All his life, the only constant about Donald Trump has been that everything must be about Donald Trump.
“I alone can fix it," the property tycoon claimed about America’s deepest problems in a speech accepting his Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency in 2016.
This Tuesday, four years after Trump’s shock victory over Hillary Clinton, Americans vote in what amounts to a referendum on the 74-year-old’s brazen claim.
Polls consistently find that a majority opposes Trump, but those who do support him express rarely seen levels of adoration, so the chance of another epic upset cannot be ruled out. When a man draws large crowds around the country chanting “We love you!" — during a pandemic — who would bet confidently against him?
Yet having taken office vowing to end “American carnage," Trump today presides over even greater turmoil, accused by many of breaking, not fixing, a country in worse disarray than at any point since the 1970s.
More than 230,000 have died from the coronavirus, while lockdowns have left millions in economic dire straits. Racial wounds, bared during a summer of protests, fester while Republicans and Democrats in Washington bicker and backstab.
And for all his bragging, Trump himself is damaged.
After relentlessly downplaying the health crisis, he was hospitalized with Covid-19 a month from Election Day, saying afterward that he almost died.
While his health appears to have recovered, his reputation is ragged. He is only the third US president to have been impeached and he faces a morass of courtroom probes, ranging from tax issues to accusations of rape and other sexual assault.
The harshest critics see even deeper wrongdoing — wrongdoing of historic, existential proportions that has sullied the White House, turned American against American, and betrayed the millions abroad who once looked to Washington for guidance.
Of course, Trump can brush off his presidential challenger Joe Biden, who calls him “a threat to this nation."
But the critiques of men who once worked with, not against, Trump are, like so much else in this administration, unprecedented.
“Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try," wrote former defense secretary James Mattis, a ramrod straight US Marine Corps general who resigned in 2018.
“I think we need to look harder at who we elect," Trump’s former chief of staff John Kelly, another Marine ex-general, said icily.
“Unfit for office," said John Bolton, who served as national security advisor and is one of the most right-wing foreign policy experts in Washington.
At first, they laughed
The lifelong salesman, reality TV performer and master self-promoter, has never let himself stay down for long. He won’t now.
On the day Trump got out of hospital, with treatment still ongoing, he tweeted: “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life." He claimed to feel 20 years younger.
“I wanted to rip that Superman shirt open," he has said to cheers from crowds on the campaign trail.
That humorous boast — just self-confident or ludicrously egomaniacal? — summed up everything that makes Trump so magnetic to fans and infuriating to opponents.
But all year, even as the rancor around his presidency grew, Trump has been striding in that same fashion toward a hoped-for second term, convinced as ever of his indispensability.
“Whether you love me or hate me, you have got to vote for me," he says.
Polls suggest that the president has only the narrowest path to victory over Biden. He’s down in almost every swing state, he’s even fighting to keep the deepest of deep Republican strongholds, Texas.
Yet Democrats fear that Trump can again defy the laws of political physics.
Back in 2016, many Americans literally laughed at the idea of a Trump White House. With his improbable hairspray-assisted coif, bronze make-up, famed diet of fast food and obsessive television watching, the fast-talking, non-stop-tweeting New Yorker had been seen, at best, as a political circus act.
Yet that November 8, the neophyte politician defeated Clinton, a Democratic heavyweight whose victory had seemed all but assured.
‘A way of life’
The thrill felt by supporters at that triumph and the trauma inflicted on Trump’s opponents is hard to overstate. And every event of the 45th president’s tempestuous first term only stoked those conflicting emotions.
To his own side, amounting to just over 40 percent of the country, Trump constituted a giant middle finger to every member of the establishment, from the Republican party bigwigs to leftist Hollywood and the media.
To everyone else, he was a national nightmare beginning on election night and recurring daily.
And like the human embodiment of one of his glass skyscrapers, the elected President Trump soon towered over the country.
The harder his opponents tried to knock him back down, the more he thrived.
An extraordinary two-year investigation into links between Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Trump’s campaign confirmed troubling behavior but eventually ended in anticlimax.
When Democrats launched impeachment proceedings in 2019, the Republican Party, which had once pushed desperately to keep Trump from even running, backed him to the hilt. He was easily acquitted.
All the while, the kind of offstage turmoil that might ordinarily sink a presidency — court battles with a porn star, accusations of billeting government employees at his golf clubs to earn hefty profits, the jailing of his lawyer — fueled Trump’s defiance.
Weaponizing Twitter and rallying his red baseball cap wearing MAGA fans in a permanent reelection campaign, Trump went to war not just against critics but almost every US institution.
Heavyweight White House dissenters were abruptly shown the door. Journalists became the “enemy of the people." Intelligence services and the FBI were demonized as the “deep state." Opponents in Congress were variously branded “liar," “crazy" and treasonous.
As Trump tweeted gleefully in 2012, “when someone attacks me, I always attack back… except 100x more."
It’s “a way of life!"
Critics accused him of authoritarianism. Supporters gloated that he was “owning the libs." He was, as ferociously right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh said: “Mr Man Donald Trump."
The ‘stable genius’
The same gaudy, nationalist Trump brand swept the world stage, leaving diplomatic upheaval in its wake.
Throwing out a decades-old emphasis on coalition building, Trump transformed US alliances into cut-throat business relationships.
Friendly partners like South Korea, Germany and Canada were accused of trying to “rip us off." By contrast, US foes and rivals like North Korea and China, were invited to negotiate in ground-breaking, if patchy diplomatic initiatives where Trump played the starring role.
What never changed, at home and abroad, was that everything, everywhere always had to be about the big man with the dyed hair, the perma-tan, his former model wife Melania, his ambitious children, and the self-declared faith in his own “very stable genius."
According to The Washington Post’s rolling tally, Trump made more than 16,000 false or misleading statements in the first three years of his administration alone.
One typically brazen claim, though, was hard to contest: “There’s never been a president like President Trump."
Working class hero?
Perhaps the most remarkable point in the whole story is that Trump did all this and got to where he is today with no training in the ways of Washington at all.
Prior to 2016, Trump was only famous for his ruthless persona presiding over the reality TV show “The Apprentice," and for developing luxury buildings and golf clubs.
Politically, his main contribution was pushing the conspiracy “birther" theory, seen by many as overtly racist, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Yet in 2016, this derided, amateur politician managed to put his finger on the national pulse, when others did not.
Identifying a historic build-up of working class resentment at industrial decline and rapidly spreading liberal social norms, Trump branded himself as a revolutionary outsider.
Ever the brilliant marketer, Trump harnessed the power of Twitter, Facebook and a friendly Fox News to sell himself to what he called America’s “forgotten men and women."
And he hit the electoral jackpot.
Yes, he’d been the archetypal one-percenter, complete with private jets, fashion model girlfriends, multiple marriages, and gold bathroom faucets.
But in proud rust belt communities his vow to restore factory jobs and coal mines struck a chord. His brutally frank call to end “stupid, endless wars" in Iraq and Afghanistan resonated deeply. His promise of a wall along the US-Mexican border thrilled frustrated white voters.
In these disintegrating manufacturing towns, the more “unpresidential" Trump sounded, the better. The more he caused outrage, the more he sounded like an outsider — like one of them.
As Trump has often told his blue collar supporters with a poker face: “We’re the elite."
Future historians trying to understand Trump’s psyche may well find themselves spending less time among the presidential archives than watching MMA, boxing and, especially, the gaudy, absurd and violent showmanship of US professional wrestling.
Although overweight and averse to exercise, Trump has been a longtime fan of martial arts. And he regularly expresses an unusual level of interest in other men’s physical strength or toughness.
He peppers speeches with references to fellow politicians’ muscles or lack of muscles. Even in the Oval Office, he’ll sometimes pause mid-sentence to admire a male guest’s hands or stature.
His own physique is itself the regular subject of attention, such as his bizarre digression during a 2019 speech into details of how doctors admired his “gorgeous chest."
The so-called strongmen of world politics seem to exercise a similar hold.
While Trump has clashed repeatedly with America’s oldest democratic allies, he gets on surprisingly well with top tier autocrats and dictators ranging from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
When it comes to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, one of the most repressive leaders on the planet, Trump has even spoken of “love."
The inter-strongman admiration is mutual. Jair Bolsonaro, an ex-army officer who praises Brazil’s past dictatorship, fashioned his presidency on becoming known as the “Trump of the Tropics."
‘Drives them crazy’
At home, Trump’s most ardent opponents warn that the president seeks to go further in emulating such men.
Adam Schiff, a leader of the Democratic impeachment team, described Trump as “dangerous." Another Democrat, Jerrold Nadler, called him a “dictator" seeking to become “all powerful."
Trump, being Trump, revels in the controversy he causes.
When Xi Jinping had the rules changed in 2018 to make himself China’s president for life, Trump didn’t call him out.
Quite the opposite: he congratulated Xi, then added: “Maybe we’ll have to give that a shot some day."
For an exhausted US media and public, Trump’s apparent joke was barely a shock.
After all, the country was becoming used to him constantly suggesting — always apparently joking — that he should defy the constitution to stay in office for multiple terms or even forever.
“It drives them crazy," he says with satisfaction of the media.
The unlikely journey began June 14, 1946, in Queens, New York City. Donald John Trump was the fourth of five children born to wealthy real estate developer Fred Trump and Mary Anne MacLeod Trump, a Scottish immigrant.
Sent for toughening up at a private military academy during his high school years, Trump nevertheless enjoyed a gilded youth, ending up with a business degree at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
Like many privileged young men of the era, he found numerous ways to get out of being drafted to fight in Vietnam.
Joining the family firm, Trump got started with what he called a “very small loan" from his father of $1 million. Some reports put the amount at perhaps 10 times more.
Trump took over the firm from 1971, shifting the property business to Manhattan and launching his persona as America’s most famous playboy billionaire.
In addition to a stable of high-rise towers, casinos and golf courses, stretching from New Jersey to Mumbai, he eventually became the longtime co-owner of the Miss Universe and Miss USA beauty contests.
Behind the sheen of A-lister success, though, lay a tangled record of bankruptcies, lawsuits and eyebrow-raising loans. Trump has gone to great lengths to hide this less glamorous picture, breaking presidential tradition and refusing to release his tax returns.
In September, The New York Times reported that it had seen the famous returns and found, incredibly, that Trump routinely manages to avoid paying almost any federal income tax at all — at most $750.
The report triggered the umpteenth scandal of this presidency. Yet that too was soon largely forgotten, swept away by the next drama, then the next and the next. On Tuesday, Americans are deciding whether or not to switch off the reality show.
Trump thinks they won’t.
As he once said: “Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken."