(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Donald Trump is back and firmly in control of the Republican Party

The message of a resounding speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on 28 February was clear: Trump is back and here to stay

“First they will ignore you. Then they will ridicule you. Then they will try to destroy you. Then you win.” Whatever the precise formulation, those words, often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, resounded throughout Donald Trump’s first presidential campaign. Victory in 2016 proved him right then, and he may well be right now.

Since the November 2020 election debacle, the same progression has been underway, if not always in sequence. In Trump’s eventful “lame duck” period, his opponents tried to ignore him through social media deplatforming, ridiculed him for losing the election and for attempting to reverse the loss, and attempted to destroy him once and for all with an unprecedented second impeachment and, they hoped in vain, a Senate conviction and ban on holding office in the future.

All that is left is for Trump to win again. But when? That remains to be seen as a surprising number of his policies seem to endure in the Biden era. But in a resounding speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, on 28 February, Trump was back in full form, still denying the legitimacy of the election and substantially breaking with precedent to criticise his successor and his policies, all with the proclaimed goal of “saving America”.

CPAC has evolved under Trump. It emerged from a small gathering of conservative Republicans who first met in 1974, with future president Ronald Reagan as the star speaker, to a virtual “underground” who rejected the party’s long-dominant moderate wing. In subsequent decades, it became a static, wonky affair, where nerds would hope to get the attention of some mid-level politician or pundit who seemed to be on his way up but later faltered into mediocrity.

Trump denounced by name all ten Republican congressmen who voted to impeach him

For the last few years, however, CPAC has turned into a major cultural phenomenon for the Trump-minded, a kind of “Trumpachella” or “Trumpapalooza” where the only star is Donald Trump and the other speakers and events are little more than warm-up acts for his main event. It has become so iconically Trumpian that last year Sacha Baron Cohen targeted it for comic infiltration in his underwhelming Borat sequel. This year’s occasion featured a festively cartoonish statue of the former president that became a focal point for the devout and devoted. Freshly wounded by his Mexican holiday controversy, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a one-time Trump opponent, primed the audience as well as anyone could with the proud battle cry, “Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere!”

A sculpture depicting Donald Trump is seen outside the Hyatt Regency Hotel during the Conservative Political Action Conference, in Orlando, Florida, United States on 28 February 2021. (Photo by Eva Marie Uzcategui Trinkl/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Trump’s firm allies turned out in force, but recent Republican opponents who stayed away offered cringing fealty from afar. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, who voted not to remove the former president from office after his latest impeachment but nevertheless called him “politically and morally responsible” for the events of 6 January, did another dizzying about-face to declare that he would “absolutely” support Trump if he were the Republican presidential nominee in 2024. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, former Vice President Mike Pence, and influential Senator Lindsey Graham, among others, buried whatever differences they had with Trump over that turbulent day and returned to the fold. Trump denounced by name all ten Republican congressmen who voted to impeach him and all seven Republican senators who voted to remove him from office, with each name roundly booed by an audience who greeted Trump with chants of “We love you”, “U.S.A.,” and “You won!” If a “Republican civil war” was in the offing, it is now over. Instead, Trump suggested, the Republicans have become “the Party of Love”. Every intraparty poll reveals his popularity by staggering margins. He has no challenger, and none is likely to appear.

Trump did not declare his candidacy for 2024, but did drop major hints that he will maintain leadership of the Republican Party and almost certainly be its candidate in the next presidential election. “I wonder who that will be?”, he sarcastically asked when imagining a recapture of the White House by a victorious Republican candidate. Separately, he praised his wife Melania as the “future First Lady” and suggested with expected bravado, “Maybe I will have to beat them a third time”, capturing in one flippant sentence both his views of the recent election and plans for the next one. The message was clear: Trump is back and here to stay.

Mainstream commentators tried a bit too effortfully to dismiss the speech as the marginal threat to democracy they would prefer it to be

Trump’s Democratic and media opponents seem to be wallowing in their “ignore” phase. No mainstream outlet broadcast or covered his speech, leaving live telecasts to Fox News and Newsmax while CNN indulged its viewers with Living Golf, perhaps the dullest cable news programme of all time. The White House’s inept press secretary Jen Psaki batted away questions about Trump’s speech before it happened, replying that focusing on the former president was a low priority for Biden, who will almost certainly have to run against him again just three years from now. Media coverage in the days that followed could not avoid mentioning the speech, but most mainstream commentators tried a bit too effortfully to dismiss it as the marginal, sectarian threat to democracy they would prefer it to be rather than the core political philosophy of an immovable 40 per cent of the American electorate that it is.

Intriguingly, the media have of late been far more interested in the brewing Democratic civil war, reporting like teenage gossips on intraparty invective over the failure of a federal minimum wage increase, shortcomings in what should have been a broad bipartisan pandemic relief bill but wasn’t, and foreign policy moves that strike many on the left as unnervingly familiar to Trump’s. This was but a meagre entrée to the Democrats’ divided response to the bland and unevidenced sexual assault allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, one of a number of falling Democratic stars whose unenviable fate now dominates the airwaves. And all of it together is but entertainment for unified Republicans, whose sentiments were perhaps best captured at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, where the president jetted for dinner later in the evening. Upon entering the dining room, members and guests rose to greet him with a loud standing ovation.

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