This week, Donald Trump, the 45th man to occupy the office, marked his 1000th day as President of the United States. The same milestone was commemorated by Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s elegiac history and memoir of John F. Kennedy, A Thousand Days. (“Who can tell you who will be president a year from now?” Schlesinger quoted JFK saying in October 1963, the month before his assassination during his third year in office.)
For Trump, the milestone passed on Wednesday as just another day in the White House marked by the release of a letter in which he told NATO ally Turkey “Don’t be a fool!”, told the Speaker of the House, who is on the verge of impeaching him, that she was a “third-rate politician”, and told the press about a This Is Your Life television moment when he tried to choreograph a surprise healing session between the British parents of a young man killed in a hit-and-run accident and the wife of an American diplomat whom they suspect was the driver. (The parents, shocked, did not permit the encounter to proceed.)
So at this moment, just shy of a year before the next election, what can we say about Trump and his tenure as Commander-in-Chief and leader of the free world?
His is the most disruptive and divisive presidency in modern history. The country remains more divided today than at any time since the Vietnam War. Partisanship has never been stronger. Ninety per cent of supporters of the two major parties are locked in their view of Trump (Republicans approve; Democrats reject him).
Trump has vigorously prosecuted his agenda: America first, a strong military, a strong economy, taking on the post-World War II global order – NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund. He has removed the US from the Paris climate agreement, ensured hard conservatives are on the courts, impeded any sensible gun control even in the face of horrific massacres, imposed relentless measures to seal the border and limit immigration, launched massive programs of business deregulation, and rolled back women's access to abortion.
On trade, Trump is the first president to directly challenge China. He has deployed tariffs against friends and enemies on a scale unseen since the protectionism that preceded the Great Depression of the 1930s. He terminated the nuclear deal with Iran and wants an end to American military involvement in the Middle East.
Trump shows a clear preference for authoritarian leaders over democratic allies. Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, North Korea’s Kim, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, the Philippines’ Duterte and Turkey’s Erdogan. (Trump thanked Erdogan for a five-day ceasefire in Syria on Thursday, declaring him a "a hell of a leader", only a day after he'd suggested history might cast him as a "devil", and even as Turkey insisted there was no ceasefire.
All these authoritarian leaders have been favoured over Germany’s Merkel, France’s Macron, Canada’s Trudeau. Japan’s Abe and Australia’s Morrison have fared better, as has Britain's Boris Johnson, who is executing a Trumpian agenda with Brexit. But clearly Trump has willfully abdicated the role of leader of the West – a special mantle worn by every president since Roosevelt.
Trump has been incredibly chaotic in governance, with unprecedented turnover: three chiefs of staff, four national security advisers and more than a dozen changes to cabinet, including State and Defence: all power and policy flows directly from the Oval Office.
With the benefit of a trillion-dollar tax cut, and a trillion-dollar deficit, the economy has indeed boomed, with unemployment at 50-year lows, and markets near all-time highs.
Taking all this into account – most especially, what this pattern means in terms of Trump governing as he promised to do when he campaigned in 2016 – Trump has been the most ruthlessly honest president in modern times.
Which is why his base loves him.
As the first president who never held other public office or served in the military, Trump has upended the norms of American democracy, from how he attacks his opponents with vulgarisms and insults, to how he belittles and stonewalls the Congress and its responsibilities under the Constitution, to his contempt for the press, which he perpetually denigrates as "the enemy of the people".
From the day of his inauguration, when Trump invoked “American Carnage” as a theme, Trump has never tried to be the Uniter-in-Chief, or the Healer-in-Chief. He failed to condemn Nazis marching in the streets of an American city. His dogwhistles to white supremacists have created an environment where the unthinkable – Americans murdering Jews in synagogues, Hispanics murdered in shopping malls – have occurred more than once. Daily, Americans of colour experience more overt racism as they go about their lives.
This is why Trump’s approval rating has remained below 50 per cent throughout his presidency – a first in modern times. He does not seek to expand his base of support, and govern for all, but simply to get as many like-minded Americans to get out and vote, and thereby out-vote the opposition. That is how he won in 2016, and how he wants to win again next year.
And nothing shakes his base: no scandal, no lie, no attack, no impeachment investigation, no foreign policy debacle: his approval ratings are rock solid between 40 and 45 per cent. This is a President who admits no mistakes, who concedes nothing, who has no doubts he will win – and keep winning.
While history’s judgment on Trump will surely be harsh, a thousand days in we do not know how this will end. Re-election? Disgrace? Prosperity? Recession? A safer or more dangerous world? We just do not know.