May 27, 2023

Lessons from the CNN Trump Town Hall

No doubt, many are still reeling from the Donald Trump town hall staged on CNN earlier this month. The former president was questioned by Kaitlan Collins before an audience of seemingly rabid Trump devotees.

Although Collins asked reasonable questions and tried valiantly to elicit relevant answers, she failed to force Trump to answer what was asked or to prevent him from lying boldly and repeatedly. A particularly distressing aspect of the town hall was the enthusiastic audience reaction to Trump’s falsehoods and outrageous assertations. The town hall was nothing so much as a mini-Trump rally.

Whereas CNN was widely criticized for its Trump circus, the network defended its presentation as a service to the nation, exhibiting the true character of the once and future president. Trump, of course, exhibited no surprises.

We already knew that Trump was a sociopath and pathological liar. His performance was perfectly predictable. CNN did perhaps offer insights into the MAGA phenomenon. The town hall made clear that all too many Trump supporters are at least as devoid of compassion, thoughtfulness, and commitment to democratic ideals as is the object of their perverse affection. And CNN demonstrated how difficult it is for a normal journalist to get Donald Trump to behave like a normal interviewee. Collins attracted criticism for her failure to control Trump, but she did sincerely try. But she was overmatched.

It is to be hoped that the CNN debacle—for that’s what it was—will have taught journalists and their managers lessons they will take into the developing campaign for the GOP presidential nomination and, God forbid, beyond. Those lessons, of course, should already have been learned.

Lesson number one for the journalistic community is that Trump deserves the same sort of coverage provided to other candidates. He might never have become president had not his deranged rallies been covered on television as if they were as important as a State of the Union Address or a Superbowl. (They may have been so for ratings, but the health of the Republic is more important than ratings.) Trump enjoyed more free media than any candidate before him. Repeated and extended exposure to Trump propaganda unleashed the darkest impulses of susceptible viewers. Journalists should excerpt Trump rallies and town halls, not cover them slavishly from start to finish.

Like any candidate, journalists will want to interview Trump. Fine. But interviews should never be broadcast live. As was so graphically demonstrated in the CNN town hall, Trump’s steamroller tactics can easily control an interview despite the interviewer’s intentions. Recorded interviews can be edited to minimize Trump indirection. Better still, when a question is asked and Trump does not answer it, the question should be asked again, possibly in a slightly different form. An unanswered question should be asked as many times as necessary to elicit either an actual answer or an explicit admission by the candidate that he is refusing to give an answer. It may be tempting to edit out the back-and-forth attempt to evoke an answer, but that temptation should be resisted. Viewers should see Trump’s evasiveness for what it is. An interview should not have an audience, and the press should think twice about extensive coverage of any event at which an audience has excluded any but Trump supporters. Fox News will, of course, ignore all this advice.

Finally, there is the matter of campaign debates (or whatever it is that we stage every four years). Although debates can be excerpted for newscasts, the events themselves must be offered live to the public. Neither moderators nor other candidates have shown the ability to control the Trump juggernaut. Moderators (or producers behind the scene) need to be given a secret weapon against Trump bluster. That secret weapon is a microphone switch. Trump’s microphone should be on when he has the right to speak and off when he does not. Fairness, or the appearance of fairness, demands that other candidates be treated the same way. Debate producers should also demand other rules designed to facilitate civil discourse. These might include tolerating only a brief period before a candidate begins a relevant response to a question. If a candidate blatantly digresses, the secret weapon can be used. Also, ad hominem attacks should be prohibited and likewise dealt with. Criticizing a candidate’s actions or policies is fair game. Name-calling or criticizing a candidate’s person should be off-limits. This includes Trump’s insulting names for his competitors.

In reality, I suspect that Trump, as the flamboyant narcissist that he is, will indeed get more free media than he deserves. I hope that it is less than formerly. A second Trump presidency would be a catastrophe for humanity.

May 20, 2023

Kill the Debt Ceiling Once and for All

It has often and rightly been said that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. And yet, some substantial numbers of Republicans in the House of Representatives seem willing to throw the country, and in fact, the world, into economic chaos by refusing to raise the debt ceiling without demanding spending cuts for which they do not have the votes to enact through regular legislative order. Their position has properly been called blackmail.

It is ironic that the World War I era debt ceiling was enacted to facilitate government borrowing, not to preclude it. Congress grew tired of the executive’s repeatedly returning for authorization to borrow money in a time of war. In recent times, however, the debt ceiling has become a weapon for the minority party to get its way. Well, to try, anyway.

This country is increasingly governed by Republicans, even though they represent a minority of citizens. This is the result of gerrymandering and accidents of history combined with singleminded strategizing to pack the judicial branch with radical, barely qualified, right-wing judges. It is time to remove the debt ceiling as yet another anti-democratic weapon from the GOP arsenal.

Although President Biden has repeatedly said that he would not negotiate spending cuts in order to increase the debt ceiling, negotiations nevertheless appear to be ongoing. But the president should stick to his guns. It is fine to negotiate with the blackmailers about spending, but a clean debt ceiling increase must be a separate, nonnegotiable issue. And if Republican legislators want to talk about controlling the federal debt, the administration should not even be speaking to them unless they are willing to consider tax hikes. Republicans don’t actually care about the nation’s debt; they want instead to cripple or destroy the welfare and administrative state.

Various procedures have been suggested to avoid the country’s going over the fiscal cliff if Congress cannot agree on a debt ceiling increase. The idea of minting a trillion-dollar coin is one of the more intriguing schemes that has been proposed, but the idea suffers from simply being weird.

Then there is the matter of the Fourteenth Amendment. Section 4 of the amendment reads

The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

This amendment was passed after the Civil War to assure that the Union’s war debt would be paid. Its provisions are general, however, and they are helpful in maintaining the rock-solid integrity of federal obligations. Allowing the government to default on its debt is surely unconstitutional. If Congress has authorized spending and that spending has taken place, the government must stand behind any debt obligations incurred to finance that spending. The government, by analogy to individuals, must pay its credit card bills. (Paul Klugman recently pointed out, however, that this analogy can be taken only so far.)

No doubt, President Biden is reluctant to cite the Fourteenth Amendment to continue paying government obligations in the absence of a legislative debt ceiling increase. Republicans would view such a move as a kluge, as somehow illegitimate, though not as bizarre as the trillion-dollar coin trick. It would likely attract a lawsuit to block or undo the president’s action. This might even cause a delay that, in the end, did in fact, result in default. That is a chance that must be taken.

If the Republican House does not pass a clean debt ceiling increase lasting at least two years, Mr. Biden should let things stand until the government is on the brink of default. He should then announce that the government will continue paying bills, as the Fourteenth Amendment requires it, and he has sworn to uphold the Constitution.

It is interesting to consider who could file such a lawsuit in response to such an administrative action. Who would have standing? Would standing require a plaintiff harmed by the government’s not defaulting on its debt? These are crazy times, and if doctors whose sensitivities could be assaulted by having to treat a patient who had a bad reaction to a medicinal abortion can file a lawsuit to reverse an FDA drug approval, who knows who could get through the courthouse door opposing the plain meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment? Likely, the House or House members would file, arguing that the authority had been usurped. Let them do so.

Any such suit would quickly reach the nation’s highest court. But even today’s conservative Supreme Court recognizes that the Constitution is not a suicide pact. The government should not only argue that the Fourteenth Amendment means that the government must pay its bills but also that the very idea of a debt ceiling is unconstitutional. The administration and the court will have an opportunity to kill the dysfunctional debt ceiling once and for all.

They should, by all means, do so.