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Donald Trump: From the American dream to American nightmare

  • Published at 03:58 am January 18th, 2021
US President Donald Trump
US President Donald Trump boards the Marine One helicopter to depart the White House and fly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where it was announced he will stay for at least several days after testing positive for the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, US, October 2, 2020 Reuters

For now, though, like other out-of-work actors, Donald Trump will just have to wait for that next role

When Donald Trump looks down for the last time from his helicopter over the White House lawn Wednesday, the wreckage of his presidency will be inescapable.

The showman with the dyed blond hair, fake tan and a knack for connecting with crowds took office four years ago, making the startling promise in his inaugural speech that he would end "American carnage."

But Trump, who promoted himself as a one-off "genius," able to do what no other president could, turned out to be the one leaving carnage.

From Marine One, 74-year-old Trump will witness a capital turned into an armed camp in the wake of the rampage by his supporters on January 6.

National Guard soldiers with automatic rifles stand watch across the city. Barrier complexes more often are seen in the likes of Baghdad block empty streets.

More troops are now deployed in Washington than in Afghanistan -- Americans defending Americans against other Americans.

And when he gazes down at the huge white dome of the Capitol building, Trump may ponder how, when he came into office in 2017, Republicans controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade. Nothing, it seemed, could get in his way.

"We're going to win so much you're going to be so sick and tired of winning," he liked to tell followers.

Yet on Wednesday morning, Trump leaves town having lost and lost.

He is a one-term president, with the unique distinction of having been impeached twice. And Democrats, not Republicans, will now control the White House and both houses of Congress -- in no small part due to Trump's role in the loss of two safe Republican Senate seats in Georgia.

Not everything is Trump's fault.

The Covid-19 pandemic, which crossed into the US from China and Europe about a year ago, was a bolt from the blue disaster that many other wealthy countries have also struggled or failed to contain.

And from that pandemic -- with US deaths now close to 400,000 -- rippled waves of unemployment, collapsing businesses, and demands for staggering amounts of taxpayer money to keep the economy afloat.

While Trump is accused of mishandling the health crisis, probably no president could have withstood such a tsunami of bad news.

Yet Trump had come in claiming to be different. A breed apart.

"Not smart," as he famously boasted in 2018, "but genius."

"And a very stable genius at that."

At first, they laughed 

Back in 2016, many Americans literally laughed at the idea of a future Trump White House.

With his improbable hairspray-assisted coif, his famed fast-food diet and obsessive television watching, the fast-talking, non-stop-tweeting New Yorker came onto the scene dismissed by many as a political circus act.

Yet in that extraordinary election, the neophyte politician defeated Hillary Clinton, a Democratic heavyweight whose victory had seemed all but assured.

And like the human embodiment of one of his glass skyscrapers, Trump soon towered over the Washington establishment, imprinting his gaudy, nationalist brand on everything he touched.

The harder his opponents tried to stop him, the more he seemed to thrive.

Also Read - Trump to leave town early Wednesday before Biden inauguration

A two-year investigation into links between Russian meddling in the 2016 election and Trump's campaign confirmed troubling behaviour but eventually ended in anticlimax.

Then, when Democrats launched their first impeachment proceedings in 2019, the Republican Party, which had once pushed desperately to keep Trump from running, backed him to the hilt. He was easily acquitted.

All the while, the kind of offstage turmoil that might sink an ordinary 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 -- only fuelled Trump's powerful mix of grievance and aggression.

Weaponizing Twitter and rallying his red baseball cap wearing MAGA fans in permanent campaign mode, 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 had tweeted in 2012, "when someone attacks me, I always attack back... except 100x more." 

It's "a way of life!"

Never anyone like him 

On the world stage, it was the same story.

Throwing out a decades-old emphasis on coalition building, Trump turned 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. 

In fact, that was the one constant.

Abroad and at home, everything, everywhere, always had to be about the big man, his former model wife Melania, his ambitious children, and his apparently deeply felt belief in his superiority.

He called himself "the chosen one." He touted his "great and unmatched wisdom." He said that "with the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office."

He said a lot of things about himself. Many of them -- The Washington Post fact-checking team counted more than 30,000 false or misleading claims -- were untrue. 

One typically brazen claim, though, was hard to contest: "There's never been a president like President Trump."

Working class hero 

Prior to 2016, Trump was famous only for his ruthless persona presiding over the reality TV show "The Apprentice," and for developing or branding luxury buildings and golf clubs.

Politically, his main contribution was pushing the conspiracy theory, seen by many as racist, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore was an illegitimate president.

Yet in 2016, this amateur politician put his finger on the national pulse, identifying a historic build-up of working class resentment after years of industrial decline and rapidly spreading liberal social norms.

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."

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 "America first" and a wall on 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: "We're the elite."


Although overweight and averse to exercise, Trump is a longtime fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), boxing and, especially, the gaudy, ludicrous and violent showmanship of professional wrestling.

The so-called strongmen of world politics seemed to exercise similar fascination.

While Trump often clashed with America's oldest democratic allies, he got on surprisingly well with top-tier autocrats and dictators, ranging from Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan to Russia's Vladimir Putin. 

When it came to North Korea's Kim Jong Un, one of the most repressive leaders on the planet, Trump even spoken of "love."

President Jair Bolsonaro, an open fan of Brazil's past military dictatorship, paid the compliment in the other direction. His populist style is so closely aligned to Trump's -- right down to the fatal rejection of early warnings about Covid-19 -- that he has been tagged the "Trump of the Tropics."

Just joking?

The bigger worry, critics at home said, was that Trump desired to become like such men himself.

Scholars wrote about how Trump's evolution as a politician closely mirrored that of autocrats in far-flung countries featuring "hybrid regimes," where democratic institutions exist only as facades.

Adam Schiff, a leader of the first Democratic impeachment team, described Trump as "dangerous." Another Democrat, Jerrold Nadler, called him a "dictator" seeking to become "all-powerful."

Trump, being Trump, relished the controversy, constantly joking -- he said he was joking, at least -- about changing the constitution to stay in power indefinitely. "It drives them crazy," he said gleefully.


Then came 2020.

Trump saw in the new year with a lavish party at his Mar-a-Lago golf club in Florida, no doubt expecting to coast to reelection come November.

The economy was strong, his grip on the Republican Party and the right-wing media ecosystem was near total. Having created something not far short of a cult of personality, he had a voter base that, while representing less than half the country, was guaranteed to turn out.

Democrats, meanwhile, were in disarray. Over the next months, their huge field of hopeful candidates would slowly dwindle to Biden -- a man who was the epitome of the Washington establishment Trump claimed to be fighting.

Trump went in with breathtaking ferocity, painting the former vice president to Barack Obama as a geriatric, if not actually brain-dead political has-been. He evidently hoped that Biden, who turned 78 after the election, would simply crumple.

When Covid-19 first appeared, Trump did his best to pretend nothing was happening. Images of people falling sick did not fit the glossy portrait he was concocting in a reelection year.

But whatever Trump wanted, whatever he misleadingly claimed, and however much he blamed the media, the virus just kept spreading.

The world's most self-confident man had finally met an opponent he couldn't control.

As the tragedy spiralled, Biden's old-school ways, his calming centrist message and refusal to get down in the mud with Trump began to look like a real alternative.

Even Trump's attacks on Biden as a low-energy leader who couldn't get out of his Delaware basement backfired: Biden simply reminded Americans that he was quarantining with the rest of them -- a responsible leader who would "heal" the nation.

Trump laughed at people wearing masks. Biden put one on.

In October, Trump was hospitalized with Covid-19, conceding afterward that he'd nearly died.

Plan B 

As his fortunes dipped, Trump teased an amazing Plan B: if he lost the November 3 election, he wouldn't concede, claiming that it was rigged.

The plan was so outrageous that, as often before, many thought Trump wasn't serious -- that he was just joking or being over the top.

But for months, Trump laid the groundwork of a conspiracy theory that he would use to justify this unprecedented challenge to democracy -- that Democrats were preparing fraud and that increased use of mail-in ballots, due to Covid-19 restrictions, would be the main tool.

And when the results came in, Trump pulled the trigger.

"If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us," he declared in the White House right after the election.

For the next two months, Trump lawyers barraged courts around the country with suits alleging faked ballots, rigged machines, and supposed middle-of-the-night shenanigans in voting centers.

Trump, meanwhile, used his considerable power -- a massive Twitter audience, Fox News, the White House and Air Force One to repeat the lawyers' claims, over and over, whipping his followers into a rage.

When the courts, en masse, rejected his suits as baseless, Trump turned to the Supreme Court. He was rejected there too.

When he lost Georgia, a Republican state, Trump demanded a recount. He got two.

And when the results kept coming back unchanged, he phoned the top election official in the state, badgering him to "find" extra votes.

Trump's greatest source of power, and even personal energy, had always been his crowds. So perhaps it was unsurprising that the climax of the doomed effort to overturn the election should have centered on a rally and a mob.

On January 6, addressing a crowd near the White House, Trump urged his followers to march on Congress, where lawmakers were at that very moment certifying Biden's victory.

"You will never take back our country with weakness," Trump proclaimed. "Show strength."

In the hours that followed, the Trump brand of us-versus-them, of "forgotten men and women" avenging themselves on "elites," hit a wild, dismal peak.

Five people died, including a police officer. The inner sanctum of American democracy was trashed. Biden's certification was interrupted.

Yet disgrace followed just as mercilessly, transforming Trump, in a flash, from America's most dominant figure to pariah.

Twitter cut him off, donors cut him off, the ultra-powerful Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell cut him off, his own aides cut him off or quit. He was impeached. Again.

Gilded youth 

The unlikely journey of Donald John Trump began June 14, 1946, in Queens, New York City. 

He 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 the 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 last year, 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.

The report triggered the umpteenth scandal of this unprecedented presidency. Yet that too was soon largely forgotten, swept away by the next drama, then the next and the next -- right up until the disastrous finale.

Many liked to call Trump the reality show president. He didn't consider it an insult.

But on November 3, Americans decided to cancel the next season.

He still has many millions of followers. He can no doubt still work a crowd.

For now, though, like other out-of-work actors, Donald Trump will just have to wait for that next role.

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