Trump's path back to the presidency

At CPAC, the old Trump was back, which means yesterday's bets are off

Trump walks to White House.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

Does Donald Trump have a bright future in American politics?

Three months ago, I doubted it — and I explained why in a column titled, "Trump finally jumps the shark." At the time, I was responding to a pathetic, whiny speech the former president delivered at Mar-a-Lago before Republican Party bigwigs and donors.

The remarks were focused almost entirely on the treachery of those who refused to go along with the former president's lies and delusions about election fraud in the 2020 vote. He had nothing much to say about the accomplishments of his own administration, or the inroads made by Republicans down ballot in November 2020, or about his own future agenda or the priorities of the GOP going forward. It was all backward-looking, spoken from a place of embittered self-pity.

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That, I thought, was a recipe for swiftly diminishing political potency. Trump rose to prominence by bonding with Republican voters "mainly on their terms, placing himself in their camp, defending and championing them against all the fools and crooks who had turned the country into a disaster." But now?

Either Trump is the sorest loser in the history of American democracy — the Big Baby his critics always claimed he was — or else he really did win in a landslide and yet nonetheless allowed himself to be deposed and banished to South Florida while Joe Biden effortlessly took over the White House in a coup. Either way, he looks very small indeed. [The Week]

That's the way things looked then. But on Sunday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, the old Trump was back. And that means yesterday's bets are off.

Now, I should be clear: This wasn't a "new and improved" Trump. The man who rambled on for 90 minutes blended right-wing red meat with reams of outright lies, brazen dishonesty and exaggeration, unfounded assertions, and insinuations of absurd conspiracies. He would still face mighty headwinds among suburban voters. He would continue to be hated by at least half the country and drive liberals and progressives into apoplectic spasms. He would be the same old Trump in just about every respect.

But that Trump has managed to win the Republican nomination for president twice before, and he will be very well placed to do so again if he wants to try, as he very much appears to. Just last week, a survey by John McLaughlin, a veteran GOP pollster who worked on both Trump campaigns, showed 55 percent of Republicans supporting the former president in a 14-person primary field where none of the other potential candidates rose above the single digits, and only two of them (Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence) scored higher than 4 percent. Given the leanings of the pollster, you can take that result with a grain of salt, but it isn't out of keeping with similar surveys. The informal CPAC straw poll conducted in Dallas this past weekend rewarded Trump with 70 percent, followed by DeSantis at 21 percent and every other potential candidate coming in at 1 percent or less. That showing for Trump is up from 55 percent at the CPAC conference in February.

Trump has maintained and built on that incredibly strong position through six months during which he has been mostly mute. What's likely to happen to his numbers once he begins to push the message he wheeled out in Dallas? If the past is any guide to the future, his position will strengthen still further.

That's because Trump's speech on Sunday did precisely what his April remarks at Mar-a-Lago failed to do: It wove together his personal resentment about the results of the 2020 election with ferocious attacks on Joe Biden and the Democrats, portraying his partisan opponents as the enemies of all Republicans and even of all patriotic Americans. The unified forces of corruption who hate America and the police, and who love criminals and illegal immigrants and denouncing the country as incorrigibly racist, conspired to cheat in the presidential contest, and the media, the courts, and cowards in his own party played along, depriving everyone else of his leadership. This is Trump's message in 2016 with his own loss in 2020 now added to the list of perfidies and his own administration's long list of (supposed) accomplishments brought in as well.

What's missing is any reference to the alarming events of Jan. 6. Given how unpopular they were, with a sizable chunk of Republicans expressing discomfort with the violence on Capitol Hill that day, silence makes political sense as well. Which doesn't mean Trump won't take a bolder tack over the coming months and years. Already he has occasionally begun to speak with admiration and reverence of those arrested for their role in the insurrection. This is especially so with Ashli Babbitt, the rioter who was killed by Capitol Police that day, whom he treats as a martyr and describes as an "innocent, wonderful, incredible woman."

Beyond the whitewashing of Trump's own attempted coup, what stands out from Trump's speech at CPAC is the utter shamelessness of his efforts to blame Biden and his party for every real or potential negative thing happening in the country. Rising rates of violent crime? Biden's fault. Left-wing activists advocating the defunding of police? Hang that around the president's neck, too, even though there's no sign that Biden favors it. Possible inflation on the horizon? That's got Biden's fingerprints all over it. The former president even seems prepared to blame Biden for turning America's withdrawal from Afghanistan, which Trump himself attempted and failed to accomplish, into "a total disaster" for which the current resident of the White House must be held accountable.

If Trump spends the next two years pushing this blame-everything-bad-on-Biden message, he will be very well placed to sweep the Republican primaries and become the GOP's standard-bearer. If you doubt it, ask yourself what he would have to do to fall behind DeSantis or any other challenger over the next couple of years. The Republican base knows exactly who Trump is, and they love him anyway. There's no sign of that changing, even if he ends up being charged in the ongoing criminal investigation in New York City that's looking into his finances. Such an eventuality would merely provide Trump with a longer list of enemies to excoriate as he works on transforming himself in the eyes of his supporters into a cross between Robin Hood and John Dillinger.

How would Trump do in the general election? That will depend on numerous other factors that won't come into focus for some time: How is the economy doing? What has Biden accomplished and has it proven popular? Has violent crime receded or persisted and worsened? Have events elsewhere in the world become a drag on the administration? These and other contingencies will help to determine whether Trump's message of anger, resentment, and grievance gains enough traction to power him through to a somewhat stronger showing than he managed in 2020. That's all it would take to hand the White House back to him, even without any vote-counting shenanigans.

Populists do best in opposition. And that's where Trump's defeat last November has placed him. Now that he's learned how to integrate his latest and most humiliating personal grievances with his long-term personal ambitions, there's no telling what might be possible.

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