Opinion | Trump Is Mainstream, Whether We Like It or Not

Hunker down, America. Here we go again.

The presidential election is still a year and a half away. But on Wednesday evening, Donald Trump will elbow his way back into the campaign mainstream. At a town hall event in New Hampshire hosted by CNN, the former president will field questions from audience members and the network anchor Kaitlan Collins.

The whole spectacle sounds downright chilling. The event will be live, leaving Mr. Trump more or less free to inject his lies straight into viewers’ veins. He will be coming off the E. Jean Carroll verdict, upping his odds of saying something awful about women or witch hunts and how everyone is always out to get him. And even if he dials down the crazy, his re-emergence on a major prime-time platform raises vexing questions. After everything this antidemocratic, violence-encouraging carnival barker has put America through, are we really going to treat him like a normal candidate this time? How can CNN and other media outlets justify giving him a megaphone from which to dominate and degrade the political landscape? Have we learned nothing from the past eight years?

Short answer: We have in fact learned much about Mr. Trump and the threat he poses to American democracy. But trying to shut him out of the public discussion or campaign process would bring its own dangers. Not only would it play into the politics of victimhood that he peddles with such infuriating effectiveness. It risks further undermining public faith in the democratic process — making the system look too weak to deal with one aspiring autocrat — and even the process itself. As with so much about the MAGA king, there are no easy fixes.

Nothing that Mr. Trump has done so far legally prevents him from pursuing, or serving, another term in the White House. Yes, many voters consider his double impeachments, his role in the Jan. 6 riot and his glut of legal troubles to be disqualifying. But many others do not. Polls consistently put the former president at the front of the current Republican presidential pack. A recent CBS News-YouGov survey gave him a whopping 36 point advantage over Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida (58 percent to 22 percent) among likely G.O.P. primary voters. No other contender cracked double digits. As for the general election, a new ABC News-Washington Post poll showed him with a six-point edge — seven points with undecided leaners — over President Biden.

While early polling has its shortcomings, it does serve as a reminder of Mr. Trump’s enduring appeal for millions of Americans. He is a serious contender for the White House — even, heaven help us, a formidable one. To treat him otherwise would be a breach of duty by the news media, democratic institutions and voters.

It’s not as though Mr. Trump can be stuffed in a storage closet like a bunch of classified documents. Today’s mediascape includes a host of conservative players eager to fawn all over him in the hopes of making his fans theirs as well. Just think of the embarrassing tongue bath he received from Tucker Carlson in their April sit-down. Such slobberfests should not be the primary means by which voters assess Mr. Trump. He needs to be put through his paces, like any horse in the race.

Just to be clear: No one is daft enough to think that Mr. Trump and CNN are linking arms out of a selfless, high-minded commitment to the public good. They are using each other. Under new leadership, the network is looking to rebuild its reputation, and ratings, as a less crusading, more balanced news source.

As for the former president, CNN is just one piece of his grand media strategy. His team has been talking up how their guy wants to push the reset button on his relationship with the fourth estate. Journalists from mainstream outlets are being invited to travel on his campaign plane. And the campaign is negotiating with other top outlets, including NBC, for face time with the candidate.

This is the least surprising move ever. Mr. Trump has always been a media creation. Without the “fake news” he so loves to bash, he’d just be another failed real estate scion hawking mediocre steaks and worthless degrees from his “university.”

More specifically, Mr. Trump’s people are flogging the idea that his willingness to play with the media is proof of his bravery and manliness. “Going outside the traditional Republican ‘comfort zone’ was a key to President Trump’s success in 2016,” one toady recently told The Hill. “Some other candidates are too afraid to take this step in their quest to defeat Joe Biden and are afraid to do anything other than Fox News.”

Take that, “Pudding Fingers” DeSantis.

More targeted still: Mr. Trump’s canoodling with CNN twists the knife in the gut of Fox News, which of late has not been obsequious enough for his taste. This isn’t simply an issue of personal spite. Threatening/scaring/cajoling Fox News back into line is important to Mr. Trump’s 2024 fortunes. Whatever the network’s recent drama, there is no other conservative platform like it.

It’s hard to know how Mr. Trump’s forays beyond his MAGA bubble will go, especially starting out. The guy was an appalling president, but he has always been a top-notch pitchman with a freaky sort of charisma. And a huge part of running for — and even being — president is compelling salesmanship. That said, he is out of practice interacting with people who aren’t there simply to lick his boots. He has spent the past couple of years largely cocooned in a fantasyland of his own creation, which can be tough to come back from.

That makes these early appearances all the more important. CNN has as much on the line on Wednesday as the candidate — maybe more. This is about more than real-time fact-checking the candidate, though it must be established early and firmly that no disinformation will go unrebutted. Mr. Trump cannot be allowed to grandstand or slither away from awkward topics: He needs to face tough and skeptical questioning from the get-go.

I do wish that CNN had waited a bit longer before relaunching Mr. Trump. Firing up the prime-time campaign coverage machine this early in the cycle isn’t healthy for the American psyche under normal circumstances, much less with this singularly toxic character in the mix.

But now that the Trump Show is back, the media — everyone really — needs to be demanding more from this season than past ones. The former president should be expected to undergo the same vetting rituals as other candidates: debates, town halls, non-softball interviews, candidate cattle calls — the works. He cannot be left to the fuzzy realm of social media and schmoozing with Sean Hannity-style sycophants.

Voters deserve the opportunity to take a clear measure of this man’s candidacy, no matter how nauseating some of us may find that process.

Source photographs by Sophie Park for The New York Times and ozgurdonmaz, via Getty Images.

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