No amount of damage control can undo this.

Donald Trump and Joe Biden on the debate stage. Former President Donald Trump and President Biden on the debate stage. Image: Gerald Herbert/The Associated Press.

Thursday night’s presidential debate was an unmitigated disaster.

On the Republican side, the United States had a wannabe dictator who didn’t speak a single truth during the 90-minute debate. Every last sentence that came out of his mouth was not even rude, not even outrageous, but just a complete fabrication of the news cycle for the past three-and-a-half years. It was as if The Onion trained a large language model to take the news from President Biden’s years in office and turn it all into a sensationalist, populist parody. He lied about abortions, immigration, jobs, the economy, inflation, foreign policy, Russia, Israel, and pretty much every single debate topic the moderators, Dana Bash and Jake Tapper of CNN, probed the two candidates on.

And former President Donald Trump did it all in such a manner that was brazen and unmistakably Trump. Orange Jesus turned the debate stage into a campaign event, saying the most vile, misogynistic, and racist nonsense known to man in front of an audience of tens of millions, graciously provided to him free of cost by CNN. He, for all intents and purposes, was not on a debate stage — he was in Mar-a-Lago, right off the coast of Florida, surrounded by a bunch of his mega-donors spewing the most bombastic lies possible. And he successfully delivered his lines in a confident, strident, and striking tone. It sounded exactly like a campaign event.

On the Democratic side, Biden performed worse than anyone could’ve imagined. Republicans set the bar obscenely low to cater to their base. They suggested he snorted cocaine, that he was senile, and that he’d fall apart midway onstage. For all we know, if Biden performed like a normal 81-year-old, he would’ve shocked every last Republican watching at home with his strength and resilience. Unfortunately for us, the Democrats, watching at home, he didn’t do that.

Over the course of Trump’s 90-minute hit piece, mostly filled with fabricated information, Biden wasn’t able to refute a single one of his pompous and abhorrent lies. When the former president said — not suggested — that women in blue states were having their babies then murdering them via “late-term abortions,” he turned what was a slam-dunk of a campaign theme for the Democrats into a Republican rally talking point. He painted the Democrats as the extremists, not the Republicans, who want to punish 9-year-old girls by forcing them to bear the children of their rapists. But in actuality, his point about babies being murdered is one of the most misogynistic, vile, cruel things a person of power could ever utter in fair conscience. It’s a horrific, criminal lie.

In response to this turning of the tables, so to speak, Biden wasn’t even able to call his opponent a misogynistic rapist, which he literally is. He just muttered a simple line: “Late-term abortions aren’t real.” I’m sorry, but the former president of the United States of America, found guilty of raping a woman in a department store, just launched a completely false attack on millions of women suffering from the painful procedure of abortion in the third trimester, and all you could do was barely stutter a one-liner before practically falling asleep in front of the entire country? It’s not just Trump who should take the blame for such misogynistic bile being uttered at 10 p.m. on national television, but Biden for being mentally unable to point out what would, in a normal country, be an unfathomable thing to say.

When prompted to answer questions about the January 6 coup attempt, when a crowd of pro-Trump violent criminals broke into the Capitol to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election and crown their messiah the dictator of the United States, Trump blustered. Instead of condemning the protestors, or even calling them “hostages” as he does in his rallies, he turned the tables on Biden by saying how “great” the economy was on January 6, 2021. Firstly, the economy was dead thanks to the coronavirus pandemic Trump failed to control and that killed over a million Americans. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the issue of the economy is entirely irrelevant to the conversation about January 6. Trump turned the “question” he was given by the two Warner Bros. Discovery television personalities into an invitation to begin a campaign rally, but instead of a limited amount of people crazy enough to waste their time on watching a rapist felon spew nonsense, his messages were broadcast to the entire world.

Biden could’ve and should’ve immediately seized on this attempt at distraction by pointing out the horrific crimes carried out by the domestic terrorists on that fateful day when the president of the country tried to overthrow democracy. He could’ve stressed how Trump failed to control the mobsters, how they dug through the private documents of lawmakers, and how something like that could happen again if Trump were given power once more. And he should have pointed out that Trump dodged the question, presumably because Trump knows it’s a political liability for him. And he could’ve tuned his message to entice a broader audience who isn’t keen on bringing a dictator to power. These are all ways Biden could’ve taken Trump’s not-so-sly diversion of the subject, loaded it back into the pistol, and shot it directly into the former president’s skull.

Instead, he didn’t do any of that. In fact, his answer was so bad that I can’t even remember what it was. Biden stuttered and mumbled his way through the debate, but the physical ailments that come with age — and the cold his moronic campaign didn’t disclose until 50 minutes after the debate began — can be excused, because humans are humans and humans age and aren’t perfect. What can’t be excused is Biden’s absolute inability to refute the former president’s shameless lies and falsehoods. Trump talked about immigrants being released from mental institutions and prisons into the United States, about how the wars in Ukraine and Gaza wouldn’t have started if it weren’t for Biden’s supposed weakness, and about how he “gave” the president the “greatest economy in the history of our country.” He even said he “didn’t have sex with a porn star,” a crime for which he has been convicted. These points are so memorable because they’re so audacious. They’re entirely incorrect lies that can be disproven with simple Google searches, but they land so perfectly in people’s brains.

Biden needed to segment himself not as a “fit” person, I’d argue. Instead, he needed to paint the former president as the dictator he now aspires to be. Trump turned CNN into Newsmax and One America News for 90 minutes, whereas Biden practically fell asleep and embarrassed the entire Democratic Party. He was a guest on his own show, while Trump commandeered the entire debate and set the stage for the conversation of the next four months. It’ll be possible for Biden to recover from his showing, not because he’s old or senile — though those things might be true, they’re also true for Trump — but because he was a genuinely terrible advertiser. Debate watchers on Thursday came away from the program with a bunch of lies from Trump and utter conviction that Biden is a good-for-nothing weakling. Great work.

The job of the president on the campaign trail is to advertise his administration’s accomplishments and achievements. Biden failed to do that. He played defense from the get-go while his predecessor played a vociferous offensive. Biden didn’t have to suffer this fate because Americans already know how bad Trump is — they know him so well that they voted against him in 2020. Biden has the advantage of Trump being a loser. Biden beat Trump, yet he plays the game of politics as if he’s a third-party newcomer with no track record. More than tout his own administration’s work, he needs to portray the former president as a man without moral character, a liar, and a cheater — because that’s exactly what he is. When Trump said Biden was bringing in rapists via the southern border, Biden’s first natural instinct should have been to point out that Trump is the rapist in actuality. When Trump talked about migrant killings, Biden’s gut should’ve gone straight for the hundreds of thousands who died of Covid under his predecessor’s watch.

When Trump talked about his economy being the best in the nation’s history, Biden should’ve talked about how people lost their jobs and struggled to pay their bills during lockdown in March 2020. When Trump falsely accused Biden of persecuting his political opponents, Biden should’ve immediately opened with Trump’s line of being a dictator on Day 1. And when Trump said Biden was a criminal, Biden should’ve clapped back with that famous New York jury’s verdict in May. Trump is projecting because Republicans always project, and it’s Biden’s job to expose his insolent lies to the American public. “They’re coming after you and I’m protecting you.” Biden’s job is not to be the fact checker of the debate — he’s there to disprove his opponent’s incessant attacks on his successful administration. While Trump was trying to put on a campaign event for his fellows, Biden should’ve thrown a dart in his plans and flipped the script.

Moves like this, even if delivered slowly and in a geriatric manner, show strength when it’s so desperately needed. It wasn’t Biden’s age or mannerisms that made him lose Thursday’s debate — it was the fact that he failed to put a nail in Trump’s coffin. He could’ve really screwed Trump up and bruised his campaign to the point where it would be a more logical decision to commit political suicide than go on further, but he just let Trump hold a rally in front of millions. He lied incessantly, almost impulsively, and certainly pathologically, but Biden wasn’t able to shoot any shots back, and when he tried, he just shot blanks. He flubbed the most important topic for Democrats, the one that wins elections: abortion. He let Trump deliver the killer line of “Democrats are the extremists, not Republicans” when anyone with two functioning brain cells knows that’s a trumped-up story. If Biden went on the offensive and actively tried to shut down Trump’s rambling nonsense, Americans would’ve been proud to have a president who stood up for them.

Trump used the incredibly impactful populist tactic of scaring the public to garner votes, and it worked impeccably. When your political opponent does that, you’re supposed to do the same. “He’s letting cartels into the country.” He killed your closest family members by botching the most powerful country’s response to a deadly pandemic. “Migrants are stealing Black jobs.” You’re a racist sack of garbage who has the audacity to call jobs “Black” while on your watch millions of Black people lost their jobs thanks to one of the worst economies in American history. “My economy was the best ever.” Tell that to the children who suffered from hunger on the streets while you did a photo shoot with bibles in front of a church. And remember when you tear-gassed protestors who objected to the murder of an innocent Black man? You have the impudence and shamelessness to say you’ve done more for Black Americans since former President Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery and fought a war for the freedom of Black people. You’re a shame, Donald Trump — you’re a shame to this country and the American people won’t forget what you did to them.

No, Biden said none of this. Instead, he focused on abstract ideals regarding the border and the economy, two of his weakest areas. Biden has some very strong talking points about chaos, law and order, democracy, and abortion — yet he decided to play defense on his least favorable issues instead of attacking the madman compulsively perjuring about the state of the country. That madman is trying to scare people, telling them World War III is about to erupt and that migrants are committing a holocaust of white people. It’s hard to describe how criminal these words are, yet he was able to peddle them without objection from the president of the United States, the most powerful man on the planet. How ashamed are we supposed to be as Democrats? What are we supposed to think after our president lost to a man whose campaign message is literally “I Am Hitler?”

Biden didn’t interject enough, he didn’t bring up Trump’s felony convictions enough, he didn’t bring up his E. Jean Carrol defamation case much, and he certainly didn’t talk about how Trump is a convicted rapist enough. He let his top political opponent run a 90-minute hit piece on his watch while stumbling through half-prepared talking points like a bumbling idiot. Biden’s problem isn’t that he’s old at all, because anyone can win with a stutter and cold. His problem is that he’s a great president and a terrible politician. I think Biden has done wonders for this country, getting us out of the pandemic, building back our economy, adding a surplus of jobs, projecting power to the world militarily and financially, and creating a more just world for all Americans. Trump, on the other hand, plunged us into darkness, despair, and embarrassment under his tenure. But it sure didn’t sound like that on Thursday.

Trump’s strategy was to say the most disprovable complete nonsense he could to fire up the public and pump his ratings, while Biden’s aim was to tout his accomplishments to show he is a successful president. One strategy worked; the other didn’t. I understand how that strategy could’ve worked during debate preparations, but it sure won’t work with a moron like Trump. What we saw on Thursday wasn’t a debate, it was a 90-minute Presidential Edition of “The Apprentice,” where Trump, in a roundabout way, tells Biden he’s fired at the end. Biden brought some facts, but that just positioned him as the nerdy student who sits at the back of the class and never gets called on. Trump is the bully, and as the old-yet-flawed story goes, all the girls love the bad boys. (The girls are America.)

Now, of course, the teacher is the one who is supposed to send Trump to the principal’s office, and in this classroom scenario, the teachers are Tapper and Bash, the CNN moderators, who acted less like neutral arbitrators in the debate and more like plants courtesy of the Republican Party. The job of a cable news network is to fact-check the heinous lies spun up by the candidates, but CNN didn’t do that until hours after the debate — hours after people stopped watching. When Trump talks nonsense, Tapper or Bash should immediately come up with answers and additional information to inform the American people. That is their job as representatives of a news corporation. They make the news, for heaven’s sake. How can you let one guy run the circus on your network? Preventing Trump from turning CNN’s headquarters into Mar-a-Lago isn’t “taking sides,” it’s being the moderator of a consequential presidential debate.

CNN misinformed the public, Trump ran a campaign rally, and Biden wasn’t even able to hit his opponent in the places where he’s shown he’s the most vulnerable, poll after poll. Biden didn’t lose because he’s old — he lost because he’s a bad politician. Am I going to say he needs to be replaced? As a Democrat who wants to keep the country away from an authoritarian dictator, my answer is unfortunately “yes.”