Trump’s Debate: a Victory for Pathological Liars Everywhere

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Donald J. Trump is a pathological liar and a political predator, and once he realized on the debate stage that neither President Joe Biden nor the feckless CNN moderators would  offer any challenges to his lies or falsities, he went for the kill.  Biden’s tired voice and overall pathetic performance undoubtedly earned him no support from fence sitters or independents, but it is unlikely that Trump’s braggadocio won him any new adherents.  The MAGA minions are insufficient to return Trump to the White House, so now it is up to the Biden campaign to convince the American constituency that the president’s record and his overall decency are sufficient for reelection.

Jeb Bush had it right eight years ago, when he said that “Donald Trump is a chaos candidate, and he would be a chaos president.”  Trump’s first and second day as president were dispositive.  On the first day, there was an unusual acceptance speech that talked about “American Carnage.”  That turned out to be a prediction of the next four years, culminating in an attack on the Capitol in an effort to overturn a free and fair election.

On the second day, there was a brief and bizarre appearance at the Central Intelligence Agency, where Trump stood near the biblical inscription at the entrance to the Langley headquarters: “The Truth Shall Set You Free.”  He repeated his pathetic lies about the size of his inaugural crowd, and pandered to a command performance crowd by saying “I respect you, there’s nobody I respect more.”  This statement was uttered only several days after he compared CIA officers to Nazis.

It doesn’t take a professional to recognize Trump’s narcissistic personality, his self destructive behaviors, his toxicity.  Trump’s father told his son over and over again that “You need to be a killer and a king,” and Trump seems to have taken the admonition to conclude that there are two types of people in the world—the victors and the vanquished.  This trait was on full display in the debate; as Biden demonstrated weakness and uncertainty, Trump told greater lies about abortion, the insurrection, his legal troubles.  When it was clear that the moderators would not stop him and that Biden was not up to the task, Trump demonstrated the characteristics of a predator who would destroy his prey.  Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a respected historian, wrote six years ago that “Trump is no madman, he’s simply following the strongman playbook.”

As the debate wore on, Trump’s egotistical displays became more threatening and more boisterous.  For the past eight years, we have witnessed his impulsive need to make vengeful attacks on those who challenge him, particularly minorities, women, and immigrants.  His racist comments at the debate were unconscionable.  Trump’s combative stance demonstrated once again that he is incapable of holding a rational discussion or engaging in a considered exercise of power.  We learned a great deal from his three appointments to the Supreme Court, who are currently engaged in weakening executive and legislative power.  Trump’s overall appointments in a second term will be far more threatening and destructive than in the first time around, when somehow there were several adults in the room who had spent their careers in military service.

Only the American people and their votes can stop Trump at this point.  The Mueller investigation exposed various facets of Trump’s corruption, but it went nowhere.  Two impeachments exposed Trump’s venality and deceit, but they also went nowhere.  The trials regarding sexual assault and hush money payments were decided against Trump, but have done him no harm.  The trials that remain are far more serious, dealing with the insurrection of January 6th and the theft of sensitive intelligence documents, but they will not be held before the election.

It’s almost impossible to be optimistic about the election because too many nations around the world are electing and/or supporting authoritarian leaders.  Too many Americans appear to be believe that Putin in Russia, Xi in China, Netanyahu in Israel, Modi in India, and Erdogan in Turkey have served the interests of their constituencies, and that the United States needs its own aggressive and bellicose leader to stand up to the authoritarians that abound around the world.  Meanwhile, our friends and adversaries in the international community are focused on the November election, with friends fearing the worst and adversaries hoping for the election of Donald J. Trump.

Trump did significant damage to U.S. governance in his first four years.  It is difficult to imagine how much damage he will do in an additional four years, if we put him in control of our fate a second time. There are insufficient guardrails that would be needed to challenge Trump’s combative madness.  Various biographers have noted Trump’s dangerous elements of irritability and aggressiveness as well as a pattern of deceitful behavior in his personal and professional life.  In his only memorable line, Biden did note that Trump had the “morals of an alleycat.”  The fact that Trump would not qualify for a security clearance to serve in the military or intelligence communities, but could end up commanding the nuclear arsenal is surely not the least of our worries.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for