Why the CNN Town Hall Was a Success, Sort-of

The CNN town hall with Donald Trump was an overwhelming success. Yes, I know that runs counter to the conventional wisdom which has it that the event was a debacle, a desecration of everything we hold dear about culture, decency, and democracy. Ordaine…

The CNN town hall with Donald Trump was an overwhelming success. Yes, I know that runs counter to the conventional wisdom which has it that the event was a debacle, a desecration of everything we hold dear about culture, decency, and democracy. Ordained pundits everywhere were clutching their pearls.

But if we look behind the curtain that conventional wisdom maintains to sustain the illusion of democracy, we see that the town hall greatly advanced the agenda of the wealthy elites who own the media and control public discourse in this country. That is the manner in which it must be considered a success.

First, let’s dispense with the superficial deformities of the event.

Yes, it was a lurid media enactment of Godzilla versus Bambi, with Donald Trump and Caitlin Collins playing their respective roles. That made for good theater, in the domesticated modern form of what the Romans relished as Bread and Circuses. Nobody can be mistaken about that mannerized essence of it.

When you marry Trump’s force-of-nature demonic character with the money-seeking imperative of commercial media and stew it all in the primal resentment held by vast swaths of the public who believe that the country has shafted them, you get exactly, formulaically, what we saw last week...

Yes, the content was an hour-long effluvium of lies, hate, misogyny, resentment, victimization, denigration of democracy, and all the other perversities that saddle up as Republican—and especially MAGA—talking points. Anyone who expected anything more is disingenuous, as Trump is.

And, yes, it served to normalize all those excrescences by serving them up to a national audience, in prime time, with the explicit imprimatur of one of society’s anointed purveyors of received culture. In effect, the event signified that this is what we are, so this is what we are destined to imbibe. Suck it in.

But if we look behind the curtain that the conventional wisdom (via the mainstream media) maintains to keep us confused, divided, pacified, and impotent, we see that the townhall delivered exactly what the doyens of power—those who own and run the media—wanted. That’s the “Sort-of.”

Let’s be honest: hate and fear and blame and victimization and resentment generate more clicks and eyeballs than do thought and tolerance and engagement and negotiation and compromise. That’s why bottom-dwellers like Marjorie Taylor Greene run the Republican Party; she generates clicks and eyeballs and, so, money.

When you marry Trump’s force-of-nature demonic character with the money-seeking imperative of commercial media and stew it all in the primal resentment held by vast swaths of the public who believe that the country has shafted them, you get exactly, formulaically, what we saw last week: an almost satanic (certainly, sadistic) celebration of our worst side, our basest nature, our latent id, the devils of our lesser being. It couldn’t be anything but.

Let’s be clear: Trump would not exist as the lurking, putrid, destructive cultural phenomenon that he is if the past 40 years of neoliberal governance had been a success for the American people

The essence of Trump’s message and of Trumpism itself is this: “Tear it down. It’s shafted you, it’s rigged, and it cannot be redeemed.” This is exactly what Trump means when he says with deadly seriousness, “I am your retribution.” That is, “I am your retribution against a society that has shafted you.” The fact of Trump’s resilience is the proof of the depth—and the breadth—of this sentiment. It is fanatically shared by tens of millions of people. We ignore it at our peril.

But “tear it down” is not a viable governing policy principle, which is why Republican policy proposals are nothing so much as nothing. There’s no “there” there. There are no actionable actions that can be acted on. It’s just vituperation, rage, conspiracy, histrionics, and bile.

This is exactly what the rulers of the country want you to see: for Trump not to be a reasonable alternative, which is not to say that his is not a palpable impetus. This is what signals that the town hall, while a calamity from one vantage, was such a success from another: that of our rulers.

The way the process is framed is that it’s either Trump, or the alternative, which is to say, Biden and the status quo. This has the effect of herding sensible people, whether Republicans or Democrats or Independents, to “the alternative.” But that “alternative,” is no more and no less than the neoliberal state that generated the conditions that barfed up Trump in the first place.

Let’s be clear: Trump would not exist as the lurking, putrid, destructive cultural phenomenon that he is if the past 40 years of neoliberal governance had been a success for the American people. But it hasn’t been a success. It’s been a disaster, indeed, a calamity for the vast majority of the population. Consider.

Average incomes, adjusted for inflation, have barely budged in the past 40 years. If working-class wages had only kept pace with productivity, people’s incomes would be more than double what they are now. Do you really think we’d have Trump if people were making double today what they actually are?

Fifty trillion dollars have been transferred from the bottom 90% of the population to the top 1%, those who own and operate the media and the rest of the country, including the government. Do you think we would have Trump if that $50 trillion were still in the pockets of the bottom 90%?

The country has had to take on more than $30 trillion of national debt to mask the rot occasioned by over four decades of neoliberal rule. But the duct tape of massive borrowing and spending can no longer keep up with all leaks that are busting out of the hose of governance. That’s what Kevin McCarthy’s debt ceiling farrago is revealing.

The problem for the keepers of the status quo, those conventional voices who counsel sobriety and sanity, is that Trump’s diagnosis—that the system isn’t working—is spot on. It’s not working! If it were, we wouldn’t have societal breakdown erupting all around us. We wouldn’t have Trump, who is simply a symptom, an avatar, of that breakdown.

The prescription of these conventional counselors of caution, these sane sentinels of sobriety, is “Let’s reject Trump but keep doing more of what brought us Trump.” And that, of course, is the proof of the deceit in the would-be framing of an “alternative.”

There is no more seasoned, no more committed a keeper of the neoliberal order than Joe Biden. He has been in American politics for more than 50 years. He used to be called “The Senator from Mastercard.” He is one of the principal architects, certainly one of the principal operators, of the neoliberal order that has predictably, reliably, inexorably delivered the greatest inequality in the history of the country, a de-industrialized economy, a bankrupt fiscal state, a desiccated culture, a collapsing social order, an imploding international presence.

And the implicit message of the CNN town hall was, “You can either have Trump, or you can have the system that gave us Trump. Take your pick.” Some pick.

Notice, for example, that there is no framing of any kind of potential solution beyond the repulsive alternative of Trump or the toxic alternative of, well, the alternative. There’s no alternative to the alternative. There’s no Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., for example, held up as the Democratic alternative to Joe Biden. Nor will there be, which is the testament to the Democratic Party’s complicity in this neoliberal pretense of protecting democracy.

The wealthy don’t want democracy because democracy is the only institution in society that has the legitimacy, and, therefore, the power to constrain the predations of concentrated wealth.

In the case of Trump, the end of democracy comes through the suspension of constitutional processes, i.e., naming him dictator, radical gerrymandering, massive voter suppression, and such. In the case of “the alternative,” the end of democracy comes through the continued charade that the artifacts of democracy—the speeches, debates, elections, party labels, townhalls, etc.—equal the substance of democracy, which is when the will of the people is expressed as public policy. But artifacts do not equal substance. That’s why they are merely artifacts.

The Princeton study by Gilens and Page proved, scientifically, that in the U.S., the will of the people is virtuallynever enacted as public policy, while the will of the elite almost always is. That is the reality, though, admittedly, not the stage-managed illusion, of American democracy.

To disparage Trump while promoting the system that gave rise to Trump is not only disingenuous, it is perfidious, which is to say deceitful, and dangerous.

We can either have Trump, which is anti-democracy, or we can have the alternative—the status quo—which is faux democracy, and which delivered precisely the circumstances that gave us Trump and his drive to dismantle democracy, and which will do so again, given the chance. It’s as if the glass box we’re supposed to use in case of societal emergency said, “Break glass to ensure society’s assured self-destruction.”

The wealthy don’t want democracy because democracy is the only institution in society that has the legitimacy, and, therefore, the power to constrain the predations of concentrated wealth.

In its townhall, CNN informed us in its uniquely condescending way that there are two “acceptable” alternatives available to us: one that destroys democracy; and one that continues the charade of democracy. In neither case is there any actual democracy. The wealthy win. That is why, from their point of view, the townhall was a rousing success.

It is easy to mock and denigrate Trump. He is so conspicuously, unapologetically odious. Self-fancied intellectuals on both sides of the political spectrum have made a self-congratulating blood sport of it. But to disparage Trump while promoting the system that gave rise to Trump is not only disingenuous, it is perfidious, which is to say deceitful, and dangerous. That is the noxious concoction CNN ladled up in its townhall, one that works for them, or at least its wealthy owners, but that puts a knife into the heart of our collective ability to pursue real democracy, which is what we need if we are to save this country.


This content originally appeared on Common Dreams and was authored by Robert Freeman.


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