What did we just see – the spectacle of an emperor with no clothes, or an aged president unfit to continue for a second term in office?

Make no mistake. This was an outright win by Donald Trump – because it was an outright fail by Joe Biden. Trump confounded Biden at every opportunity, from inflation to immigration to America’s standing in the world. It does not matter whether Trump lied – and he lied constantly – it only mattered that he kept pushing the hottest political buttons that drive the most votes in order to deliver the election to him in November.

As the two presidents stepped onto the stage, the race had been static for nearly a year. Biden and Trump have been tied head-to-head in the national popular vote in the mid-40 per cent range. Trump has consistent leads in most of the swing states – anywhere from two to seven points. If the election were held before this debate began, Trump would win.

Going into this debate, Trump enjoyed a significant lead over Biden in support on who is best to manage the three biggest issues: the economy and inflation, immigration, and crime. Biden does better on Trump’s threats to democracy and abortion rights. But Trump’s issues are stronger drivers of the outcome of this election.

This meant that it would not be enough for Biden to simply draw a tie with Trump. Biden needed a decisive win over Trump to change the current trajectory of this race. Biden needed not a referendum on his presidency but a dominant contrast with Trump. He needed to show that he is in command, with a clear mind and firm course for the country’s future, and that Trump is unfit for office as a convicted felon, too extreme in his views, and with policies way outside the mainstream of America.

For Biden, that was the hope. The Biden comeback and a Trump takedown had to begin now. They both died on that CNN stage. Trump made sure this debate was a referendum on Biden.

From the outset, Biden looked old and frail. The visual contrasts favoured Trump. Biden was pallid. In listening to Trump, Biden would look down, or simply stare in wide-eyed disbelief at the shameless distortions of history that came out of the gatling gun of Trump’s mouth. Trump was always in motion as he spoke; Biden looked wooden.

And then early on, Biden froze in responding on taxes and health care. Trump – as canny and cunning as ever as the streetfighter he is – interjected that he did not know what Biden was saying, that he did not understand what he was saying. From then on, it was a relentless slide downhill with a couple of bumps of recovery on Trump’s insults on veterans, his affinity for NATO, his cruelty on abortion.

Trump was on message throughout, and never deviated from it. The country is going to hell. America is in decline; Biden is a failed president. Trump even said he wishes he wasn’t running, but because Biden was doing such a bad job, Trump felt he had to run. It was a stunning reversal of Biden’s mantra that he had to run in 2020 to save America’s democracy and prevent Trump and his ties with Nazis from prevailing.

Trump then packaged immigration, and a country being overrun by illegal and dangerous migrants, into a one-size-fits-all solution to the stresses Americans are facing. Trump made it all too easy for voters: immigrants are taking jobs from Hispanics and blacks and our schools and hospitals and social security and Medicaid. And Biden is doing nothing about it, and you know I will.

Trump redefined chutzpah. Looking at Biden, he said, “I’ve never seen anybody lie like this … Joe, our country is being destroyed … He is the worst president in history.”

The closing remarks sealed Biden’s fate in Atlanta. He cited taxes and tariffs, stumbled over drug prices, and mentioned lead pipes, and then inflation.

Trump did not miss. “This man is just a complainer but doesn’t do anything.” He took down Biden’s policies on Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, and Ukraine. “The whole country is exploding because of you … We are in a failing nation. We will make America great again.”

In past months, Democrats have freaked out on where this race was headed, and whether Biden was up to it. What will likely surface in the coming days is an uprising of voices expressing no confidence in Biden to win the election and asking him to step aside at the convention in August and let the party choose another candidate. How serious this will be can be measured by the immediate post-debate polling and how much sentiment is shifted over the next week, and whether leaders of the party – senators, members of the House, governors, perhaps even members of the cabinet – stand up to insist that President Biden’s campaign cannot continue.

The debate betrayed little if any confidence that Biden can or will defeat Trump.

If Biden remains in the race, only Trump can defeat Trump.