One could say the political landscape has turned into a circus show over the last few years. Between heated exchanges, sensational media coverage and outrages political takes, it’s easy to think what we see on the screen is the truth, but behind the scenes, greed, underlying motives and negative incentives are pulling the strings.
The recent CNN Town Hall with Former President Donald Trump was a great example of partisan entertainment and bias at play. With Trump as its frontman for the night, CNN was able to lean into and capitalize on our draw to entertainment and emotionalism from both sides of the political aisle. Not only did it produce about 3.3 million viewers, but it may also have paved the way for the former President to see a potential victory in 2024.
In politics, it’s no secret that the media and politicians need each other; both benefit from each other by gaining attention, awareness and airtime. The leading contender for the Republican nomination in 2024, Donald Trump, is notorious for controversy, stirring emotion and riling up those across the political aisle. Because of this, he has almost never left media or voter attention since his initial presidential run in 2016. (I would argue this is what helped him to win the election.)
Knowing this, it was actually very smart of both CNN to host Trump, and for the former president to agree. As a left-leaning news outlet, CNN benefits from hosting a figure that has continued to emotionally stoke its audience through comments and policies that have been called racist and offensive by those on the Left. Similarly, Trump was given the opportunity to speak to right-leaning voters across the country through the Town Hall, and may have even strengthened support for himself by taking on Democratic talking points head on.
For partisan entertainment to play out, a partisan audience is also necessary. So, prior to the Town Hall, CNN reached out to the New Hampshire GOP and invited them, along with other groups in the state, to submit questions and attend the event. Planting an audience is no new strategy in entertainment or political campaigns. By planting this audience, many of whom are Republicans either already on board with Trump’s campaign or who are against Democratic policies, CNN was guaranteed an exciting audience, and Trump was guaranteed supporters.
As Trump reiterated his claims about the 2020 election being stolen and poked fun at E. Jean Carroll, the woman who won a civil lawsuit in New York accusing Trump of sexual abuse, he was met with cheers and applause from these New Hampshire voters, who were also told they could not boo during the event, according to a Puck interview.
Unfortunately, this strategy of hand-picking audiences is one that feeds into both partisan entertainment and the division between Democrats and Republicans. If the New Hampshire GOP are supposed to be representative of Republican voters across the nation, then their verbal support gives the idea that all Republicans support what Trump is saying, which has often been characterized as racist and offensive from the Left. We know this isn’t true, as many right-leaning voters and political figures have taken a step back from the former president. But again, the idea that half of Americans support a controversial figure is better to stir emotions, and generate viewership and chatter.
Now, there are also many of those on the Right who do support the former president and would like to see him successful in 2024. This support may only grow as media outlets ask questions that pertain only to their audience and reaffirm political biases.
Ben Shapiro (Right) said it perfectly when he tweeted, “Republicans will -- ALWAYS AND CORRECTLY -- cheer biased moderators being steamrolled by Republican candidates, no matter what those candidates actually say.”
In this case, Shapiro is referring to moderator Kaitlan Collins who questioned Trump on things like election fraud in 2020, the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots and the Russia, Ukraine war. These are things that Left-leaning voters and media outlets have honed in on. Republicans, less so.
The issues that many Republicans care about and that could help shape their vote in the next election are things like immigration, the border, inflation, energy independence and education. The Town Hall failed to challenge Trump on tangible, actionable policy points surrounding these ideas. This omitted any political substance the town hall could have had.
By neglecting right-leaning voters in her questioning, Collins indirectly fueled support for the former president who was forced to combat Democrat talking points or, at least, left Right-leaning voters to believe that even if they don’t know what’s coming from their potential GOP nominee, anything is better than the status quo.
By both planting an audience and appealing to only one base of voters, the CNN Town Hall sacrificed transparency and constructive debate for viewership and partisan entertainment. It’s this transparency and debate that feed our democratic practices, and without them, voters are left in the dark.
Political entertainment like this plays on our emotions and our need for drama. Whether you like him or not, it's hard to deny that Donald Trump is a political figure demanding of attention and emotions. Many of the loudest voices across the political spectrum can say this of themselves, including Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rashida Tlaib, Matt Gaetz and Maxine Waters, which is why they do it. Their unpredictability and often ridiculous comments keep them in the headlines, and let's face it, the media also gains from that coverage because it keeps their viewers engaged. We can’t help but watch.
The switch from good ol’ boring politics to one of entertainment and emotionalism seems to be better at gaining attention and also stirring division. A heightened focus on crafting the public perception of someone has created heroes and villains within politics, hardened political tribes, and almost completely solidified future leaders within both parties. This is what may lead to a successful Trump presidential run in 2024.
By focusing on these figures, we end up ignoring the more substantive policy proposals and temperamentally moderate political candidates in favor of this political entertainment, and that’s what we saw at the Town Hall. Knowing the future outlook of prospective elected leaders and what they actually plan to do about issues is important for voters to learn about.
So, what could have been different here? To start, politics and the political media landscape are in need of some shifts in incentive. Media needs to get back to what the voters want to see and talk about the issues voters care about. Let Americans decide who they want to vote for in an honest process, not a biased one riddled with hidden political strategy. That’s how American democracy is supposed to work.
BridgeUSA is the largest and fastest multi-partisan student movement fighting polarization in colleges and high schools across the nation. Through their college and high school chapters, BridgeUSA students are standing up for a politics that rewards empathy and dialogue over division and anger. Learn more about BridgeUSA.
This piece was reviewed and edited by Clare Ashcraft, Bridging & Bias Assistant at AllSides (Center bias).