Just before the South Carolina Republican primary in 2012, CNN’s John King opened a presidential debate by asking Newt Gingrich what he probably considered a tough question, about Gingrich’s ex-wife’s claim that the former speaker of the House had once sought an open marriage.
Gingrich’s response dripped with dudgeon. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media,” he told King, “makes it harder to govern this country, harder to attract decent people to run for public office, and I am appalled that you would begin a presidential debate on a topic like that.” To make the “personal pain” of divorce into “a significant question for a presidential campaign is as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
The crowd erupted. Gingrich swept to victory in the primary, lapping noted family man Mitt Romney. And though the Gingrich campaign faltered soon thereafter, it was a moment that anticipated an important part of the Donald Trump phenomenon, by offering proof that Republican voters will forgive a multitude of sins, or else disbelieve in those sins’ existence, for a candidate who’s eagerly, even zestfully at war with the establishment media.
That dynamic explains the futility of CNN’s town hall with Trump this week, which was basically set up as an extended version of the King-Gingrich confrontation. The topics raised by Kaitlan Collins included many issues that would be embarrassing to Trump, were he capable of embarrassment — personal scandals, election lies and so forth. But with an amped-up crowd eager to side with him against the press, it was child’s play for Trump to steamroll her attempts at shaming and her frantic real-time fact checks.
Two groups can learn something from the experience: first, network producers and executives thinking about how to conduct interviews and host debates with Trump; second, rival Republican presidential candidates trying to envision a path to beating him.
What the TV professionals should learn is that they have two choices in dealing with another Trump primary campaign. They can take the kind of this-is-an-emergency path urged on them by some press critics and anti-Trump writers: Don’t platform him or normalize his campaign in any way, don’t let him speak on live TV, cover him only within a set framework that constantly emphasizes his authoritarian tendencies and attempts to overturn the last election. I don’t believe this path is wise or workable, but it at least has a moral consistency lacking in the “democracy is in danger and tune in tonight for an hour with the demagogue!” approach that we already watched play out in 2016.
Alternatively, if the press intends to conduct interviews and run debates as normal, then in preparing for them they need to try to think a little bit more like Republican voters as opposed to center-left journalists. Not in the sense of behaving slavishly toward the former president, but in the sense of writing the kinds of questions that a right-leaning American primed to dislike the media might actually find illuminating.
In part, as Ramesh Ponnuru suggests, that means drilling into Trump’s presidential record on conservative terms rather than liberal ones — asking about, for instance, the failure to complete the border wall or the surge in crime in the last year of his administration. In part, as Erick Erickson writes, it means asking obvious questions that follow from his stolen-election narrative rather than just attacking it head-on — as in, if the Democrats really stole the election, why did your administration, your chosen attorney general and your appointed judges basically just let them do it?
The utility of this last line of questioning is also something that Trump’s prospective rivals, Ron DeSantis especially, can draw out of the CNN experience, since they can tee up those kinds of conservative-friendly challenges if the media does not. But the most basic lesson to be drawn by Republican politicians from watching Trump’s town hall is the importance, for any would-be Trumpian successor, of demonstrating that you too can engage with the mainstream press and come away a winner.
This is the core of Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential strategy so far, which has lifted him to nearly Mike Pence-ian levels of support in primary polls in part because of his willingness to argue with Chuck Todd or Don Lemon, not just rattle off talking points on Hannity.
But it’s the opposite of the DeSantis method, which has been to stiff-arm the mainstream media (with a side of mockery from his friends and allies on Twitter). That’s fine for the governor of a rightward-trending state trying to get things done locally and build support with conservative activists. But it’s not what Republican voters actually seem to want from their national champions. They want the show, the battle, the drama. And you can’t really own the libs, in the end, if you won’t even take their questions.
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