Former President Donald Trump offered America a throwback to past national angst and a possible future of even greater drama in a CNN town hall on Wednesday.
It’s up to Republicans – and perhaps eventually the country as a whole – to decide whether it wants to go through it all over again.
The former commander in chief and the frontrunner in the GOP primary showed in New Hampshire exactly why his Republican fans flock to his combativeness and refusal to submit to codes of presidential decorum and why he has had the GOP in his grip for years.
But in outbursts of election denialism, untamed fury, misogynistic comments about a sexual assault case and by refusing to agree Russian President Vladimir Putin is a war criminal, he also showed why many in the GOP fear he could again alienate enough voters to hand the White House to Democrats in 2024.
And he gave President Joe Biden an even wider opening to argue the country can’t bear a second Trump presidency.
“I have the absolute right to do whatever I want with them,” Trump said of classified documents he hoarded at his Florida resort when he left office, although he might also have been referring to his wider belief that there should be no constraints on his power if he wins another term.
But as horrifying as his demagoguery is to many, the reality of Trump’s strong lead in early primary polls is that millions of Republican voters don’t see this even more torqued version of the most disruptive president in American history as disqualifying.
It is exactly what they want and why they love him. And if he eventually becomes the Republican nominee for the third time in a row, he has a chance to be the next president.
“I like Trump and what he stood for and now, I like him more,” said Joanne Rouston, a former Democrat-turned-Trump voter who was in the audience. “It’s the fight.”
Trump is attempting a comeback like none before. Not only is he seeking to become only the second president to win a non-consecutive term. He’s seeking to bounce back after a double impeachment and an attempt to taint American democracy after he lost his first reelection bid. He took the stage a day after a civil jury in New York found he sexually abused a woman in the 1990s and found him liable for battery and defamation. He was recently indicted in a criminal hush money investigation and pleaded not guilty. And the possibility that he could face more criminal charges for his attacks on democracy and hoarding of classified documents means he is stretching the nation’s legal institutions in an unprecedented way for a presidential candidate.
The town hall marked pretty much the first time – at least outside a court room or under oath – that Trump was called publicly to account in person for his lies about the 2020 election and role in inciting a mob attack on Congress by his supporters. But he again refused to accept that he lost the last presidential election, despite multiple courts throwing out his challenges and the certifications of his own administration that there was not widespread fraud.
And Trump previewed an even more troublesome posture toward America’s democratic values when he said he was inclined to pardon a “large portion” of the rioters who smashed their way into the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, and beat up police officers.
The tension and excitement that hung over bucolic Saint Anselm College, as an audience of Republicans and undeclared voters lined up serenaded by a big crowd’s anti-Trump chants, made clear that this was the true kickoff of the 2024 presidential race.
Going into the event, Trump’s campaign team had signaled that it was not just targeting die-hard “Make America Great Again” voters, but other Republicans and even more moderate voters who were turned off by his behavior in the past but may give him another look.
While Trump’s relentless refusal to concede a point and his insistence on his own, often false, version of events is popular among his fans, it’s hard to see how his appearance on Wednesday helped him expand his base of support. His attempt to straddle the abortion issue may have created an even bigger headache for the GOP, which has already suffered electoral consequences in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. Trump wanted credit for that decision, which marked a 50-year-long campaign for conservatives. But his waffling answers on what exactly his policy would be in office and whether he’d sign a total ban on the procedure if passed by a Republican Congress showed he knew he was in a political vise.
“I am honored to have done what I did,” Trump said, alluding to his nomination of conservative justices who overturned the constitutional right to an abortion. The comment will endear him even more to anti-abortion voters and social conservatives and help ease anxiety among some about his wild personality.
“I think that the number one injustice in our country right now is the ending of unborn life,” said Jason Hennessey, president of New Hampshire Right to Life, after leaving the town hall. “If he is the one who can save the babies … I think that that’s more important than the other stuff.”
But Democrats are already seizing on the same Trump comment, arguing that the Supreme Court decision, which was out of step with public opinion, hurt Republicans in the midterm elections last year and could help Biden secure a second term in 2024.
And Trump’s severe deficit among female voters – whom he lost 57% to 42% in 2020 – is unlikely to have been helped by his sexist descriptions of former magazine columnist E. Jean Carroll, the plaintiff in the New York defamation and battery civil case, as a “whack job.” And his insult of CNN moderator Kaitlan Collins, who respectfully but perennially fact checked him in real time, as a “nasty person” was another example of his long record of bristling at professional women who stand up to him.
One of the most remarkable, yet perhaps unsurprising, aspects of Trump’s performance was that after all that happened in 2020, there was no self-reflection or change in his anti-democratic instincts or his insistence against all evidence that the election was “rigged.”
More broadly, the ex-president proved again that he is an outlier among almost all of his predecessors in that he rejects traditional notions of American democracy, global leadership and a sense that the presidency is greater than anyone who shoulders its duties.
For instance, he refused to call Putin a “war criminal,” despite the evidence of atrocities committed in his unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and warrants issued for his arrest by the International Criminal Court. For Trump, the most important question raised by the conflict is that the United States has sent more aid to Kyiv in defense of democracy than the European Union, which he repeatedly accused of “ripping off” the US in his first term.
He inaccurately argued, meanwhile, that the Presidential Records Act meant that he could simply take secret documents home after leaving office and they immediately became declassified. Incidentally, several of his answers on legal investigations bearing down upon him might have given his lawyers fresh headaches. But they reinforced the notion that Trump feels that in office, now and potentially in the future, there are no legal or behavioral constraints that should rein him in.
To many Americans, this attitude is directly contradictory to the values of a nation created in opposition to tyranny and in the name of the rule of law. But again, many Republican voters find this an attractive message and see it as the mark of a leader willing to stand up to what they view as a corrupt liberal establishment overtaken by radical left-wing ideology.
While many of Trump’s opponents believe his presidency – marked by endless scandals, chaos and challenges to limits on his power – was a disaster, many of the Republicans in the audience on Wednesday perceived his time in office as one of prosperity and success.
“The best thing about Trump is that he will bring the best minds in the world into one room to get the best consensus,” said Andrew Georgevits, the chairman of the Republican City Committee in Concord, New Hampshire, as he left the town hall. “He brings people together to get the best results and he truly cares about America.”
Still, several of the Republican voters who showed up on Wednesday allowed that they wished Trump could be more disciplined. It’s part of the paradox of his appeal: his wild nature attracts and repels his fans at the same time.
Al Peel came to the town hall hoping to get a question to Trump about his own ideas on helping homeless veterans. But he also wished the ex-president would tone down his behavior.
“If he could keep off his Twitter account and all his fingers off the keyboard – he’d be a lot more popular,” Peel said. “I think he’s Bozo the Clown, OK. But I love his results.”
But while many Republicans believe that Trump’s deliverables make it worth tolerating his outrages, the Biden camp believes that his predecessor’s incorrigible conduct on Wednesday and his obsession with election denialism will again alienate a majority of voters.
“It was quite efficient. Weeks’ worth of damning content in one hour,” one adviser told CNN’s Arlette Saenz, hinting at a gold mine of digital and television advertising to come.
Some critics of CNN’s decision to hold a town hall with Trump complained that the event was simply a platform for his lies and disinformation. New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, for instance, took this position in a series of tweets.
Yet eight years into Trump’s often extreme stranglehold on American politics, it’s clear that his popularity is not simply rooted in an untamed personality that appears mostly concerned about his grievances and agenda. He speaks to something deep inside millions of citizens and thus represents a seam of the national character and attitude toward democracy.
He’s also leading the Republican race for president. And given the unwillingness of major declared – and yet-to-be-declared GOP rivals – to criticize him, nothing that took place on Wednesday night appeared to change that.
Trump simply isn’t going away.