He was, ostensibly, joking. The point he was trying to make is that past presidents should have dealt with the inequities in the United States’ relationship with China but didn’t, leaving him to handle it.
But as always with Trump, his jokes are freighted with what he believes to be lots and lots of truth.
Two serious strains of Trump thought are at work in the “chosen one” moment.
First, Trump does believe he is special and unique. In his defense, he’s far from the first president or even presidential candidate to believe that. As Beto O’Rourke famously/infamously told Vanity Fair in announcing his 2020 presidential campaign: “Man, I’m just I’m just born to be in it.“
Trump’s view of himself as special, of course, didn’t arrive when he got elected president in 2016. While that stunning victory was perhaps the strongest evidence — in Trump’s mind — of just how special (and how much better) he is, it’s not as though he didn’t think of himself that way prior to November 8, 2016.
As he wrote in “The Art of the Deal” (Trump’s second favorite book behind the Bible, he says):
“I like thinking big. I always have. To me it’s very simple: if you’re going to be thinking anyway, you might as well think big. Most people think small, because most people are afraid of success, afraid of making decisions, afraid of winning. And that gives people like me a great advantage.”
Since being elected president, Trump has repeatedly told attendees at his campaign rallies that they should be so thankful he won because had Hillary Clinton won the economy would have collapsed and we would be at war with North Korea — among other catastrophes. (It’s, uh, impossible to prove these hypotheticals true or false.)
He quite clearly believes himself to be a great man of history. “It is much easier to act presidential than what we are doing here tonight, believe me,” Trump told an audience in 2017. “With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that’s ever held this office.” He’s also compared himself favorably to George Washington when it comes to appointing judges.
“We’ll have more judges put on than any other president other than one,” Trump said in an interview with Hill.TV. “Do you know who the one is? George Washington. Percentage wise.”
The other element at work in Trump’s “chosen one,” uh, “joke” is his addiction to exaggeration and theatrics. Again, here’s Trump from “The Art of the Deal:”
“The final key to the way I promote is bravado. I play to people’s fantasies. People may not always think big themselves, but they can get very excited by those who do. That is why a little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest, the greatest and the most spectacular.”
Trump is forever bragging about his audiences as record-setting. About the awards he has won (that don’t exist). About the many golf club championships he has won. About, literally, everything.
He’s also never really left behind his experiences as a reality TV star and executive producer. Trump is perpetually aware that he is on TV — and that the way the average person consumes his presidency is through bite-sized TV clips.
All of which makes his “chosen one” moment totally in keeping with who he is. Trump knows it will make good TV. He knows people will run with it. That his supporters will laugh and cheer and that his enemies will be triggered. It’s a provocative move — and Trump loves provocation.
“Chosen one,” then, isn’t just rhetoric. It’s a deeply held part of who Trump is — and always has been.