On CNN Wednesday night, we witnessed a serious new marker on the road to an authoritarian society. There is something you can do to stop it: Vote with your remote.
Wednesday’s CNN “Town Hall” was, as observers have dubbed it, an “infomercial” for the man who endlessly repeated the Big Lie that the 2020 election was “rigged.” He praised insurrectionists as “great people” and pledged to pardon “a large portion” of them who are serving time.
He denigrated the American jury system by claiming that Tuesday’s verdict against him for sexually abusing E. Jean Carroll was rigged. The audience cheered.
CNN set the stage for that to happen. It created a “Town Hall” fit purely for towns with 100% Trump voters. They were the only ones in the studio.
Indiana Republican Senator Todd Young challenged Trump’s refusal to say that Vladimir Putin is a war criminal. North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis took sharp issue with Trump’s sympathy for January 6th’s Capitol invaders.
Such push-back on Trump’s statements is heartening, but there’s something with far broader and more insidious consequences afoot. Fox propaganda has creeped into the center of America’s cable television.
It’s quite another for CNN, a center-to-center-left channel, to legitimize the man who sought to overturn the 2020 election and has been adjudged a sexual abuser. The medium is the message, and CNN has far more power than Fox to convey to a mainstream audience the message, “Trump is normal.”
The very first lesson in On Tyranny, Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s seminal handbook on how to fight creeping totalitarianism, is that “most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.” Snyder warns that citizens and institutions giving power freely to strongmen grants them the social approval they need to consolidate power and dominate.
CNN voluntarily gave Trump its power. “[T]he horror [was] in the set-up,” columnist Amanda Carpenter wrote Thursday. “The event’s audience was stacked with Republican primary voters [who] repeatedly clapped, laughed, and cheered for him while he reaffirmed his most outrageous lies.”
As scholar of fascism Ruth Ben-Ghiat tweeted, “[T]his is deeply familiar. This is a propaganda spectacle designed to reinforce the leader cult – thus the . . . enjoyment of the audience at hearing favorite . . . untruths.” Such spectacles send a subliminal message that can have viewers thinking, “If others think this isn’t so bad, maybe it isn’t.”
Who needs RT—Russia’s state-controlled channel—when you have Fox and CNN?
And there’s the point. Media is central to totalitarian control of society. In pre-television days, Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda, put it concisely: “Our way of taking power and using it would have been inconceivable without the radio . . . .”
State control of the media didn’t happen in one fell swoop in Germany, and it won’t happen in a single stroke here. It happens gradually, as with a rightward turn of the media we are seeing. Think: Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter.
In parallel fashion, when Chris Licht assumed the reins at CNN, he quickly took what columnist Arwa Mahdawi reported as “a Republican boot-licking tour.” Before long, Licht canceled veteran host Brian Stelter’s prime-time Sunday morning show on the media, which regularly featured harsh critique of Fox for bias. He also fired respected reporter John Harwood, who had called Trump a “dishonest demagogue.”
It’s obvious that Licht was moving the channel to the right to attract a larger share of the rightwing audience. Wednesday’s Town Hall was an even more visible sign of that strategy.
Now is the time to stop it. CNN viewers—and this writer is one—can switch CNN off temporarily. It doesn’t have to be for long. In a week, we can send a message to those atop CNN through the Nielsen ratings.
If the network’s corporate bosses don’t want to lose market share, they can stop enabling a former President who tried to overturn the Constitution. Chris Licht seems intent on freely giving away power to an autocrat. We, the (CNN-watching) people, can take it back.