American voters, this is where we are in May 2023: Donald Trump seems poised to steamroll over his challengers for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination one more time. And thanks a lot, CNN, for helping set the stage.

Reporters watch a CNN town hall with Donald Trump at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., last Wednesday. The former president essentially received 70 minutes in prime time to present an infomercial for his 2024 presidential campaign. Joseph Prezioso/AFP/Getty Images/TNS

Last Wednesday night, the cable news network gave the former president its platform for a 70-minute so-called town hall, which really amounted to nothing more than a prime-time infomercial for his 2024 campaign. Because we’re distressingly familiar with the exhausting routine: The self-proclaimed billionaire (who couldn’t come up with $130,000 in cash to pay off an adult-film star) repeatedly barreled over supposed moderator Kaitlan Collins with an effortless string of lies after provable lies. About his political opponents’ position on abortion. About the 2020 election. About the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol that he incited in an attempt to overthrow it.

Bewilderingly, CNN packed the New Hampshire audience with Republican loyalists, who were all in with Trump throughout the evening. They applauded when he defended his actions related to the insurrection, including his suggestion that he would circumvent the Justice Department by pardoning people convicted for their seditious actions that day.

They laughed when he continued his obscene defamation of E. Jean Carroll, the woman whose account of sexual abuse had been quickly found credible by a jury of nine – not a “Trump-hating, Clinton-appointed judge,” in his words – just 30-some hours before.

The network took heavy, deserved heat for airing the debacle. “CNN knew what Trump would do, and they not only let him do it, they gave a him a friendly crowd who cheered for his crimes,” tweeted Reed Galen, former press secretary for Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich. For her part, host Collins tried to stanch the flow of falsehoods. “The election was not rigged, Mr. President,” she told Trump. “You can’t keep saying that all night long.”

But he did. To its credit, CNN published an account of its own misdeeds in airing the program, from its senior media reporter Oliver Darcy. “It felt like 2016 all over again,” he wrote. “It was Trump’s unhinged social media feed brought to life on stage. And Collins was put in an uncomfortable position, given the town hall was conducted in front of a Republican audience that applauded Trump, giving a sense of unintended endorsement to his shameful antics.”

Judging by the reception from the CNN audience last Wednesday night, Trump fans are delighted. After the Muslim travel ban. After running roughshod over the Hatch Amendment to hold his party’s political convention on the White House lawn. After inciting a riot in attempt to cling to power. And after fiddling while he suggested doctors look into injecting disinfectant as a way to battle the coronavirus that was marching its way toward killing more than 1 million Americans.

So yes, this is where we are. All these years later, Donald Trump could still shoot somebody – in the middle of Fifth Avenue, or on a New Hampshire TV stage – and still find millions of United States citizens ready and willing to vote for him.

It’s going to be a long year and a half.

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