Donald Trump: The art of the comeback?

Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a rally at the Waco Regional Airport on March 25, 2023 in Waco, Texas. Former U.S. president Donald Trump attended and spoke at his first rally since announcing his 2024 presidential campaign. PHOTO/ AFP

What you need to know:

To his millions of backers, the 76-year-old is the man who broke the mold with his shock 2016 victory, defying political norms to champion what he dubbed the "forgotten men and women" of middle America. 

From his earliest business days, Donald Trump has always wanted to be the center of attention.

Now the showman finds himself in an unprecedented spotlight, as a grand jury indicted him Thursday over hush money payments made to a porn star ahead of the 2016 election -- making Trump the first former or sitting president to be charged with a crime.

With the US political script in shreds, the man who once boasted he could get away with shooting someone on Fifth Avenue faces fighting criminal prosecution while campaigning to win back the White House in 2024.

In doing so, he will push American politics even further into uncharted territory.

To his millions of backers, the 76-year-old is the man who broke the mold with his shock 2016 victory, defying political norms to champion what he dubbed the "forgotten men and women" of middle America. 

To much of the country, though, Trump just broke America.

The Republican's first term began in 2017 with a dark inaugural address evoking "American carnage." It ended in mayhem when the former real estate entrepreneur refused to accept his defeat by Joe Biden, and then stoked supporters to storm Congress on January 6, 2021.

In office, Trump upended every tradition, ranging from the trivial (what got planted in the Rose Garden) to the fundamental (relations with NATO).

And as an ex-president, his wrecking ball political presence continued to dominate an increasingly far-right Republican Party.

Entangled in mounting legal woes, he pushed his 2020 election lies ever more vigorously -- arguably sabotaging his party's midterm performance last year by backing an army of election-denying candidates, who fared dismally.

Trump proved undeterred by the rumblings of dissent, throwing his hat into the ring for 2024.

 Persecution complex 
When the FBI searched his Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida last summer to retrieve top secret documents Trump allegedly pilfered on his way out of the White House, opponents thought his time was really up.

Again Trump defied norms, refusing to accept responsibility and insisting he was being persecuted.

Thursday's indictment by a New York grand jury gives his would-be comeback an even fiercer concussion.

But hardcore supporters care little about the payment Trump is accused of making to pornographic actress Stormy Daniels to cover up their affair.

"Every president has had their mistress, you know? So why not him?" one told AFP Saturday at Trump's first big rally of the 2024 campaign, in Waco, Texas.

Trump has repeatedly shrugged off the indictment as political persecution. 

In a statement minutes after news of the grand jury move broke, a defiant Trump branded it "Political Persecution and Election Interference at the highest level in history," adding: "I believe this Witch-Hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden."

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

Yet he defeated Democratic heavyweight Hillary Clinton.

When Democrats launched two impeachment proceedings, the Republican Party backed him to the hilt. He was acquitted both times.

Offstage turmoil that might sink an ordinary presidency -- court battles with a porn star, the jailing of his lawyer -- only fueled Trump's message of grievance and aggression.

Journalists became the "enemy of the people." Intelligence services and the FBI were demonized as the "deep state." Opponents in Congress were variously branded "crazy" and treasonous.

As Trump had tweeted in 2012, "when someone attacks me, I always attack back... except 100x more." 

On the world stage, it was the same story. Trump turned US alliances into cut-throat business relationships.

Friendly partners like South Korea and Germany were accused of trying to "rip us off."

US foes and rivals like China were invited to negotiate in dramatic, if patchy, diplomatic initiatives where Trump cast himself in the starring role.

 Autocratic drift 
Prior to 2016, he was famous mostly for the ruthless character he played on reality TV show "The Apprentice," for developing luxury buildings and golf resorts, and for his former fashion-model wife Melania.

But academics noted parallels between Trump's evolution as a politician and those of autocrats in countries where democratic institutions exist only as facades.

He relished the controversy, joking -- presumably -- about changing the constitution to stay in power indefinitely. "It drives them crazy," he said.

But as the Covid tragedy spiraled, Trump looked inept, granting Biden an opening. The Democrat's old-school ways and calming centrist message propelled him to a comfortable majority.

Facing defeat as the 2020 results came in, Trump pulled the trigger.

"If you count the legal votes, I easily win," he declared right after the election, unleashing an unprecedented challenge to US democracy that would climax in the January 6 violence.