Donald Trump was more than an hour late for his speech at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), held this year in Orlando, Fla. He was scheduled to speak at 3:40 pm ET and didn’t take the stage until around 5. This was a deliberate move on Trump’s part. His motorcade didn’t leave Palm Beach for Orlando until after 2 pm, ensuring that Trump would keep the passionate conservative activists of CPAC waiting.
It’s hard not to see the delay as a dominance move, a way of asserting that Trump is still the king who sets the timetable that everyone else must accommodate. This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that the heart of the speech was the former president’s victory march in the short-lived Republican civil war that broke out after a Trump-inspired mob attacked Congress.
It was always a lopsided civil war. Only 10 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump, followed by a mere seven GOP senators voting to convict. Since then, Trump has successfully cowed the GOP with attacks on those who dared to vote against him and reported threats to form a third party.
The extent of Trump’s victory in this civil war can be gauged by the fact that he can now openly disavow the threat of a third party. “We are not starting new parties,” Trump told CPAC. “We have the Republican Party. It is going to unite and be stronger than ever before.”
The united Republican Party that Trump touted will be one that stays together under his terms. Much of Trump’s speech was about shoring up his legacy by claiming that any success in fighting Covid was due to Operation Warp Speed, begun in his administration. Trump also returned to the xenophobic attacks on undocumented immigrants and asylum seekers that launched his political campaign in 2015. He chided the Biden administration for allegedly giving up on border security.
But the CPAC speech was aimed as much at Trump’s enemies within the GOP, whom he called Republicans In Name Only (or RINOs), as it was Democrats. “The RINOs that we’re surrounded with will destroy the Republican Party and the American worker and will destroy our country itself,” Trump said, and promised he would “actively” work “to elect strong, tough and smart Republican leaders.”
As The New York Times notes, “Trump read a sort of hit list of every congressional Republican who voted to impeach him, all but vowing revenge.”
He called Wyoming Representative Liz Cheney, who voted to impeach, “a warmonger” and claimed that her “poll numbers have dropped faster than any human being I’ve ever seen.” About his foes in the party, Trump said, “Get rid of them all.” He promised to support candidates who would primary these internal enemies with the Republican Party.
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Trump also dangled the possibility that he might run again in 2024, a prospect that delighted the crowd, who cheered, “Four more years!” Refusing to concede that he lost in 2020, Trump suggested that a 2024 rematch would be his third presidential win. “Actually as you know [the Democrats] just lost the White House,” Trump dishonestly asserted. “But who knows, I might even decide to beat them for a third time.” Predicting a “triumphant” return of Republicans to the White House in 2024, Trump said, “I wonder who that will be. Who, who, who will that be, I wonder.”
To judge by a straw poll of the attendees, the activist core of the Republican Party is ready to try Trump again. Sixty-eight percent of CPAC attendees polled said they wanted Trump to run again. Another 55 percent said they’d vote for him again in the primaries, more than double the support for the next candidate, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (who had just 21 percent even with his home state advantage). Every other candidate got less than 5 percent: Kristi Noem was at 4 percent, Nikki Haley at 3 percent, Mike Pompeo at 2 percent, Ted Cruz at 2 percent, and Rand Paul at 2 percent.
It’s hard to look at this poll and not conclude that Trump, if he decides to run again, is the clear favorite. Of course, it’s impossible to know if he is serious about making another bid for the presidency. It could be that he’s using the threat of another run as a way to remain a kingmaker in the GOP.
Trump has good reasons outside of any desire to return to the White House to keep a tight grip on the Republican Party. He’s under real legal jeopardy for alleged crimes committed before and during his presidency. Having one of two major political parties as his loyal attack dog will help him in any legal case. He can with the snap of a finger have senators and congressmen denouncing any criminal justice case against him, putting fear into prosecutors. As the de facto head of the Republican Party, Trump can recast himself as a victim of a political witch hunt.
Trump’s legal position explains why he’s not quietly retiring into private life and avoiding political controversy, as most retired presidents in modern times have done.
Responding to Trump’s CPAC speech, Nikki Haley tweeted, “Strong speech by President Trump about the winning policies of his administration and what the party needs to unite behind moving forward. The liberal media wants a GOP civil war. Not gonna happen.”
Haley is right that there won’t be a Republican civil war. That’s because GOP politicians like her have been thoroughly subdued by Trump. Ironically, it’s ambition that makes Haley and her colleagues subservient to Trump, but in letting so capricious a figure run their party, these Republican leaders are poisoning their own political brand. If Haley is polling at 3 percent among Republicans, she has only herself to blame.