Opinion: The Trump trap

File photo/Doug Mills/The New York Times / Former President Donald Trump speaks to the New Hampshire Republican State Committee in Salem, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2023.

For anyone who may have forgotten (or tried to forget), there was Donald Trump, that pied piper of the extreme right, again on full display for 70 minutes in a town hall/campaign rally that CNN thoughtfully provided for him. Any American harboring illusions that the man had changed, even the teeniest bit, was disabused of that notion with the very first question.

Trump, with either false sincerity or genuine mental illness, insisted yet again that he won in 2020, only to be done in by massive fraud that would have required hundreds if not thousands of conspirators to pull off, not one of whom has yet breathed a word about it. The crowd applauded.

For the remainder of the event, Trump was, well, Trump, leaving all but his most fervent supporters wondering, also yet again, if he really believed his own fantasies or was he simply spewing out the vitriol his fans have come to demand.

But the real fallout was directed not at Trump but rather at CNN. The network was excoriated by virtually every other media outlet, including MSNBC, which took the opportunity to mention how much better the night would have gone if Rachel Maddow had been in the interviewer's chair. (The idea that Maddow could have ridden herd on Trump any better than Collins, or anyone else for that matter, is almost as delusional as Trump's millions of fake Biden votes.)

The most serious criticism, however, was that CNN had allowed Trump to salt the crowd, that the so-called "independent voters" were merely MAGAs in disguise, who, when coupled with the announced MAGA attendees, turned the town hall into the sort of braying, snickering spectacle that people generally associate with Christians being fed to lions.

CNN tried to strike back, assigning Anderson Cooper to provide a three-minute rebuttal in which he admitted, "I get it," in response to the anger and outrage, and added that he would understand if there were those who would never watch the network again. But he also pointed out that Trump was far ahead of any Republican challenger, may well be their party's nominee in 2024, and that the "audience that upset you is a sampling of about half the country."

From there, Cooper defended CNN for demonstrating that "it can happen again — it is happening again," and then he took a shot at his own audience by asking if they think "staying in your silo and only listening to the people you agree with is going to make [Trump] go away?"

As self-serving as Cooper's recitation might have been, there was some truth in it. Casting aside that CNN got outmaneuvered, not because they put him on the air, but did so in a format that may well have made him appear far more popular than he actually is, sad to say, Americans do need to be reminded of who Donald Trump is and the morass into which he would happily cast the nation in his indefatigable pursuit of personal aggrandizement.

They need to be reminded that the country means nothing to him, nor do those pathetic Americans who have been convinced by a low-end salesman that he cares about their welfare or their futures. Trump cannot even be called a "master salesman" since before he stumbled on this reservoir of angry, gullible followers, his business ventures had a habit of ending in a flurry of bankruptcies, lawsuits and unpaid bills.

But what Americans need most to be reminded of is that Donald Trump cheapens everything he touches, ironic for a man who claims great riches. That he has demeaned the political process is obvious, but he has done the same thing with his university, his business practices, his steaks, his ties and his $99 collectible digital trading cards.

All this would mean little except that he has now dragged everyone else — and his country — down with him. Politics was always a pretty tawdry affair, but the current version has, like everything involving Trump, reached caricaturish lows.

Still, it is also important not to overstate the threat. Trump's ascension is possible but in no way imminent. Many on the left rue the renomination of Joe Biden because of his low approval ratings, advancing age and the uncertainty about the ability of his current vice president to assume the job, but Republicans have the same problems, only worse.

Trump's approval ratings are hardly stratospheric, he is only a few years younger, and whoever agrees to be his vice president, Kari Lake say, is anything but a good bet to inspire confidence. (Nikki Haley would have likely jumped at it if not for the damning verdict in Trump's sexual assault trial. She may still be offered the post but will decline if she has even a scintilla of political moxie.) Republicans have the added burden of their candidate-in-waiting now officially recognized as a sexual predator who will almost certainly soon be a defendant in a series of trials that carry potential sentences of more than 20 years.

Ensuring that Donald Trump never again holds public office is vital, of course, but of equal importance is that Republicans free themselves from the trap Trump has led them into. Democrats, while not having to deal with Trump directly, still need to find a way to project strength without descending to the phony chest thumping that Trump seems to have made a necessary part of campaigning.

At the moment, both parties find themselves in the Trump trap. It will take a good deal of will, courage and foresight to pull themselves out of it.

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