Donald Trump rose to power proposing a simple solution to the United States' deepest problems: himself.
"I alone can fix it," the property tycoon pronounced in 2016 on the day he accepted his Republican Party's nomination to seek the presidency. Four years later, at the end of a first term that convulsed the world, the 74-year-old billionaire showman is seeking re-election.
Yet having taken office vowing to end what he called "American carnage," Trump today presides over turmoil, accused by many of breaking, not fixing, a country in greater disarray than at any point since the 1970s.
More than 225,000 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. Then, after relentlessly downplaying the health crisis, Trump too was hospitalised with the virus a month from Election Day, saying afterward that he almost died.
His health appears to have recovered. His reputation, however, has never been more tarnished. He is only the third US president to have been impeached. In addition, he faces a torrent of legal probes, ranging from tax issues to accusations of rape and other sexual assault. And to his critics, the wrongdoing runs deeper still: presidential challenger Joe Biden calls Trump a "threat to this nation."
Trump's own former defence secretary James Mattis, the ramrod straight Marine general who resigned in 2018, wrote he'd never before seen a president who "does not even pretend to try" to unite Americans.
Trump's former chief-of-staff John Kelly, another Marine general, said icily: "I think we need to look harder at who we elect."
At first, they laughed
Trump, the lifelong salesman, reality TV performer and master self-promoter, has never let himself stay down for long. He doesn't intend to now.
To those who think the president, who polls suggest has only the narrowest path to victory, is delusional, he has a pithy response: look at 2016.
Back then, many Americans literally laughed at the idea of a Trump White House. With his improbable hairspray-assisted coif, his 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 the neophyte politician defeated Hillary Clinton, a Democratic heavyweight whose victory had seemed all but assured.
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. And the harder his opponents tried to stop him, the more he seemed to thrive.
An extraordinary 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 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 – fuelled Trump's defiance.
Weaponising Twitter and rallying his red baseball cap wearing MAGA fans in a permanent re-election campaign, Trump went to war not just against critics but almost every US institution.
He stamped the same brand on the world stage. 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: at home and abroad, 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."
Finger on the pulse
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 theory, seen by many as racist, that Barack Obama was not born in the United States.
Yet in 2016, this amateur politician put his finger on the national pulse, identifying a historic build-up of working class resentment at 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 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.
Trump, being Trump, has never toned down his rhetoric, instead revelling in the controversy he causes.
On November 3, Americans will decide whether to switch off the reality show. Trump certainly doesn't think they will. As he once said: "Anyone who thinks my story is anywhere near over is sadly mistaken."
by SEBASTIAN SMITH