He wasn’t laughing at Trump fans, he was laughing at jokes about Trump fans.

No, seriously, his actual defense is even lamer than that. I didn’t catch everything that was said in the now-famous segment after I started cracking up, Lemon insists in the clip below — implausibly, considering that his guests went on for a full minute or so.

No apology either. If he disapproves of what was said about Trump fans, it’s weird that he didn’t use this opportunity to express remorse.

It’s true that it was a joke about Trump, not Trump’s fans, that caused him to lose it initially. (“Donald Trump couldn’t find Ukraine on a map if you had the letter ‘U’ and a picture of an actual physical crane next to it.”) But he kept on going as the punchlines shifted to “yokel” fare. Watch it again:

“I don’t believe in belittling people,” Lemon insisted last night, neglecting to add “but I’ll happily moderate a segment where others are doing it.” He’s stuck in the twilight zone that his entire network currently finds itself in, caught between its (sometimes justifiable) hostility to Trump and its this-is-an-apple pretensions to being the last true unbiased cable news network. Lemon clearly loathes Trump and Trumpist populism but the nano-thin veneer of impartiality that CNN presents requires him to disavow that. So he’s forced to resort to “um, I didn’t hear what was being said” nonsense in his non-apology apology.

It’s noteworthy how many commentators outside the MAGAsphere also found the segment distasteful. After watching it, WaPo columnist Eugene Scott wrote that it’s no wonder rural Americans believe CNN doesn’t respect them. David French, a Never Trumper so hardcore that he nearly jumped into the 2016 primary, also objected:

As we say in the South, this is bad y’all. It’s bad and stereotypical on its own terms. I’m surrounded here in Franklin, Tennessee, by tens of thousands of intelligent, college-educated Trump voters—and that also happens to describe the vast majority of my extended family. They not only can find Ukraine on a map, they can also recite chapter-and-verse why Elizabeth Warren’s health care financing plan simply isn’t credible.

In other words, they’re intelligent, thoughtful, and really, really tired of the dumb hick stereotype. And this is where the narrative comes in. The CNN segment above is just another example of what “they” think of “us.” Remember when Ronald Reagan was the alleged amiable dunce? Remember when George W. Bush was a southern idiot? While certainly not everyone in the media fosters these stereotypes, enough members of the media (and cultural elite) do that virtually everyone in conservative America is aware of their scorn.

Conservatarian Charles Cooke went as far as to call it “the death of cable news in one clip,” not because it was so different from what you’d find on Fox News but because it wasn’t.

CNN, from which “news” channel the clip comes, is perhaps the worst offender of all, having deliberately contrived and cultivated a stable of guests whose defining characteristic is not analytical skill or eloquence or reflexive independence of thought, but rather Possession of a Strong Opinion about Donald Trump. On CNN, Trump is the North Star. He is the point around which all must be graphed; the question to which all others must be subordinated; the one piece of data that predicts and explains everything else. Bit by bit, the channel has become Fox News with a different predilection. It is Us v. Them, without break.

Lemon could have just owned it in his brief statement last night: Us vs. Them, an endless war of words between left and right over who the real “real Americans” are. As various Never Trumpers have noted in defense of him and Rick Wilson, Trump and his fans can be and often are waaaaaay more vituperative towards their enemies than Wilson was with his “yokel” jabs in the segment, and when those enemies object they’re often derided as “snowflakes.” But as I say, Lemon can’t be who he is because CNN’s sham “neutrality” requires him to make a show of respecting his political enemies instead of frankly admitting to loathing them. Maybe that’ll change in Trump’s second term. They can’t go on forever pretending to be something that partisans on both sides have by now realized they’re not.