Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
The CNN-Trump town hall in New Hampshire this week unleashed a firestorm of controversy, but it also provided a clear public service: 2024 Trump Denial Syndrome is over.
Former President Donald Trump has not morphed into a more responsible, disciplined, or mature person than he was as president. His worst impulses have, if anything, gotten worse: his contempt for the truth, the rule of law, and the US constitution was on full display for everyone to see.
And he remains the current frontrunner for the 2024 Republican nomination.
While there has been extensive coverage of various investigations into Trump and his legal battles, his relative absence from non-partisan network interviews and social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook in recent years has allowed him to fade from the twitchy frontal lobe of American politics. This enabled two distinct forms of denialism to take root.
The first was a form of gauzy nostalgia, allowing shy Trump supporters to focus on the strongman persona and policies they liked while erasing the ugly details of his constant assault on democratic norms that culminated with the attack on the US Capitol.
Trying to overturn a presidential election on the basis of a blatant lie should, of course, be a deal-breaker for any American who believes in putting patriotic principles ahead of partisan interests. That assumption led to a second form of denialism that has taken root largely among Democrats – the belief that Republicans will ultimately come to their senses and refuse to renominate someone who is the opposite of anything resembling constitutional conservatism.
But the fear of offending Trump’s fervent followers has caused many Republican politicos to continue tiptoeing around this slow-motion car crash in the hopes that fate will somehow intervene on their behalf and prevent Trump from becoming the GOP’s 2024 nominee. This may seem like canny politics but it’s really just cowardice.
The spectacle of the town hall, however, might just cause more Republicans – who are, after all the deciders in this primary process – to step up and speak out about the unique danger Trump presents to our democratic republic as well as the Republican Party.
Exhibit A is Indiana Sen. Todd Young, a Republican who told CNN’s Manu Raju that he would not support Trump’s bid for the GOP nomination, explaining, “I can’t think of someone worse equipped to bring people together to pass legislation and advance our collective values than the former president.”
Former New Jersey governor and possible 2024 candidate Chris Christie – a one-time Trump pal turned critic – slammed the ex-president as “a coward” and “puppet of Putin” when asked during a radio interview with conservative Hugh Hewitt about Trump’s refusal to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal.
But the fullest endorsement of the idea that Trump’s town hall should be a Republican wake up call came from Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, who told CNN that people saw “what they would get with another term of Donald Trump as president, which is completely untethered to the truth, uncertain as to whether he wants Russia or Ukraine to win in the brutal conflict which Russia has imposed on Ukraine.” Romney also criticized Trump’s inclination to pardon many of the January 6 rioters, calling it “simply a violation of the principles upon which our country and our party have long stood.”
That’s true. But the currency of truth has been downgraded in recent years and plenty of Republicans were happy to scurry down the halls of the Capitol to avoid having to face reporters’ questions about Trump. But at this point, silence is complicity. This is a time for choosing between Trump and the truth.
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This is an opportunity for Republicans who can summon the courage of their convictions and recognize Trump’s fundamental unfitness for office. After all, 44% of Republicans said they did not want Trump to run for reelection, according to an AP-NORC poll conducted last month.
On the flip side, Democrats should think twice about any delusions they might have that Trump will be easy to beat. Yes, he is the political equivalent of a raw sewage flume to many moderates and independents – but cheering on his rise to the nomination as a supposedly sure way for Democrats to retain the White House is playing a dangerous game with our democracy.
Hiding from the truth doesn’t make us safer or wiser. The CNN town hall compelled a much broader audience to confront the fact that Trump remains, in the words of Mitt Romney, “completely untethered to the truth” — and utterly unfit for office.
The fact that he remains the Republican frontrunner should serve as an alarm bell to everyone who hoped or assumed that he would simply fade away. There is no longer any excuse to live with Trump Denial Syndrome.