CNN's 'deplorables' moment
CNN host Don Lemon bent double with laughter, dabbing his handkerchief to his eyes and his head to his desk as his guests, Republican strategist Rick Wilson and writer Wajahat Ali, snickered through their mockery of the "credulous boomer rube demo" whose support for President Trump is matched only by its ignorance and rejection of "you elitists with your geography and your maps and your spelling."
The Saturday segment went viral Monday, aided by a tweet from Trump himself. "America, this is what CNN thinks of you," said The Daily Caller's post of the clip. "CNN airs free commercial for Trump campaign," snarked a satire site. And, indeed, by Tuesday, the video formed the basis of an actual Republican campaign commercial which mixed in similarly disdainful comments from prominent Democrats in this election cycle's candidate pool and Hillary Clinton's infamous "basket of deplorables" remark.
"They think you're a joke," the ad concludes. "Prove them wrong in November."
We've been debating the defensibility of the contempt the CNN clip displayed for more than a decade now. Ordinarily, the conversation falls along two axes — ethical and strategic — but Lemon's laughter raises a third question: Is it different for the press?
Our current battle lines were drawn in 2008, when then-candidate Barack Obama said Rust Belters "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations." At the time, Clinton was Obama's primary opponent, and she campaigned against his "elitist" view, handing out stickers reading "I'm not bitter" at rallies. The right seized on it, too, with former GOP veep candidate Sarah Palin sing-songing about "right-wingin' bitter-clingin' proud clingers" in her 2016 endorsement of Trump.
Then came Clinton's "deplorables" speech, which in retrospect was a badly executed effort to inspire sympathy for many Trump voters. She put "half" the president's base in the "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic" basket, yes, but the other half, she said, "are people we have to understand and empathize with," people who feel left behind by comfortable coastal elites whose kids aren't dying of heroin overdoses. Clinton tried to distinguish between those who liked Trump for his offensiveness and those merely willing to tolerate it in exchange for economic hope. That distinction was promptly obliterated, in no small part by an eagerness for grievance.
Both of these comments, like their lesser-known counterparts in the GOP ad, get us to the typical grounds for debate: Is it cruel and unfair to write off large swaths of the country as, in Clinton's term, "irredeemable" bigots — or, if you fail to shame the deplorables, are you the "white moderate" whose opposition to bigotry stops where inconvenience begins? And does deploring deplorability convince some people to reject it — or, by arousing defensiveness, does it push them deeper in? ("So today's episode of The Outrage Machine will feature a few articles about how terrible elitists are driving everyday Americans into the arms of Trump," Wilson tweeted as his CNN appearance began to draw attention and, with it, vile threats.)
CNN's moment opens a new theater of this war, not so much via the mockery from Wilson and Ali but in Lemon's overwhelming delight. Granted, Lemon's role does not pose him as an objective reporter, nor do I think he should pretend to be unbiased.
And yet there's no denying it's the laughter which makes the clip. It's the laughter which invites the bit to continue for over a minute, which — because Lemon is the one in the position of anchor, in some sense representing the network — makes the clip feel like more than three men's opinions. This is "what CNN thinks of you," The Daily Caller accused, not "what Don Lemon, Rick Wilson, and Wajahat Ali think of you."
Consider how differently the segment would have been received had Lemon simply agreed about Trump's ignorance and weaponization of populism before immediately turning back to the subject at hand, namely the administration's attempted intimidation of female journalists. He'd still have been shepherding a conversation about Trumpian sexism and dishonesty, hardly going easy on the White House, but there would have been no viral clip. Maybe that strikes you as a loss, but I suspect (and research suggests) clips like this, however infinitesimally, do more for Trump than against him.
Lemon apologized Tuesday night, saying he doesn't "believe in belittling anyone," that he didn't hear everything his guests said, that he was "laughing at the joke and not at any group of people." This is hard to credit when most of the joke was about a group of people, but it won't matter anyway, just like Clinton's distinction didn't matter. The damage is done. The ad is running.
The lesson here is not that members of the press must affect a false neutrality. Nor is it that there's a simple rubric for sorting the cruel from the principled, the persuasive from the counterproductive. Nor even that behavior can't vary by context — Lemon's laughter would have landed differently in private, in print, or in the guest's chair instead of the host's. It's that whatever politicians may decide about the ethics and prudence of publicly, categorically shaming their opponents' base, journalists ought to be able to anticipate the probable consequences in our media environment and ask: Is this worth the laugh?
Want more essential commentary and analysis like this delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for The Week's "Today's best articles" newsletter here.