Opinion

Trump still has the Republican Party by the throat

What Trump's CPAC appearance suggests about the state of the GOP

At least since he launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, Donald Trump has been extremely effective at dashing naïve hopes and expectations. Of course he'd be repudiated by Republican voters for his unorthodox message. Of course he'd fail to win his party's nomination. Of course he'd lose his battle with Hillary Clinton for the presidency.

Until, of course, he prevailed every time.

On Sunday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, Trump did it again — this time disabusing those who have hoped that early in the Biden administration the GOP would find itself embroiled in a civil war from which an anti-Trump faction might emerge, if not victorious, then at least capable of holding its own in a fight to regain a position of power and influence in the party.

Because human beings are prone to delusion and self-deception, such wishful thinking may persist. But we now know that it has no basis in reality at all. Trump owns the most passionate, committed faction of Republican voters, and that means he has the institutional party by the throat.

This doesn't mean that Trump is certain to run for president again in 2024. In fact, at this point I suspect he won't. But it does mean that he is going to dangle the possibility until the last moment, roughly three years from now, in order to keep the party and fundraising dollars planted firmly in his pocket. And this means, in turn, that his hold over the GOP between now and then is going to be close to absolute.

This first became clear on Sunday a couple of hours before Trump arrived to deliver his remarks at CPAC. That's when the results of the famed straw poll of attendees were announced: Sixty-three percent want Trump to run again in 2024, and if the primaries were held today, 55 percent would pick Trump as the nominee. That's in an imagined field of 21 candidates.

But the number that really stood out in the poll was this: a grand total of 95 percent of attendees want the party to continue Trump's policies. This astonishingly high number guarantees that, regardless of whether Trump himself actually runs — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis polled a very strong 43 percent when the former president was removed from the primary question, showing him to be a very early frontrunner for the nomination — Trumpism is going to be in the driver's seat.

Then there was Trump's speech itself — and the crowd's reaction to it.

Speaking for 90 minutes under a banner proclaiming "America Uncancelled," Trump made news early on by announcing that he would not be breaking away from the GOP to form a third party. Stories about him mulling that possibility in the wake of the November election were sourced to his inner circle. But on Sunday he dismissed them as "fake news" and portrayed himself as the most devoted and courageous Republican and conservative in the country. He alone possesses the will and the strength to unify the party behind "our movement," which is "far from over."

What does this movement stand for? Trump spent more than 20 minutes near the start of the speech on the need to police the southern border to keep out dangerous immigrants. He then attacked Biden for ending the Trump administration's travel ban on people from a list of majority-Muslim nations. He insisted that the new administration was in the process of instituting "socialism," which would soon bring outright "communism." He repeatedly ridiculed political correctness, "left-wing lunacy," and cancel culture, and proclaimed that nothing less than "our identity as Americans is at stake" in that battle, along with promising that "we will win" this "historic struggle."

This is pretty much what we've come to expect from a Trump rally — the bragging and bluster, the lies and distortions, the mockery and jokes, the flirtation with fixations of the far right. What made this version more ominous than rallies of the past were Trump's torrent of lies about the 2020 election.

Buzz surrounding Trump's CPAC appearance indicated he had been asked by leading Republicans behind the scenes not to indulge in talk of a stolen election. But this was another example of wishful thinking. Shortly after announcing that he wouldn't be forming a third party, Trump began to dangle the prospect of running for president again in 2024 by saying, "I might even decide to beat them for a third time." He would indulge in the Big Lie a lot more later in the speech.

In its final half hour, he returned to the theme at length, attacking the Supreme Court for lacking the "guts" and the "courage" to throw out millions of votes, savaging by name those members of the GOP in the House and Senate who had voted to impeach and convict him for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection against Congress, and singling out Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for his treachery in daring to speak out against the incitement. In Trump's view, this dissension within the party is evidence of weakness that places the GOP at a disadvantage in its battle with the Democrats, who are far more ruthless and unified.

The lesson? Republicans need to support comprehensive election reforms designed to make it harder to vote — and learn from Trump himself how to be "strong" and "tough," by which he apparently means that they should never back down when facts threaten to stand in the way of them seizing or holding power.

In response, the crowd cheered enthusiastically, interspersing its applause with chants of "you won!" and "we love you!"

These moments of the CPAC speech were deeply chilling. Though as with so many events of the Trump presidency, they were interspersed with generous helpings of ridiculousness, as when Trump made his closing pitch for attendees and viewers to visit his website (where they are promptly greeted by a request to donate money). This was fascism as scripted by P.T. Barnum.

Yet Donald Trump is undeniably right about one thing: He stands at the head of a powerful political movement that isn't going anywhere. The only question is whether Trump himself or someone else is going to lead it going forward.

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