The ex-President showed this weekend that defeat after a single term, the disgrace of his insurrection against American democracy and the deaths of 400,000 Americans on his watch in a pandemic he downplayed don’t hurt his appeal to Republicans. In fact, the efforts of potential 2024 rivals to replicate his extremism show Trump’s strange magic is only validated by his transgressions.
The former President was the star turn at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas Sunday — an organization that once lionized a champion of global democracy, President Ronald Reagan, yet has morphed into a Trump cult.
“We were doing so well until the rigged election happened to come along,” Trump said, voicing the lie at the center of the conference that he has made the entry point for GOP candidates in 2022, potentially poisoning US elections for years.
There is an argument that a former President who is out of power but still desperate for attention should just be ignored. Certainly, a rambling, vain and lie-filled speech by Trump lacked coherence and any kind of aspirational appeal, instead highlighting his characteristic cocktail of racial demagoguery, personal swipes at enemies, mountainous falsehoods and desperate trawling for personal adulation. To an outsider, it may have come across as tedious and a pale imitation of the rollicking and sometimes even humorous appearances that paved Trump’s path to power in 2016. But in hitting every sensitive hot spot in the conservative media canon — from law and order to “cancel culture” to immigration, to complaints that all the media speaks about is “race, race, race,” Trump demonstrated his still unmatched capacity to sell outrage politics. But more than that, he demonstrated his ability to conjure an alternative belief system that is divorced from reality but that his supporters immediately adopt — the hallmark of strongmen leaders throughout history.
He for instance launched into a searing attack against former Attorney General William Barr, who for most of his time in office acted as a political shield for Trump’s crushing of political norms but drew the line at his election lies.
“I said, ‘Bill, you got to move your ass. Our country is under attack,’ ” the former President said, thus confirming his own unprecedented assault on US democratic institutions while complaining that Barr had not authorized investigations into false claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. His admission underscored yet again that even the most zealous enablers who fail to buy into his abuses of power are sooner or later branded by the ex-President as heretics.
Trumpism is on the march in red America
Trump is not just popular at CPAC where the crowd greeted his speech with glee. That his populist extremism is now being implemented by GOP governors across states he won shows his enduring power. So do the countrywide efforts by Republican state lawmakers to restrict voting based on his lies about a stolen election. Trump’s capacity to orchestrate the behavior of Republicans is almost as intact as it was when he was sitting in the Oval Office — his derailing of a bipartisan, independent probe of the January 6 outrage is proof of that. All these are reasons why Trump cannot be just disregarded.
Six months after his supporters ransacked the US Capitol — amid an effort by top GOP officials to reinvent the history of that moment, the former President’s threat to American democracy remains extreme. And even if Trump never runs for President again — and he gives every impression of already being launched on a four-year campaign — the brand of grievance politics he invented and maintains will be on the ballot — as his list of possible heirs, from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, shows.
So while much of Trump’s speech was backward looking, providing a rosy and untrue picture of an administration that left his country deeply divided, the false belief system that has captured the hearts and minds of millions of voters is real.
The crucial question is whether the message that is so electric to Trump’s supporters will still cause the kind of revulsion among suburban and more moderate voters who deserted Trump’s GOP and saw him lose the House, the Senate and the White House over a single four-year term.
And could another messenger like DeSantis or Noem, or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott make it quite so bewitching to the conservative base?
The former President is relentless on targeting issues like undocumented migration, the calls by some liberals to defund the police and the rising crime wave to paint the country as out of control and under the sway of far left wingers — as a possible route to broadening his appeal.
But his continued torching of truth comes at a time when President Joe Biden is noticeably all but ignoring his predecessor, positioning himself as a moderate, traditional commander-in-chief. This week, Biden will discuss gun violence and crime in the cities that has spiked as the pandemic eases its grip. He will likely plead with Americans again to get vaccinated to finally defeat Covid-19 — even as Trump acolytes like Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado claim the government vaccine effort is akin to Nazism.
But even as Biden tries to carry out his vow to unite the country and to work across the aisle with Republicans on infrastructure reform for instance, it’s clear that ultimately the biggest impediment he faces is from Trump’s undiminished power. CPAC was for instance an example in microcosm of the fact that much of America’s voting public now lives in an alternative reality in which Trump won the election and Biden lost. Speaker after speaker alluded to election fraud — despite the lack of any evidence that stood up in any of Trump’s failed legal and political attempts to overturn a free and fair elections.
His behavior underscored yet again that the regular battle between conservatism and liberalism over the meaning of America itself has been superseded. One political party is still deep in thrall of a leader who never stops lying and is dedicated to overturning the US democratic political system itself.
Cheering against the vaccine
At one moment on Saturday, which exemplified the grip of ideology on the right, the CPAC crowd cheered the fact that Biden missed his vaccine goal, with more than 30% of adults — most of them in conservative states being hit by the Delta variant of Covid-19, still yet to get at least one dose.
That reaction shocked the government’s top infectious diseases expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been made a scapegoat by conservatives keen to cover up Trump’s own disastrous handling of the pandemic.
“It’s horrifying. They are cheering about someone saying that it’s a good thing for people not to try and save their lives,” Fauci told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.
It was noticeable that while Trump demanded rightful recognition for the vaccine that was developed under his administration — as he claimed to have saved 100 million lives — he made no call for people to get vaccinated.
The ex-President’s reluctance to spend his political capital on a matter that conflicts with the orthodoxy of many conservatives and that could save thousands of lives remains striking, even after he spent months during the early stages of the pandemic trashing science-based public health guidance. And Trump had the power to change minds at the CPAC gathering since 70% of attendees who took part in an unscientific straw poll chose him as their preferred candidate for 2024.
The worst public health crisis in 100 years has now fallen prey to the same relentless churn of misinformation and lies which has stifled the truth of what happened last November in conservative circles. Trump bills his multiple failures in a crisis which he promised would simply “go away” as a massive triumph.
And the potential candidate many conservatives would like to see on a ticket with him in 2024, Noem of South Dakota, is billing her refusal to adopt basic public health guidelines that save lives as a political virtue.
“We’ve got Republican governors across this country pretending they didn’t shut down their states; that they didn’t close their regions; that they didn’t mandate masks,” Noem said at CPAC.
She appeared to be drawing a contrast with DeSantis and Abbott — who took a more restrictive but still lax approach — with a future Republican primary debate in mind.
“Now I’m not picking fights with Republican governors. All I’m saying is that we need leaders with grit.”
The fact that her largely rural state, with few of the big cities that helped Covid spread quickly, had 230 deaths per 100,000 people, according to data from Johns Hopkins University — ranking it 10th in that metric among the 50 states — raises serious questions about Noem’s record. As does the reality that South Dakota also had 14,090 cases of Covid-19 per 100,000 people, giving it the third highest rate in the nation.
But as Trump has shown, an ability to reinvent the truth and to ignore reality might be the most important asset in a potential presidential candidate, in the Republican Party, three years before the next election.