Aboard Trump force one, the impresario of Campaign 2016 is still buzzed from his midday jolt of adulation. Donald J. Trump’s Super Tuesday bandwagon had thundered into southwestern Virginia, where some 4,000 people crammed into a university gymnasium to hear his free-jazz speech, brief themes unspooling into loose improvisations. An even larger crowd waited in vain for admission, content to listen to Trump’s voice emerge from speakers placed outside.
A Trump rally speaks to people on a level beyond pure rationality. His sentences don’t always parse, but they punch. The impresario drew cheers by promising jobs, denouncing foreigners and sneering at federal bureaucrats–even though a good number of the actual jobs in the region are found at the Swedish-based, Chinese-owned Volvo truck factory and a federal munitions plant. This was a performance, not a seminar; no other candidate would end his appearances with this outsize gesture: a full-blast recording of Luciano Pavarotti singing “Nessun Dorma.” (“Vincerò!” cries the tenor as the aria climaxes with a roll of timpani. Translation: “I will win!”)
Even louder were the cheers when Trump roared “Get ’em outta here!” to summon his security team after protests erupted. The crowd had seemed quite mild just before, and just after, these Orwellian minutes of hate. But the delight in the clash, and the frisson of implied violence, was unmistakable. The same gladiatorial mojo that powers football, war movies, professional wrestling and Judge Judy Trump transposes into a political key. He meets veteran pols nearly every day who tell him they’ve never seen anything like his rallies–the crowds are so huge and rapt. Trump calls it love. “There is so much love in those stadiums,” he says. Whatever it is, this performance art of hate-love, of giddy anger, explains why he improvises his speeches. It’s more work than reading a script, Trump says, but doing so allows him to give and take with the audience, to lose himself in the moment, orchestrating emotions like a maestro.
Now, an hour later onboard his private jet, he slumps his 6 ft. 3 in. frame–it irritates him that so many sources say 6 ft. 2 in.–into a wide chair covered in soft white leather embossed with an aristocratic crest. Ignoring the gold-plated seat belt, Trump eyes his beautifully burled and varnished desk heaped with paper–documents, clippings, photographs, who knows? An even larger mountain of paper is on the seat next to his. Trump plucks a sheet as if at random, briefly examines it, then tosses it back on the pile. “I come from these rallies and get in here, and they want me to look at documents. I can’t do it,” he says. “How do you go from talking to thousands of people, all the love in those rallies, and then quietly sit here and look at documents?”
Trump eats waffle fries from a fast-food carton as he talks. He doesn’t notice that the Boeing 757–“One of the great airplanes of the world,” he says–has begun to taxi. Suddenly, the pilot accelerates for takeoff. The mountain of paper shifts on the gleaming desk and starts to slide, bearing the half-eaten carton of fries on top. Trump throws himself forward with arms spread wide, trying to stem the calamity, but Newtonian physics resists his spell, and the whole business comes crashing down on him.
“Oh, sheesh,” Trump mutters, picking fries from his tailored suit and brushing his bright pink tie.
And isn’t that a picture of the political scene in today’s United States? This jet-powered and flashy dynamic force, this unexpected thrust from ambition’s engine, has toppled an inert mass of bland convention and dumped everything into Donald Trump’s lap? It’s not what the authors of the Federalist papers had in mind. And it should unsettle anyone with a passing knowledge of personality cults and their catastrophic effects from Beijing to Buenos Aires during the past century. But after Trump’s performance on Super Tuesday, winning seven of the 11 states that went to the polls, the once wide-open story of 2016 has narrowed to a single protagonist. This election now revolves around Donald Trump.
Can the Republican Party survive him? Can Texas Senator Ted Cruz–or any other Republican–stop him? Can Hillary Clinton, whose own Super Tuesday victories over Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders virtually assured her the Democratic crown, defeat him? For that matter, is the U.S. the sort of country that could elect him? What does that tell Americans about themselves?
Every step into the unknown is a test of character. Some are taken with hope, and some with the sober preparedness of a Boy Scout. The Trump flirtation is not like that. It feels impulsive, even rash: since when do we hire Presidents from the tabloids, Twitter and reality TV? Trumpism is rooted in anxiety over lost American greatness–which, despite the anxiety, may not even be lost. It wallows in a sense that the country is adrift in seas plied by cunning foreign adversaries. It is a roll of the dice in a garish casino–exactly the kind of bet that has been very, very good to Trump in the past.
The plane levels off. Trump picks up a few of the fallen papers, but his attention is quickly diverted. Something more interesting has caught his eye: himself. The satellite antenna has connected with the chattering ether, and the wide-screen TV monitor across the cabin has come to life. It calls to him with a relentless cadence of Trump, Trump, Trump.
MAN IN THE MIRROR
There is a gold-upholstered sofa in front of the TV. Trump walks over and perches at the end, takes up the remote and begins toggling from one all-news station to another. What happens next is simply remarkable. For the entire hour-long flight from Virginia to southern Georgia, nearly every minute of every broadcast is focused exclusively on him. Sure, he’s rich, but still: this guy, this slightly beefy macher from an outer New York City borough with a head for numbers and the gift of gab, is the only news in the world? This guy, of all people, the beauty-pageant promoter, Mr. Luxury Condo, is living a scene from a James Bond movie. Blazing through the Carolina blue sky inside his personal flying penthouse, he watches as, far below, the planet babbles heatedly about him. Even when the screen shows a rival candidate or the leader of a foreign country, it’s only in the context of the man in the sky. The latest insult Marco Rubio is trying on Trump. Vladimir Putin’s thoughts on Trump. The Pope, as seen by Trump.
When he flips to Fox News, Trump notices a caption that sums up everything: “News outlets around the world are covering Trump.” Turning to me on the sofa, he gestures at the screen and remarks with satisfaction, “The key word is covering.”
So much exposure comes at a price. As he watches, Trump maintains a quiet but constant critique of “dishonest” and “inaccurate” statements. He would like to “open up the laws” on libel to protect people like himself, he says–but adds with a shrug, “I don’t know exactly what it means to do that, or exactly how it works.” Nor does he care, because what matters more than accuracy is the sheer fact of being covered. Own the airwaves, own the campaign, run the world. To be certain that I’ve grasped this point, he expands on the theme:
“You see what this is, right? It’s ratings. I go on one of these shows and the ratings double. They triple. And that gives you power. It’s not the polls. It’s the ratings.”
The Tao of Trump: ratings are power. Not just TV ratings, but also “the new ratings,” as he calls them: Facebook likes, Google searches, Twitter mentions and Instagram follows. Before a person can become President, he or she must become famous, and fame can be quantified. (Of all the photographs ever taken of Trump, the one he hands me as soon as we board his jet shows him with the late Michael Jackson–a nuclear meltdown of fame.) This lesson goes back to John F. Kennedy and the first TV campaign, and no one has taken it more firmly to heart than Trump.
From the day he declared his candidacy and promised to build a wall along the southern border, Trump has leveraged his fame to set the terms of the race. He framed his own image: bold to the point of recklessness, speaker of the unspoken, fearless, iconoclastic, mad as hell. One by one, he took the measure of his opponents and framed coffins to fit them. He perfected death-by-nickname. Judging the baby-faced junior Senator from Florida to be short of gravitas, Trump dubbed him “little Marco Rubio, the lightweight.” Sensing shiftiness in Texas Senator Cruz, he coined the name Lying Ted.
Sometimes, he admits, a nickname misfires. “You have one that you think will be defining, but it’s not,” he says. “The really amazing one–he was dead as soon as I said it; he never recovered–was ‘low-energy individual.'” That was Trump’s lethal epithet for former Florida governor Jeb Bush.
By Super Tuesday, Bush was gone from the race, while Rubio and Cruz were parroting Trump’s rhetoric while scrambling to stay alive. Cruz’s once bold talk of sweeping the South had dwindled to a home-state win in Texas and narrow victories in Oklahoma and Alaska. Trump finished second in each. Rubio won in Minnesota–which, in GOP politics, is like driving the fastest Prius at Daytona.
The TV recaptures his attention. A host on the wide-screen is recounting a barrage of insults that flew between Rubio and Trump. I ask what he tells his son Barron, 9, about this schoolyard taunting. “It’s just part of the deal,” he says with a shrug. But do you teach him to do that in his life? I ask. What if he comes to you and says someone at school called him a name? Another shrug. “I didn’t start it.”
Still, with the news shows endlessly mulling long-shot strategies for denying him the nomination, the airborne Trump seems reluctant to court a jinx by discussing the general election. He wants to talk about it but thinks maybe he shouldn’t. Which means he will talk about it, soon enough.
But first: What about those stop-Trump schemes? Tim Miller, a Bush spokesman turned resistance fighter, made like Braveheart on Super Tuesday. “The fight to stop Donald Trump from getting the nomination is intensifying regardless of tonight’s outcome,” he declared. Cruz suggested it was time for Trump’s other rivals to drop out and let him go mano a mano. Not likely, though alchemy could turn Rubio’s collection of second- and third-place ribbons into a winner’s trophy. Ohio Governor John Kasich essentially took a pass on the biggest day of the campaign so far. Republican insiders spoke vaguely of siphoning delegates from Trump and throwing the race into the chaos of a brokered convention.
Others are likely to join New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions in giving Trump their endorsements. Either way, Trump professes to be unworried. He sees plenty of chances to win delegates–including the little-noticed “Trump Country” primaries (as his staff calls them) in the Acela corridor of the East Coast on April 26. His fate is within his grasp, just as he likes it. “I have always been a winner,” he says. “If we have the delegates at the convention, there is nothing they can do about it.”
CAN HE BEAT HER?
And yes, he talks about the general election. Clinton “says she wants to run against me. Listen: I am the last person on earth she wants to run against.” That is Trump’s take, and there is truth in both halves of the statement.
Close allies of Clinton believe that Trump’s big mouth makes him a deliciously vulnerable target. Stephanie Schriock, president of the feminist PAC known as Emily’s List, says, “For decades, he has been making misogynistic statements, and I think we’re going to find–and see–more. He’s talked about women in a whole variety of awful ways, saying things like ‘bimbos,’ or ‘she’s fat.’ If you can think of any awful thing that you can say with regard to a woman, it has probably been said by him.”
Democrats have been stockpiling research and conducting polls on Trump since last summer, according to sources, and they are studying Cruz and Rubio as the Republican rivals test-drive attacks ranging from the size of Trump’s hands to the mysteries of his unreleased tax returns. They promise a long barrage of attack ads and negative messages in summer and fall, bristling with Trump’s most inflammatory moments, in hopes of motivating Democrats to go to the polls. Meanwhile, Clinton will float above the carnage, they predict, inviting independent women and even Republicans to join her bid for history. Veteran pollster Stan Greenberg, an adviser to a number of past Democratic nominees, sees as many as 20% of GOP voters potentially defecting from Trump if he is the nominee. “It’s mind-boggling,” he says of Clinton’s chance to swing moderate Republicans in a general election against Trump.
Buffy Wicks, another key Clinton supporter, adds Hispanics and African Americans to the list. “If you look at the 1980 election, the nonwhite vote was 12%,” Wicks says. “It’s now 28%, and it’s only growing.” Trump’s eagerness to be inflammatory on issues like deporting Mexicans and creating a registry for Muslims will drive that number higher, she predicts.
But some of these same Clinton allies also see why Trump is unusually dangerous for Clinton. He is, they acknowledge, a force like no other: an utterly unpredictable candidate who has judo-flipped the entire political apparatus. He has locked the old gatekeepers–the media, the donors and the strategists–on the wrong side of the fence, and now he answers to no one and plots his own course. A thrice-married New Yorker with a raft of Democratic pals would seem doomed to fail as a right-wing Republican, yet Trump is drawing votes to the GOP in record numbers. “What I am doing is, I am making the Republican Party much bigger,” Trump tells me, and a candidate who can do that is, by definition, a profound threat to the Clinton campaign. “Trump has thrown out the rules,” says David Brock, founder of the pro-Clinton PAC Correct the Record. “What I’ve been concerned about is his ability to dominate the news cycle and shape it. He is totally on offense, 24/7.” This gives Trump “the potential to scramble the electoral map.”
Which is exactly how Trump sees it too. Republican turnout in the primaries so far is shattering records, a trend that is likely to continue. And he puts some states in play in November that Democrats have long taken for granted. The conservative sage of one of Trump’s favorite journals–the tabloid New York Post–captured his thinking in a recent column. “You know who Fred Dicker is, right?” he asks me. “Fred Dicker said I have a very good chance of winning New York, and that changes the whole ballgame. Those are my people. I know them, they know me.” A generation has passed since Ronald Reagan won the Empire State, being the last Republican to do so. To put it back in contention would completely upend the Electoral College map that Democrats have painstakingly assembled over the past three decades.
And not just New York, Trump continues. “Michigan,” he says. He believes he can win white working-class voters of the industrial Midwest, whose fading fortunes in the global economy have broken their once reliable ties to the pro-union Democrats. “They used to call them the Reagan Democrats,” Trump remarks. “They’ll be coming over to me.”
Next: Virginia, a swing state vital to any Republican strategy. Trump’s visit to southwestern Virginia featured a full-throated promise to revive the region’s coal industry. “I plan to win Virginia too.” Add Pennsylvania to his list. Don’t forget New Jersey. And of course, the decisive states of Ohio and Florida. “I will win states where Republicans don’t even go to campaign.”
Ask how he will do it–and how he will keep his promise to win over large numbers of Hispanic and African-American and female voters who otherwise recoil from his rhetorical brawling–and Trump answers in a single word: “Jobs.” He has boiled the entire election down to that fear in the pit of millions of stomachs that globalization is a rigged game in which Americans of all colors and genders are the marks. Their jobs, their futures, are bleeding away to “Mexico, China, India, Vietnam, Thailand”–Trump ticks through the list at his rallies. Being a man who understands such matters, Trump says, he knows how to fix the problem. Let Clinton, whose partnership at the top of the Democratic Party has spanned the globalization era, answer that.
You can be sure, as well, he’ll be throwing punches of his own. Trump likes to speculate that Clinton’s candidacy won’t survive to see November. What if “Hillary can’t run because she’s indicted?” he wonders. “Right now, she’s protected by the President, probably.” But should Trump win the White House, “naturally you’d have your own people take a look at how [Clinton’s email imbroglio] was handled.” A new Justice Department team might reopen the matter, he implies, “so she is literally fighting for her life” in her effort to beat Trump.
THE WILD CARD
Fame is like tinted glass on a passing limo: it shields more than it reveals. Fame reflects our own images back at us–what we desire, what we fear, what we thrill to. You can study celebrities every day, watch every YouTube video, read every tweet and Facebook post, and still wonder: What are they really like? And your answer will always say as much about you as it does about them.
As Donald Trump soars above the political landscape and listens to the cacophony he has stirred, even he is struck by how little people seem to understand him. “I am a uniter,” he likes to say, who wants nothing more than “to make America great again.” But his road to unity does not follow a straight line. “I love the Chinese,” says Trump as he bashes China. “I love the Mexicans,” he says, while promising to wall them out and make them pay for it. It’s all part of the negotiation. He’s just making the sale.
Trump’s astonishing rise to the top of the political world may end this year, or it may only be starting. No one has figured out how to stop him yet. Either way, he has already succeeded in making this presidential election into a referendum on him. Not the parties. Not conservative or liberal principles. It’s Trump, yes or no: the man behind the tinted glass.
Untethered from party or philosophy or even history (“I was never big into the world of heroes,” he sniffs), Trump offers America the Ultimate Deal. “I am the most successful person ever to run for President,” he tells me. “I built an incredible business. But I also created, in The Apprentice, one of the most successful shows in television history. I’ve written 12 books, most of them best sellers. The Art of the Deal is the No. 1 best-selling business book of all time.”
It comes down to a salesman’s classic pitch: Trust me. Over the coming months, Americans will swallow hard and give their reply.
–With reporting from SAM FRIZELL, JAY NEWTON-SMALL and ZEKE J. MILLER/WASHINGTON
This appears in the March 14, 2016 issue of TIME.