Donald Trump's debate rout feeds his dictatorial desires

We should all fear what comes next

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 3, 2024 7:03AM (EDT)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the NRA ILA Leadership Forum at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting & Exhibits at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the NRA ILA Leadership Forum at the National Rifle Association (NRA) Annual Meeting & Exhibits at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center on May 18, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

After watching Thursday night’s presidential debate, I needed to go for a walk to clear my head. As is my habit during these last eight or so years, I walked down Michigan Avenue here in Chicago. I stopped at a 24-hour Walgreens store and purchased a bottle of Pepto Bismol for my sour stomach. I walked for a few miles and then stopped at Trump Tower. I looked up at his ugly building, that foul obelisk, and muttered “this is far from over.” I put the bottle of Pepto up to my lips and drank about half of it.

My words were not born of surprise. It was just resignation at what I have been warning about since before President Biden was elected in 2020 and the events of Jan. 6 and all the other horrible things that have continued to happen as the Trumpocene lingers and the MAGA movement and the other neofascists endure and grow stronger.

I am not a “doomsayer” as some have suggested. I am a realist and a pragmatist who is trying to prepare the American people, and specifically the political class and my fellow travelers in the news media, for the reality that the fight against Trumpism and American neofascism will be a very long one and that denial and hope-peddling and happy pills will not save them or us.

Donald Trump is a professional wrestling heel. He lies. He cheats. He steals. He is hyper-manic. Trump is a bully who is driven by social dominance behavior and authoritarianism. Trump is also an egomaniac with a god complex. He has shown himself to be deeply attracted to violence in its many forms. He is a sexual assaulter as proved by a court of law. Trump is a convicted felon. 

Most importantly, Donald Trump is also a master propagandist and a juggernaut, a human shark, who will not stop in his quest to be the country’s first dictator with unlimited power to seek revenge and retribution against anyone who dares to oppose him or that he and his MAGA people deem to be “the enemy.”

Donald Trump will always attack. That is his preferred mode of operating in life. A presidential debate or other adversarial situation where he can operate more or less without restraint, is Trump's preferred hunting ground. To defeat such a foe, Joe Biden (or anyone else) must attack and do so repeatedly. If Biden makes a mistake, or shows weakness or doubt, he is pounced upon with little chance of recovery. Unfortunately for him, the Democratic Party and the future of American democracy this is exactly what happened during the debate last Thursday.

The audience for these debates is not the partisans and others who have already made up their minds about who to vote for in November. The audience is the low-information, undecided, and other “squishy” potential voters in the middle. Based on public opinion polls, focus groups, and other measures, these voters are looking for a reason to vote against Donald Trump – or to vote at all. President Biden gave them no reason to vote for him. To make matters worse, Biden’s woeful performance may have actually pushed those voters into Donald Trump’s arms.

To borrow from professional wrestling, Trump “guzzled” Biden and stomped a mudhole in him. It was almost certainly one of the worst defeats in a presidential debate in modern American political history. From the very first moments of the debate, Biden was on the defense and overwhelmed. It was a sad thing to watch. I say that as someone who supports him and was hoping that "Champion Biden" would appear (the man who gave the 2024 State of the Union address), rather than this weak and diminished version of himself. In boxing, mixed martial arts and other combat sports, a fighter will often talk about how his will was broken by an opponent. Defeat in such a case is not merely physical, but psychological and spiritual. I worry this is what Biden feels after his drubbing by Donald Trump last week.

Trump was expertly prepared. His team, as I and others have been warning, are not the amateur-hour pretenders that surrounded him during his first campaign and then administration. These are very serious people as seen with Project 2025, Agenda 47 and their other plans to end American democracy on “day one.” Liberal schadenfreude and mockery — the sugar high and empty calories for too many in the so-called “resistance” and liberals in the media — will not stop these dangerous and determined professionals.

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Trump used classic propaganda and verbal warfare tactics such as consistently labeling his opponent with negative terms that are highly emotional and visual (Biden and the Democrats are “baby killers” and are encouraging an “invasion” by Black and brown criminals and lunatics from Latin and South America who are killing Americans). Trump actually believes his lies are true. This makes Trump a very dangerous opponent for an intelligent and reasonable person like President Biden (or anyone else who believes that “fact” and “truth” matter in politics). Trump would use Steve Bannon’s tactic of flooding the zone with waste and the Russian propaganda technique known as “the firehose of falsehoods” to drown and flummox Biden, who literally could not process the absurdities that were coming out of Trump’s mouth with such confidence and speed.

Trump also took all of the horrible things that are true about him and turned them against President Biden, claiming he was a criminal and a danger to democracy, and killed hundreds of thousands of people because of a negligent response to the COVID pandemic. In Trump's telling, Biden hates America and wants to destroy it. Biden will cause World War III. Biden is insane. Biden destroyed the economy.

There is also the reality that Donald Trump has repeatedly threatened to have Biden and other leading Democrats put in prison and convicted of treason. The traditional punishment for treason is death. Beyond threats of prison for false crimes, Trump and his spokespeople have repeatedly made threats of violence against Biden and other Democrats. Given the enormity of the stakes, both personally and for the country, Biden was likely unnerved if not actually frightened.

During their closing statements, Trump’s crushing defeat of Biden continued — the president by that point had basically surrendered. Trump attacked with even worse lies and invective and character assassination. What did Biden do? He said something about lead pipes. Donald Trump was in his glory: Mission accomplished. The image of a victorious Trump and a defeated Biden was the last thing that the viewers would see.

Words cannot do adequate justice to what transpired during the debate. These events had to be witnessed in real time in order to fully appreciate them. (Writing at Mother Jones, David Corn makes this brave attempt.

CNN’s moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, allowed Trump to lie dozens of times and did not intervene. The mainstream news media’s obsolete commitment to balance, objectivity, fairness and the "horse race" has normalized the aspiring dictator and his American neofascist movement. The mainstream news media as an institution is not built for such a fight, and so far has refused to adapt.

I reached out to political strategist Cheri Jacobus for her insights about the presidential debate and the news media. She responded by email:

Biden is old and his voice was hoarse. He also had every detail, fact and figure to offer at the debate, and a thorough knowledge of his policies. 

Trump is old and Trump lied. A lot. Trump lied at historical and shocking levels. And because everything — and I mean EVERYTHING — he said was a lie, Trump had no facts, figures, or data to back up his claims. He lied about abortion, taxes, Charlottesville, Afghanistan, the debt and matters that have been captured on video, and more. 

Moderators Dana Bash and Jake Tapper sat there and let Trump lie. The decision to not fact-check a debate where Donald Trump was a participant in was journalistic malpractice. A disgrace. And because even a third-grader knew Trump would lie and lie and lie, it's not a stretch to assume that CNN was intentionally helping Trump, just as they did in 2015-2016.  This was no accident. That there was no question about Trump's crimes, guilty verdicts, indictments and upcoming sentencing was jaw-dropping.

Worse, "journalists" on social media were enjoying playing political pundit (on Biden) rather than buckling down to immediately and thoroughly fact-check every one of Trump's lies. Even as the news-cycle clock was ticking, many so-called "reporters" were opining on Biden and gossip, rather than doing their jobs to inform a public that CNN had betrayed.

Journalism is dead.

However one explains or rationalizes it, Trump verbally beat up Biden for 90 minutes.

I also asked communications scholar Reece Peck for his reactions. He also responded by email: 

This debate was an unmitigated disaster for Joe Biden. Whether you are right or left, a political junkie or a casual viewer, Biden’s elderly appearance and incoherent delivery overshadowed everything, including Trump’s bombast and outlandish lies. Biden’s hoarse, weakened voice and constant coughing were the first things that stood out. Apparently, he had a cold. Other aesthetic elements distracted the audience from the substance of his points, particularly when discussing Russia and Trump’s threat to global democracy. The visual close-ups of Biden’s face during Trump’s speaking turns were constantly unsettling: the blank stare, his mouth agape and frozen. Ideally, our democracy should follow a deliberative logic; it should be strictly about who has the best argument. But this is not the democracy we have. Our politics is hyper-“mediatized,” meaning the public’s primary interface with policy and elections happens mainly through the aesthetic lens of television and online video. Hence, a politician’s success significantly hinges on their ability to be an effective media performer. Biden’s debate performance last night—particularly the “we will finally beat Medicare” glitch moment—sent the exact opposite message his camp intended to convey: Biden is incompetent and too old to be president. The Democratic Party has a lot to think about right now. ...

If you could evaluate Trump’s performance in isolation (which, unfortunately, we can’t), it would have been a disaster as well. All the Trumpian things that usually turn off independents and average voters were on display: his cockiness, his cruelty, his sixth-grade vocabulary,and hyperbole (“the best economy in history,” “the worst president ever”). Most notably, Trump spent the entire debate drawing from his tired anti-immigrant playbook. Whether it was about health care, the VA, jobs or social security, for every single question Tapper and Bash posed, Trump would respond with some screed about hordes of psychotic, criminal immigrants flooding the southern border. He even used the anti-immigrant frame on questions about African American inequality and Jan. 6. For all this talk about a rising pro-working-class brand of Republican populism supposedly exemplified by the likes of J.D. Vance and Josh Hawley, we heard nothing new from Trump. He spouted the same old lines about how “the whole world is laughing at us,” playing us for the fool and beating us in the global economy, lines he was repeating on the Howard Stern show in the 1990s.

On cue, highlighting the failures of President Biden during the debate (and more generally) and the strength of Donald Trump, their respective campaigns sent out emails. Trump was full of braggadocio, perhaps deservedly so.

I just obliterated creepy, sleepy Joe Biden on the debate stage. I WON!


Biden resorted to his old line about “malarkey”:

Folks, I just stepped off of the debate stage. And I have to tell you this: I have never heard so much malarkey in my whole life.

Here’s the truth: Donald Trump is running a campaign of revenge and retribution. He wants to forever alter what we stand for as a country, to throw decency, honesty, and integrity all by the wayside. And he will hurt anyone to help himself.

If it's true that President Biden was ill, his campaign team should have demanded a postponement. I also kept wondering who the hell had prepared Biden. Were they incompetent, or was he doing what he was instructed to do, with advice based on what his aides felt he could reasonably accomplish? If so, that too is a damning indictment.

Where do we go from here?

Biden and the Democrats need to assess what happened, consolidate their forces and make some radical changes in their strategies and tactics. They are behind in the polls and Trump has gained more momentum. Once just the stuff of idle speculation, the question of whether Biden can defeat Trump, and whether he should be replaced as the Democratic nominee, now loom large.

The planned second debate should be canceled. Why risk it? Trump, given his professional wrestling heel instincts and his propaganda skills, can even present such a choice as benevolent and merciful. Trump could tell his faithful that it would be bad for the country for him to humiliate "Sleepy Joe" a second time. 

There are events where we will all remember where we were when they happened. The 9/11 attacks, the Jan. 6 Capitol riot and Trump’s felony conviction offer examples. Last week's presidential debate between Biden and Trump is now one such moment. To paraphrase Lenin, there are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades seem to happen. That certainly applies to Donald Trump’s destruction of Joe Biden on June 27, 2024, and what it may mean for the future of American democracy.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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