Just before the 2012 South Carolina Republican primary, CNN’s John King opened a presidential debate by asking Newt Gingrich what he probably thought was a tough question about Gingrich’s ex-wife’s claim that the former House Speaker ever sought an open marriage.
Gingrich’s response was seething with anger. “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the media makes it harder to govern this country, harder to get decent people to run for public office,” he told King, and I’m horrified that you’re going to start a presidential debate on a topic like that.” Turning the “personal pain” of divorce into a “major presidential campaign issue is as close to contempt as I can imagine.”
The crowd erupted. Gingrich won the primary, defeating noted family man Mitt Romney. And though Gingrich’s campaign fizzled soon after, it was a moment that foreshadowed an important part of the Donald Trump phenomenon, offering proof that Republican voters will forgive a host of sins, or otherwise disbelieve in the existence of a candidate. , who is eagerly, even fervently, at war with the establishment media.
That dynamic explains the absurdity of CNN’s town hall with Trump this week, which was actually set up as an extended version of the King-Gingrich confrontation. The topics Caitlan Collins brought up included many issues that would be embarrassing for Trump if he were able to embarrass them — personal scandals, election lies, and so on. But with a rousing crowd eager to side with him against the press, it was child’s play for Trump to accelerate her attempts to shame and her frantic real-time fact-checking.
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, competing Republican presidential candidates trying to imagine a path to his victory.
What TV professionals need to learn is that they have two choices when dealing with another Trump campaign. They can take the “this is an emergency” route that some critics in the press and anti-Trump writers are urging them to take: Don’t platform him or normalize his campaign in any way, don’t let him speak on live TV, yes only cover him within a set frame that constantly highlights his authoritarian tendencies and attempts to overturn the recent elections. I don’t believe this path is wise or workable, but at least there’s a moral consistency that’s missing from the “democracy is in danger and tune in tonight for an hour with a demagogue!” approach we’ve already seen in 2016.
Alternatively, if the press is going to conduct interviews and debates as usual, then in preparing for them they should try to think a little more like Republican voters as opposed to left-of-center journalists. Not in the sense of being slavish to the former president, but in the sense of writing questions that a right-wing American trained to dislike the media might actually find enlightening.
In part, as Ramesh Ponuru suggests, this means examining Trump’s presidential history in conservative rather than liberal terms—questioning, for example, the failure to complete the border wall or the spike in crime in the last year of his administration. In part, as Eric Erickson writes, that means asking obvious questions that follow from his account of the stolen election, rather than just attacking him directly—such as if Democrats really did steal the election, why your administration, your chosen attorney general, and your appointed judges just let them do it?
The utility of this last line of questioning is also something future Trump rivals, especially Ron DeSantis, can learn from CNN’s experience, as they can handle these kinds of conservative-friendly challenges if the media doesn’t. . But the most basic lesson Republican politicians can take from watching Trump’s town hall is the importance for any Trump successor candidate to demonstrate that you, too, can engage with the mainstream press and emerge victorious.
It’s the core of Vivek Ramaswamy’s presidential strategy so far, which has elevated him to near Mike Pence levels of support in primary polls, in part because of his willingness to argue with Chuck Todd or Don Lemon rather than just rattle off points for Hannity.
But that’s the opposite of DeSantis’ method, which is to clamp down on the mainstream media (with a side of derision from his friends and allies on Twitter). That’s good for a right-leaning state governor trying to get things done locally and build support from conservative activists. But that’s not what Republican voters actually seem to want from their national champions. They want the show, the fight, the drama. And after all, you can’t really own the libraries if you don’t even answer their questions.