Columnist John Sheirer: Defeating a compulsive liar

Former President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate on June 27.

Former President Donald Trump during the first presidential debate on June 27. Washington Post

John Sheirer

John Sheirer


Published: 07-06-2024 8:19 PM

Dear Mr. President: Here are some thoughts about the recent debate based on my decades of teaching public speaking and persuasion. This will be tough love because I know you’re strong enough to handle it.

With all due respect, we thought you’d do better (like you did with your inspiring State of the Union address). But you seemed older and frailer, and your diagnosed stutter was particularly noticeable. You had some good moments when you highlighted your administration’s accomplishments and your opponent’s shortcomings. Overall, however, you were mediocre on substance and very poor on performance. Should you drop out? That’s a question for greater political minds than mine.

Being president is ninety percent substance and ten percent performance, and your presidential accomplishments have been substantial. Debates, however, glamourize performance. Viewers focused on your soft voice, staring gaze, and halting delivery. My first advice is to poke fun at your own age. People will love to hear you beat the critics to the punch line. You should also talk about how your lifelong struggle with stuttering has strengthened you. Let us know that you’re fighting through it because you care about us and about this country. We’re all fighting through something, too. We’ll understand.

If you can get some of those stimulants Trump says you take, do it! (Legal ones, of course.) Trump drinks Diet Coke all day, except while asleep during his criminal trial. We all have days when caffeine isn’t enough.

Keep hammering on the facts about Trump: his criminal conviction, numerous indictments, court verdicts for fraud and sexual abuse, policies that favor the wealthy and hurt everyone else, fantasies about dictatorship, and compulsive dishonesty.

Many analysts followed their criticism of your debate with comments like, “Biden was bad, but Trump definitely wasn’t good.” Some experts avoided the trap of overemphasizing performance. Historian Heather Cox Richardson, for example, rightly pointed out that Trump “lied and rambled incoherently.”

Trump’s debate plan was clearly to tell as many lies as possible. His former campaign manager Steve Bannon (another convicted criminal) calls it “flooding the zone with sh*t.” The formal term is “Gish gallop.” It involves trying to hide ignorance by overwhelming the discussion with nonstop falsehoods. Fake strongmen love the Gish gallop because it’s verbal bullying.

If there were debates every night until the election, you’d do better in 99% of them. Unlike Trump, you live in reality. Even on your worst night, you still had far better command of the facts than the conspiracy theorist who ridiculously claimed that Nancy Pelosi confessed on video to her daughter that she caused his January 6 insurrection. (What!?)

How dishonest was Trump in this debate? Fact-checker Daniel Dale cataloged a whopping 30 lies from Trump, many repeated multiple times. To your credit, you called out Trump’s “malarkey” and tried to redirect the discussion to reality. But Trump told so many lies that it’s impossible to respond to all of them instantly, especially when the moderators let the lies pass unchallenged.

Here’s some advice for dealing with Trump’s Gish gallop in the future. If you leave the race between the day I’m writing this (July 3) and the day it’s published (July 8), then this advice goes to anyone confronting Trump’s dishonesty.

First, pick one of Trump’s core lies and debunk it quickly and clearly. For example, when Trump lies about his role in the January 6 insurrection, remind us that we all saw it with our own eyes and that Trump is lying to avoid his obvious guilt. Be brief and focus on reality.

Also, remind us that Trump often avoids answering actual debate questions. When asked about child care, Trump repeated his laundry list of lies about you. You should tell us that Trump didn’t address child care because he doesn’t understand the issue and has no interest in helping middle-class Americans. Then summarize how your administration has already helped with child care and how you plan to expand those efforts in a second term.

Ask voters to follow up with fact-checkers and reliable sources after the debate. Use humor because liars hate being laughed at. Say that you’d rather be called old than be a compulsive liar. Right from the start, tell the audience that you’ll raise your hand each time Trump lies, but you might need to ice your overworked shoulder muscles later that night. You’ll stay alert and engaged, and Trump will get frustrated and complain. Laugh at him and tell him you’ll stop raising your hand when he stops lying. Keep telling the audience that Trump won’t stop lying because he has no real answers or understanding of the issues.

To get the audience on your side, emphasize that we all hate being lied to. Remind us that honesty is patriotic, and Trump’s constant lies are un-American. Point out that Trump isn’t just lying about his record or yours. Trump is lying about America. Everyone in our great nation deserves better. And the only way to defeat someone who lies about America is with our vote.

I hope you can respond effectively to Trump’s lies and horrible policies moving forward. Maybe only a different candidate can. I honestly don’t know. One thing is clear: Whoever can stop Trump deserves our votes.

John Sheirer is an author and teacher from Florence. His most recent book is “For Now: One Hundred 100-Word Stories.” Find him at