Reports of Trump’s Demise Are Premature, and His Threat of “Retribution” Is Serious

Reports of Trump’s Demise Are Premature, and His Threat of “Retribution” Is Serious

Reports of Trump’s Demise Are Premature, and His Threat of “Retribution” Is Serious

At CPAC, the former president outlines his plan to regain the GOP nomination—and the White House.


Donald Trump is more of a performer than an orator. Those who complain that his speeches routinely violate the codified norms of rhetoric and grammar by giving vent to meandering digressions and bizarre interjections miss the point of how he communicates. Trump is not vying with Pericles, Abraham Lincoln, or Winston Churchill in a contest to achieve timeless eloquence. Rather, he belongs to the tradition of insult comedians such as Joan Rivers or Don Rickles, wrestling-ring braggarts such as Hulk Hogan, and radio shock jocks such as Rush Limbaugh. Like these other performers, Trump aims not to persuade but to electrify and polarize by conjuring up a memorable persona that the audience can identify with as an avatar of their socially frowned-upon anger and unspoken desires.

As a performer, Trump’s great gift is to embody resentment. Trump’s own personal grievances are highly rarefied. He seems never to have come to terms with the fact that Manhattan old money regards him as gauche despite all the money his father made and Trump’s own success in turning that family fortune into a brand name. Not even winning the presidency has stopped Trump’s snotty deriders; meanwhile, he’s clearly still smarting from being labeled “a short-fingered vulgarian” by Spy magazine. One would think that this particular pique isn’t widely shared, but like demagogues before him Trump is able to recast his personal grievance into a wider social discontent, in particular the feeling of right-wing white Republicans that they are despised by liberal elites while being dispossessed by non-whites.

Trump’s continuing skill at making himself a mouthpiece for the injured pride of the GOP base was on ample display in the speech he delivered on Saturday at the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In the key lines of the speech, Trump asserted, “In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”

In his capacity as the maestro of resentment, Trump roused the crowd as he fulminated not just at familiar targets on the left (the “fake” news media, the allegedly incapacitated and corrupt Joe Biden) but also those in the GOP elite who stand in the way of the MAGA agenda.

“We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots, and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” Trump crowed. “People are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see America First.”

More than anything he has said or posted since announcing his bid in November to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2024, Trump’s CPAC speech forcefully articulated this claim to be the standard-bearer for a national populist movement.

Yet press analysis has tended to focus on Trump’s supposed weaknesses as a candidate and CPAC’s shrunken role in the ecosystem of GOP politicking. The media consensus is that CPAC was a low-energy failure, while and Trump’s speech was rated as equally underwhelming.

In The Atlantic, John Hendrickson’s assessment was that “Trump seemed bored, listless, and unanimated as he spoke to a sprawling hotel ballroom that was only three-quarters full. For much of the speech, Trump’s voice took on more of a soft and haggard whisper than the booming, throaty scream that characterized his campaign rallies.” As Rolling Stone saw it, this year’s CPAC “wasn’t exactly a ghost town—but it had the feel of one where uneasy residents are starting to question why the railroad isn’t passing through anymore.”

It’s undeniable that both Trump and CPAC are diminished as kingmakers in the GOP. Since the Republican Party’s disappointing midterm performance, there have been more rumblings (often made anonymously) by Republicans complaining the former president is an electoral albatross. CPAC has been struggling with grave sexual assault allegations against organization head Matt Schlapp. Fox News no longer sponsors CPAC, and many prominent Republicans—notably Florida Governor Ron DeSantis—were absent from the event. Instead, DeSantis and other CPAC-skipping Republicans turned up for a rival event, a private donor’s retreat hosted by the tax-cutting Club for Growth.

Yet the fact that DeSantis preferred the Club for Growth to CPAC isn’t necessarily a sign of the latter’s waning influence. As Laura Jedeed suggested in The New Republic, it is possible to reframe this story: “While Trump addresses the people, DeSantis, who possesses degrees from both Harvard and Yale, hobnobs with the political elite.” In 2016, the Club for Growth spent heavily to beat Trump because he challenged their big-business orthodoxy on issues like trade, immigration, and entitlements. Trump successfully won both the nomination and the presidency by taking stances that offended the Club for Growth: forswearing cutting Social Security and Medicare, denouncing trade agreements like NAFTA, and calling for a curb to immigration.

The significance of Trump’s CPAC speech is that it shows he’s willing to reenergize the economic populism and nationalism he ran on in 2016 to challenge both the GOP elite and the Democrats. The CPAC speech was a road map for Trump’s path back to the White House. Trump nowhere mentioned DeSantis in the speech, but he clearly hinted that he was going to make an issue of DeSantis’s record of calling for Social Security and Medicare cuts.

Trump insisted, “We’re not going back to people that want to destroy our great Social Security system. Even some in our own party, I wonder who that might be. That want to raise the minimum age of Social Security to 70, 75 or even 80 in some cases, and then a route to cut Medicare to a level that it will no longer be recognizable.”

Against Biden, Trump’s focus was on foreign policy, hitting the current president from both a militarist position (for alleged weakness and bad planning in the bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan) and from an anti-war stance (Trump claimed he was the only modern president not to start a new war, that he would end the war in Ukraine, and that if he is not elected, there is a danger of a third world war). Trump’s claims of being an anti-war president are, of course, absurd given his actual record of ratcheting up drone warfare while sidelining diplomacy. Still, if there is no quick resolution to the war in Ukraine, Trump will be able to appeal to nationalist sentiment by wondering why taxpayers in the United States are pouring so much money into the conflict while domestic needs remain unmet.

Trump won an undeniable victory at CPAC over Fox News. In recent months, the network has been reluctant to air Trump’s speeches—or even to have him on as a guest. As Politico reports, this changed after Trump’s former adviser Steve Bannon loudly complained about the media blackout at CPAC:  “Notably, after Steve Bannon spent his speaking time blasting Fox News for not giving Trump airtime, the conservative cable network carried part of Trump’s speech live.” As long as Trump and cronies like Bannon can continue to force Fox to bend the knee, he should have little trouble rallying the right-wing base.

If Trump is seen as a performer of resentment, then his CPAC speech has to be judged a success. He’s found some potent issues that he can use to rally his coalition and challenge his foes. It won’t do to whistle past the graveyard. The “retribution” Trump is threatening is a real danger.

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