| By 2000, Trump developed the other main ingredient in his routine: Speaking with unbridled hostility about his opponents. On "Meet the Press" he said rival Pat Buchanan was a "Hitler lover, I guess he's an anti-Semite." Such bravado only comes with not really caring about the outcome, because you only plan to stay around long enough to gain notoriety and, with it, more profits.
He planted seeds about a run in 2004 and parlayed it into a deal with NBC for "The Apprentice." He hinted about entering the race for governor of New York in 2006 and again in 2014, telling the Associated Press he would "win easily"; yet, of course, he never actually ran.
He made the most noise about seeking the presidency in the 2012 race when he famously questioned Barack Obama's birthplace. He also blasted trade agreements, this time with South Korea and Colombia, telling USA Today they were "a disaster" and "terrible."
Four years ago, in remarks virtually indistinguishable from those he's made lately, Trump declared, "The U.S. has never been in as bad shape as it is now."
Here's another bit of deja vu: 18 months before the 2012 election, a CNN/Opinion Research poll showed Trump tied with Mike Huckabee for first place among GOP voters. Shortly thereafter Trump issued a statement saying he wouldn't run because, "business is my greatest passion and I am not ready to leave the private sector."
Nothing has changed, except that now an even greater percentage of Republicans speaking with pollsters are playing along. These voters are frequently described as "angry." A researcher, writing in Politico, even described them as being driven by "authoritarianism." That might all be true. But, more importantly, what Trump and his followers want is publicity.
Angry voters gave us Ralph Nader and Herman Cain and Ron Paul and Ross Perot and so many others, right up to Ben Carson and Bernie Sanders. The message is serious, but the notion that this sort of passion can carry all the way to the White House is not.
What's different in the Republican race this time is that all the candidates are operating at the fringes. The absence of a mainstream statesman such as Mitt Romney or John McCain is keeping Trump in the race far longer than he imagined. And the sheer number of lingering hopefuls – 11 at last count – fractionalizes Trump's opposition.
Media evolution also works in Trump's favor. As a reality-TV star with higher recognition than any of his foes, he has been able to score with soundbites and what could be called history's first Twitter-based presidential campaign.
But here's the same old same old: Trump still prefers the business world and probably expects to be fully returned to it – more powerful and notorious than ever – by summer. The most telling indication came this month in the debate carried by CNBC.
Asked by Maria Bartiromo if he planned to place his vast holdings in a blind trust if elected, Trump seemed to reveal that he had never even thought about it. He fumbled and said his business was "peanuts" compared to running the country. He gestured toward his children in the audience and said they could run his companies.
Pressed, he added: "Well, I don’t know if it’s a blind trust if Ivanka, Don and Eric run it. If that’s a blind trust, I don’t know. But I would probably have my children run it with my executives."
That's neither a serious answer, nor the thinking of a man who expects to be occupying the Oval Office.
And yet, with actual voting now just days away, Trump must be starting to believe his own boasts about winning. Poll-respondents, who challenged the GOP by daring to say Trump was their favorite, now must decide if he's really worth their vote.
Odds still are that by fall he'll be back on reality-TV and laughing – as he has every time he's toyed with us – all the way to the bank.
(c) Peter Funt. Distributed by the Cagle syndicate.