President Joe Biden and Republican candidate Donald Trump went head to head in the first presidential debate ahead of the November elections at the CNN studios in Atlanta. The second series of the debate comes up on the 9th of September. Credit: CNN

The first of the debates between Incumbent Joe Biden and the GOP candidate Donald Trump has come and gone and the verdicts equally came in quick and harsh in the hours after the Biden-Trump that was organized by CNN in Atlanta. A lot of observers have called it “disastrous,” “fumbling” and “devastating” for President Biden. Democratic agents “panicked” and “scrambled” to limit the damage. While some have strongly suggested it might be time for Biden to step aside.

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Not to put too fine a point on it, but this was the worst performance of any general election presidential candidate in any debate in modern American history. Nothing in past debates— Richard Nixon’s sweat in 1960, Ronald Reagan’s serpentine wandering down memory lane in 1984, Barack Obama’s vacuous indifference in 2012 — comes close to what we witnessed at the CNN studios in Atlanta.

Of a truth it was clear that Donald Trump’s jugular was exposed for all to see. But on the most important issues in this election and in the most important moments, Biden seemed unable to go for it.

The main in this forthcoming election is the future of America’s democracy. Trump is on record repeatedly describing how he wants to get rid of it, using the Justice Department for revenge, mobilizing the U.S. military to quell demonstrations, punishing dissent, and defying the Constitution. Far-right conservatives have even given him a play-by-play instruction manual on how to organize an autocracy.

Over the course of recent months, overwhelming majorities of Americans have said they worry about democracy.

Biden’s performance, from his first rushed, unfocused answer on the economy to his disjointed closing statement, suggested he was utterly unprepared to make a coherent argument for his second term. Biden’s efforts to confront Trump on his lies — and there was a tsunami of dishonesty, from Trump’s ridiculous notion that every constitutional scholar wanted to end Roe v Wade to his claim that he never labeled servicemen and women “suckers and losers” despite his former chief of staff confirming it — were often as hard to understand as his substantive points.

When CNN moderator Jake Tapper asked Biden at the debate whether he believes Trump and MAGA Republicans are determined to destroy American democracy, Biden lacked the passion of his remarks days before the 2022 midterm election.

“My fellow Americans,” the president said then, “we’re facing a defining moment, an inflection point. And we must — with one overwhelming, unified voice — speak as a country and say there is no place — no place — for voter intimidation or political violence in America, whether it’s directed at Democrats or Republicans. No place, period…We’ll have our difference of opinion. And that’s how it’s supposed to be. But there is something else at stake: democracy itself.”

The debate was confounding because it allowed Trump’s torrent of lies to go unchallenged, except for Biden’s weak, rushed and scattered responses. Tapper and fellow moderator Dana Bash chose to watch the clock rather than challenge questionable responses from either candidate.

It was forgivable because their job was to moderate, not enter the debate. However, CNN would have done viewers a great service by following the debate immediately with fact-checking. The network knew Trump’s proven propensity to exaggerate, level false accusations and outright lie. There should never again be a presidential debate that allows falsities to linger for hours or days before they are corrected.

On the other hand, contrary to the confident assertions of many Trump-watchers, he was relatively constrained. He actually resorted to something resembling a policy argument at times, and frequently managed to “pivot” from a difficult issue. For instance, when asked about whether he had violated his oath of office on January 6th, Trump cited the low inflation, full employment and generally sunny conditions on that day. On abortion, he was striking clearly moderate tones, noting that some states had embraced liberal policies, others less so, while accusing Democrats of being the extremists. On immigration, he stressed the cost to taxpayers and the impact on Black and Hispanic workers.

There were also moments when Trump could not resist being Trump, calling Biden a criminal after attempting to soften his promise of “retribution,” explaining why he’d become the best president ever, and triggering a genuinely silly argument about golf handicaps.

The topic of terrorism played an unusually large role in this presidential debate, with former President Donald Trump making inaccurate or misleading claims.

Trump attacked Biden on immigration by claiming that the US is currently seeing the largest number of terrorists coming into the country — a misleading claim that also ignores the fact that the vast majority of the “encounters” by US Border Patrol agents with people on the terrorism watch list in 2023 took place at the northern border with Canada.

Later on, Trump did correctly point out that as president, he authorized the operations that killed the founder and leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani.

But Trump then went on to make a bogus claim (one he has made before) that there was “no terror” during his administration. This one is a real whopper. There were several people charged with terrorism during his presidency. Notably, in October 2017, an Uzbek man carried out a terrorist attack in Manhattan by using a rented truck to fatally strike eight people on a bike path.

It’s also worth pointing out that Trump seems to have a major blind spot when it comes to right-wing domestic terrorism that took place on his watch. In 2019, a 21-year-old White man touted xenophobic and White supremacist beliefs online just minutes before he targeted Latino shoppers at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. He killed 23 people in what was the most lethal right-wing terrorist attack in decades, according to the research institution New America.

And, of course, the most spectacular act of domestic terrorism in decades took place at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. Some 140 police officers were assaulted while Trump failed to put a stop to it for hours while it unfolded. If elected, Trump has promised to pardon a “large portion” of the rioters — a point that Biden also reminded viewers of during the debate.

Another confounding thing about this debate was the way Biden gave short shrift to global climate change, even though he’s done more than any previous president to mitigate it. Outside CNN’s studios, Americans were being left homeless by wildfires, tornadoes and floods. The Associated Press reported, “Severe weather over days has caused havoc and destruction across the U.S.”

As of June 10, at least 964 tornadoes had struck the country. In April and May, three major outbreaks of more than 100 tornados each leveled towns from Texas and Louisiana to Iowa, killing 32 people.

Trump on his own part continues to ignore climate change, much like he ignored the COVID pandemic. When Bash asked him about it, the former president avoided answering, claiming he “had the best environmental numbers ever” during his administration. Yet he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate agreement and reversed the climate policies of the Obama administration. He rolled back more than 100 environmental rules during his term. His legacy includes a conservative Supreme Court that is rolling back more.

After the debate, some Democrats wondered whether Biden should step aside so their convention could nominate a younger and more dynamic candidate. A couple of reporters interviewed California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) for his reactions; he urged Democrats to work even harder for Biden.

The cold hard truth is that a lot of Americans are horrified of a Trump presidency. Watching the debate, a sense of rising panic was palpable in many American living rooms: a creeping dread that the country is in grave danger. That’s because the debate made it clear that former President Donald Trump has a strong chance of defeating President Joe Biden; a realization that the Trump threat is very real.

Trump has all but promised to end support for Ukraine. He has been sharply critical of US aid in the past, has repeatedly disparaged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and has vowed to end the war in 24 hours.

Russia’s neighbors fear they will be next after President Vladimir Putin ends up with a chunk of territory conquered by force. Europeans now fear America’s potential withdrawal from NATO under Trump, and the destabilization of the alliances that helped keep the peace.

Americans are beginning to visualize a country where the president attacks the media, undercuts individual rights, mocks the disabled and debases women. Worst of all, a president who uses the tools of government to go after his political foes.

Biden’s underwhelming performance was visibly delightful to a self-satisfied Trump, who defended insurrectionists when asked about the insurrections of January 6. And when he was asked the key question at the end of the debate, whether he would commit to accepting the results of the next election, he concocted a response that was in fact a refusal to say he would accept the election results, claiming he would do so if the election was clean, but we know what that means. He will likely only accept them if he wins.

After this debate, it’s clear that the future of America country is in danger because Trump may well come into power again on January 20, 2025.

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