What an incredible slog the third hour of the CNN debate was. It took real effort to stay with it. There were whole swaths where the words all ran together. The questions grew ever more tedious and the answers more so. The waves of wonkiness were sleep inducing.

As Slate said, “The debate coverage was so long that if it had been an interrogation, you’d have ended up confessing to kidnapping the Lindbergh baby just to get it over with.”

And the most preposterous lie of American public life — that our supreme leader must have a perfect plan for managing every aspect of the whole world, from the advisability of particular vaccines to making the climate behave the right way a quarter century from now — was on full and deeply disgusting display.

And yet, it was just what was needed to take out Donald Trump. He didn’t function well in this environment. If I believed in media conspiracies, I would theorize that this is precisely what the format was designed to do. The would-be fascist dictator thrives on symbolism, blind allegiance, flags, wild claims, pump-you-up rhetoric, nation and blood bias, and irrational patriotism and hate. None of that goes over well in a media-managed wonkfest.

It was strange to see Trump deflate, hour by hour. It was relentless. His glow, his star quality, receded and finally vanished. Worse, he seemed to resent the indignity of being questioned at all.

And he was completely blindsided by Carly Fiorina, who spoke more with her tone than her words. She only need to point out the unsubtle innuendos in Trump’s comments about her looks to tap into an an explosive emotion of outrage at him and his type. You know the type. Or if you don’t know, most women know. So her comments were devastating, especially when Trump reinforced her critique by changing his judgment. She is beautiful after all, he said. At that moment, he pushed the knife even deeper into his gut.

I’ve never been so thankful for the establishment media. In this case, it has served an important function of being a real check on power. Imagine that it is 1922 and there was a debate that involved Mussolini and those who were competing with him for power. Would he be able to survive the grueling scene of a 3-hour debate being watched by tens of millions of people? This venue does not lend itself to the ascension of dictators. Demagogues thrive as sole performers, outdoors, under Kleig lights, but not so much when faced with the back-and-forth accountability of peers in a room designed for policy seminars.

So while Trump might still poll in at the top, the perception that he is unstoppable has suddenly stopped. And it’s devastating. Now that he is a normal person, he will be evaluated by normal standards. Here he will fail, as every crazed demagogue must fail upon close examination. This is a good thing to remember whenever you hate on the media, even when we must. In this case, it served as a welcome corrective.

My favorite line of questioning: when other candidates were asked whether they would feel comfortable with Trump’s finger on the button to launch a nuclear weapon. Just hearing the question several times was enough to send shivers down your spine.

As for the substance of the rest of the debate, here is my quick summary. Ted Cruz is frightening, and truly crazy. Ben Carson is sweet but should never have power. Jeb Bush tried too hard to be energetic. Carly Fiorina is smart and wonderful but her chosen positions on foreign policy are actually awful (the only hope is that she doesn’t really care that much about the subject, but it’s hard to say). Scott Walker seemed more robotically boring than ever. Mike Huckabee was his usual freakish self. Chris Christie always seems like a good liar to me.

The Rand Paul phenomenon is more complex. His answers were by far the most intellectual and intelligent. He was the only candidate to raise real problems with the drug war, foreign wars, and the prison state. He sounded more like the libertarian he is than he ever has. It was wonderful and a huge relief to those of us who have worried that he has veered too far.

And, sure enough, this debate did not help him in the polls. Early indications are that he has lost more support.

Rand set out to win this race. He knew that being the libertarian’s dream candidate would limit his ability to achieve that. A thoroughgoing libertarian who spoke like one could, at most, earn the support of 13% of the GOP voting base. His dad’s experience proved that, in real time. That experience showed that to get beyond that glass ceiling and win meant that he had to recast himself, but doing that also caused him to blend in with the other candidates. Now that he is re-pitching himself, he might indeed rally his base but he also limits himself, and dooms his hopes for getting the nomination.

It’s not a new problem for libertarians. But it is still demoralizing. When you consider the number of Ron’s old supporters — not the authentic libertarians but the Tea Party people who supported him in protest against the establishment — who came to back Trump, you get an idea of what an uphill climb liberty faces in an electoral environment. Rand’s experience here reinforces my own view that our victories will come despite and not because of politics.

Read more:
Will Rand Paul Improve Liberty’s Prospects?
Trumpism: The Ideology
Why We Should Talk about Fascism

The Awful Implications of Hillary’s Candidacy
We Need More Ways to Judge the Candidates
How I Became An Anarchist