attack to tell his supporters to leave the building. Producing sheets of his posts to his Truth Social media platform, he cracked, ”I hope everybody’s on Truth!”

“Har! Har!”

When his people weren’t laughing, they were deadly serious, nodding in agreement and hooting approval with Trump’s version of the months and years since he was defeated in 2020.

He repeated long-disproven claims about the 2020 Georgia presidential election, including his recorded call with Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. “A perfect call,” he insisted, adding parenthetically that he called because Raffensperger “owed him” votes.

“When we can’t make a call to question election results, then we as a country ought to just forget about it!”

Lots of cheers.

Does he owe Mike Pence an apology after Pence had to flee for his safety on Jan. 6?

“No. Because he did something wrong. He should have put the votes back to the legislatures and we would have had a different outcome.”

More intense applause.

Would he pardon people convicted of crimes in the Capitol attack?

“They’re great people — many of them are great people ... I am inclined to pardon a large portion of them.”

More clapping follows. He’s not alone.

The same polarizing issues that Republican strategists worry will hurt their party in a general election were slam dunks for Trump Wednesday night.

On changes to gun laws, he said, “It’s not the gun that pulls the trigger.” Woo-hoo!

And on a full abortion ban, “I consider the other side to be radical.” Clap, clap, clap!

Loud applause came when Trump refused to pick sides between Russia and Ukraine on the war there, a topic that drove at least two Republican senators to say Wednesday they can’t support Trump again.

“I would have that war settled in less than 24 hours.”

The crowd agreed. Nothing he said dimmed the enthusiasm.

Trump ended the evening as it began, by wrongly insisting that he really did win the 2020 election — it was just rigged against him. And he warned it better not happen again.

“If I don’t win, this country’s going to be in big trouble. It’s so sad.”

And with that, Trump got another standing ovation and he smiled and pointed at the satisfied crowd. “I like you guys!” he said.

Why CNN would ask Collins, their talented rising star, to moderate a miniature Trump rally is baffling. She did as well as any reporter could, but why make her try?

Jake Tapper called Trump’s performance “chilling” and said there was no way to fact-check every lie the former president told.

But a key truth was revealed by the spectacle.

Trump will continue to say whatever he wants, whenever he wants. He’ll be emboldened by the many investigations into his conduct, including in Georgia, not embarrassed by them. And he’ll be rewarded by his large, hungry portion of GOP voters, not punished. Other Republicans can try to knock him out, but it’s hard to see how they’ll succeed.

This is the next two years, and maybe more. Believe it.