Just last month, he instigated a deadly riot on Capitol Hill that endangered the lives of senior members of his own party, as he sat back and smirked from the comfort and safety of the West Wing. And his administration ended in such a historically disastrous state of his own making that fellow leaders in the Republican Party were directly blaming him for the deaths and anti-democratic mob violence, and some of his former senior advisers were openly accusing him of attempting to stage a coup or pleading with him to disappear to Florida “and stay” there.
But that was a whole month ago. On Sunday, former President Donald Trump re-emerged at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), held this year in his new home base of Florida, where he was greeted as the beloved, unequivocal leader in the GOP. Whatever blood there was on the 45th U.S. president’s hands, the Republican Party and conservative movement had already done their best to rinse it all away. And they were more than happy to try.
“Actually you know, [the Democrats] just lost the White House,” Trump said—obviously incorrectly—on stage early Sunday evening. “Who knows? I might decide to beat them for a third time,” he added, dangling a potential 2024 presidential run.
Much of the former president’s CPAC speech was a lazy, predictable retread of grievance and his perennial whining. “They’re the biggest fakers there are,” he alleged, bashing his enemies in the press. “Never let [Democrats and the Biden administration] take the credit” for the coronavirus vaccines, Trump said, regurgitating his concerns dating back to November that a President Joe Biden would get credit for ending the COVID-19 crisis in the United States. He again took his shots at foes like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Biden, yet again accusing the latter of having mental difficulties.
Trump harangued trans women for competing in sports as women. He kept peppering his speech with lies that he triumphed in the 2020 election. He used those lies to call on Republicans to enact more and more restrictions on legitimate voting, and did so to rapturous applause from the audience. He repeatedly trashed the U.S. Supreme Court—which has a sizable conservative majority of his presidency’s creation—for lacking the “courage” to obliterate democracy at his behest last year. He baselessly alleged that the Democratic Party was trying to bring on “communism.” He bleated over and over about “cancel culture” and Big Tech. He rattled off a list of Republican lawmakers (Liz Cheney, Mitt Romney, Adam Kinzinger, and so on…) whom he found insufficiently subservient to him and his ego.
And he had the nerve to claim that “Trumpism” means “no riots in the streets.”
In the days of the conference prior to Trump’s address, the content and mood of the annual gathering reflected the sentiment pervading the national GOP, its base of voters, Republican honchos in Washington, D.C., state parties, and the influential hubs of conservative media: that this twice impeached president, as well as Trumpism, are the dominant present and future of American conservatism. And for this, they’re enthusiastically frontloading many of Trump’s policy and messaging priorities.
For instance, much of this year’s CPAC was devoted to pushing Trump’s lie that he actually won the 2020 presidential contest against Biden, an election Trump clearly lost. That lie fueled Trump and Republicans’ months-long legal crusade during the presidential transition period to groundlessly throw out countless votes in key states, in a failed effort to overturn the will and decision of the electorate. Top Trump allies publicly flirted with the concept of martial law, and other authoritarian power-grabbing ideas that thankfully went nowhere, despite Trump’s sustained attempts. This broad push culminated in the bloody Jan. 6 riot.
And yet various major players in the Republican Party still refuse to admit publicly that Biden won, and Trump himself has privately said he’d prefer the candidates and primary challengers he supports in the future to publicly back the Big Lie—both rhetorically and in the writing of laws and crackdowns on voting—to his satisfaction.
And as Trump charts the path of his post-presidency, he’s keen on snuffing out dissent to the devotion to his cult of personality that is now the most integral element of his party. In recent weeks, the former president, tucked away at his Palm Beach club of Mar-a-Lago, has repeatedly complained about several prominent Republicans who had crossed him (even mildly) over the Jan. 6 riot, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Nikki Haley, Trump’s one-time ambassador to the United Nations. Trump has told multiple confidants that if Haley runs for the presidency in 2024, he wants to ensure she is crushed and humiliated in the GOP primary, according to three people familiar with the matter.
This despite Haley’s attempts earlier this month to execute some damage control and to reconnect with Trump. Even others who have more aggressively sought to crawl back to Trump following the riot haven’t been spared the ex-president’s suspicions or trash talk. A month ago, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) visited Trump in Florida, on a mission to preserve party unity, as they gear up for the 2022 midterm elections. Prior to that he’d already jumped on the phone with Donald Trump Jr., solidifying his deference to the Trump brand and family, ahead of the former president’s second Senate impeachment trial.
Still, in recent days Trump has privately told some of those close to him that he’s not sure if he can trust McCarthy in the long run, two of the sources said. One of the things that Trump has griped about during his post-presidency is McCarthy’s public acknowledgement that Biden indeed won the election, following weeks of McCarthy cheering on or excusing Trump’s months-long endeavor to cling to power.
But at CPAC on Sunday night, the ex-president and current leader of the Republican Party had the courtesy to, for now at least, take one tactic for keeping the GOP in line off the table. “I am not starting a new party,” Trump said on stage, affirming his continued support for the party that once made him leader of the free world.
And why should he? The party and movement keep showing him, again and again, since Biden’s inauguration that the GOP remains a willing and wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump brand name.
And soon after he left the stage, Trump’s political operation was back to doing what it does best: milking his supporters for big money, often by deceptive means. “Pres. Trump: Did you miss me? I just finished my CPAC speech! My team’s handing me the 1ST donor list in 1 HR. Can I count on you? Donate,” the Trump team texted supporters on Sunday evening.
During the 2020 campaign, the Trump campaign would often ask supporters to donate, alleging that doing so could give small-dollar donors a chance at getting their names in front of an appreciative Trump. Several sources familiar with the practice say that this was so often done with absolutely zero intention of bothering Trump with any lists of his faceless fans’ names.