CNN's Trump town hall was a disaster, but one that we can learn a lot from. This leopard hasn't changed his spots and needs to be called out for it.

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CNN hosted what has been seen by many as a disastrous television appearance of the Presidential nominee-to-be in an hour of lies and playing to a partisan crowd. And my, the crowd was partisan. The Guardian summed up many analysts’ exasperation in their piece “‘What was CNN thinking?’: our panel on Donald Trump’s town hall”:

The surprise from CNN’s town hall with Donald Trump wasn’t Trump. It was CNN. What could they have been thinking? Everything was wrong. If you’re going to host Trump, have him face a dogged questioner. That wasn’t Kaitlan Collins. Trump talked over her, insulted her (“You are a nasty person”) and simply ignored her, as CNN should have predicted. And why hold a town hall comprised mostly of Republicans? Instead of a structure that would challenge a candidate on the issues, CNN chose a format that favors an audience receptive and primed to all of Trump’s lies (“It was a rigged election”), insults (on E Jean Carroll: “she’s a whack job”), and racism (“They don’t even speak English in that Chinatown”).

Trump “steamrolled” (indeed, the Washington Post and Yahoo News both used this term) the event.

But as someone who has invested an inordinate amount of time navigating the geopolitical maelstrom that is the war in Ukraine, something else caught my eye: Trump once again repeated that he will end the war within 24 hours.

“Both Putin and Zelenskyy have their strengths and weaknesses. Within 24 hours that war will be settled,” he said.

Originally tweeted by NOELREPORTS 🇪🇺 🇺🇦 (@NOELreports) on May 11, 2023.

This was prime Trump, but no one should be under any illusion that this is a man of substance, knowledge, or ideas. He is a man of platitudes that only go as far as to make his partisan cult members whoop and clap in adoration. Everyone else recognizes the otherwise entirely vacuous assertions.

“Let me just put it this way,” Trump stated with utmost confidence, “If I’m President, I will have that war settled in one day, 24 hours.” Thoughtless applause followed with added whoops. The closing of his eyes at this point and the look on his face is one that said, “I really am this good. I can do anything.”

If I was a Presidential nominee and was asked by Caitlin Collins “What will you do to tackle the debt ceiling?”, I could answer “If I’m President, I will create a bajillion dollars. Just like that.” This has the same merit.

Naturally, the next question is how one would actually do that.

“I’ll meet with Putin, I’ll meet with Zelenskyy…they both have weaknesses and they both have strengths…and within 24 hours that war would be settled, it’ll be over, it’ll be absolutely…”

But he was never challenged on how he would accomplish this geopolitical miracle. I guess we must remember that Trump was renowned for his foreign policy accomplishments and the way he garnered international respect. Wasn’t he?

But the other important point hidden away here, other than his propensity to promise the moon on a stick, is his bothsidesism, his false balance. Putin and Zelenskyy are one and the same sort of leader. Both have strengths and weaknesses. This is a suitably vague whitewash of the chasm of difference between these two premiers.

I barely need remind you of the Charlottesville statement of “people that were very fine people, on both sides.” Trump finds it very difficult to criticize people he likes, and who seem to very much like him.

This is a very similar situation to his relationship with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, another strong man in the vein of Kim Jong Un and Jair Bolsonaro. Trump likes strong men leaders because he fancies being a dictator himself one day, it appears. He’s certainly no fan of a free press, for as Trump said of the media to Putin, “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia but we do.”

As such, Trump fails to see the many, many character flaws and policy failings that autocrats like Putin tend to have. For some evidence, here are 15 times Trump praised authoritarian leaders.

One of Trump’s international low points was in Helsinki where he publicly said he believes a former KGB agent and dictator—sworn Cold War enemy—over his own intelligence services. Here are a few of the things that Trump has previously said of Putin at rallies and interviews:

“The smartest one gets to the top. That didn’t work so well recently in our country. But they ask me, ‘Is Putin smart?’ Yes, Putin was smart. And I actually thought he was going to be negotiating. I said, ‘That’s a hell of a way to negotiate, put 200,000 soldiers on the border.’”

“I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, ‘This is genius,’ Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine—of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful.”

“They say, ‘Trump said Putin’s smart.’ I mean, he’s taking over a country for two dollars’ worth of sanctions. I’d say that’s pretty smart. He’s taking over a country – really a vast, vast location, a great piece of land with a lot of people, and just walking right in.”

“Yesterday reporters asked me if I thought President Putin was smart. I said, ‘Of course, he’s smart,’ to which I was greeted with ‘Oh, that’s such a terrible thing to say.’ I like to tell them, ‘Yes, he’s smart.’”

To continue his town hall catastrophe, or raging success depending on which side of the fence you are on (the right one or the wrong one), let us see how he answered the next question. Or not. He certainly got full marks for not answering Caitlin Collins’s question, “Do you want Ukraine to win the war?”

“I don’t think in terms of winning and losing,” he declared in evasion and bluster, “I think in terms of getting in settled so we stop killing all of these people…” The end of the answer was drowned out by further applause and hollering.

Yes, it’s obvious that any half-decent human being would want people to stop dying. But who does he want to win that war? This could potentially be applied to Putin appeasement. Perhaps fewer people would have died if we let Nazi Germany overrun Europe and turn it into a long-term fascist state, but…

Collins, to give her her due, tried again, and didn’t let him get away with not answering despite his obvious displeasure. “Can you just say if you want Ukraine or Russia to win this war?” The question really was that simple.

“I want everybody to stop dying. They’re dying—Russians and Ukrainians. I want them to stop dying, and I’ll have that done, I’ll have that done in 24 hours, I’ll have it done: You need the power of the Presidency to do it.”

Collins didn’t stick to her guns and get him to answer the question. Interviewer and pundit Mehdi Hasan has recently authored the excellent (audio)book Win Every Argument: The Art of Debating, Persuading, and Public Speaking in which he advocates for not letting these questions go. It’s partly why he has become a revered interviewer. Be a dog with a bone.

Collins moved on with “But you won’t say that you want Ukraine to win, you…” and tried to continue to move to another question. This enabled Trump to then move the “answer” to what he wanted to say, his pet talking point.

“You know what I’ll say, I’ll say this. I want Europe to put up more money because they’re in for $20 billion, we’re in for 170, and they should equalize…”

In the background, Collins points out, “But that’s not an answer for who wins the war.”

And she was right. But she needed to hammer that home, to not let go of the bone, to talk about the morality of Trump versus Zelenskky and not the relative assistance one of them is given. The funding of NATO and the support of Ukraine has nothing to do with who (morally) should win a war in which a sovereign nation has been unjustifiably invaded by an imperialistic aggressor. It has nothing to do with who (morally) should win in light of horrific war crimes that have taken place such as at Bucha and elsewhere.

Though there is some rationale to the claims about funding of both NATO and Ukraine in general, this is a woefully simplistic talking point that Trump is touting. For example, it neglects to take into account the history of the Cold War and the central role that the US has played, working in dovetail with its global hegemony. This also allows the US to export “security” in a way that Trump probably deeply misunderstands. For a primer, see the excellent Perun video “US Grand Strategy: NATO, Alliances, & Ukraine – how alliances underpin American influence.”

YouTube video

In other words, Trump doesn’t understand US geopolitical strategy. Far be it from me to overly support the US military-industrial complex, but the expenditure for Ukraine support is largely internal.

When the US announces a military aid package, this can be made up of myriad different expenditures. First of all, the headline costs are replacement costs for materiel that is often from drawdown. This means these are from existing stocks that have been bought and paid for already and aren’t necessarily being replaced. This is equipment sitting in warehouses. If it is to be replaced, it is often part of a pre-existing schedule that would have happened irrespective of the war (and the war has reduced unit costs of these items, too). Further, the replacement is almost always from domestic, indigenous industry, thus stimulating US jobs and the economy, and raising tax dollars.

What is generally not happening is the US taking a pallet of cash out of a bank and delivering it to Ukraine with no strings attached.

If the US wants to remain the supreme power in the world—the hegemonic focus—and reap the rewards from this, then it requires investment.

Now, all of this entails a good deal of debate (moral, political, strategic, and economic). It certainly shouldn’t be simplistically misrepresented in an applauded talking point at a town hall Team Trump hurrah.

Have we learned nothing from 2016? The more oxygen the mainstream media gives Trump to spread his lies and nonsense unchallenged, the more the Overton Window is shifted, and the more credible his outbursts appear to the national audience.

By all means, have him on television, but challenge the heck out of every single claim that comes out of his mouth, and keep challenging until he is hoist by his own petard.

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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...