The claims from his acolytes that any Republican candidate in the future must be “full Trump MAGA,” that the former president will “lead us” in the coming years, and that, by 2024, it will be the “art of the comeback” looked a little more credible Sunday, as America’s most notorious politician delivered a stem-winder of a return address to the calendar’s top conservative conference.
First, Donald Trump put aside the notion that he would found a new party, a “Patriot Party” as scattered reporting had indicated. “I am not starting a new party,” Trump said at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “No. Wouldn’t that be brilliant? Let’s start a new party and let’s divide our vote so that you can never win. No, we’re not interested in that.”
Trump, previously a Democrat who, out of nowhere, convulsed Republican politics six short years ago, and who had in an earlier life flirted with third-party runs for president, seemed to be speaking from experience. Instead, he made clear that after a career of promiscuous political affiliation Trump was going more Republican, if anything. “It’s becoming a party of love,” the former president said, strikingly. “You have to see outside, the streets. I mean, there’s such love,” Trump said of the amassed throng outside in the Orlando heat.
Second, the ex-president waded more explicitly into the ongoing policy battles on the right than ever before. He all but directly used the phrase “multiethnic, working-class party,” the preferred framing of nationalist policy wonks such as Oren Cass of American Compass and Julius Krein of American Affairs (who has denounced Trump), as well as his would-be political heirs, such as Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. Trump derided “corporatists” and “big tech” and said the party must act as a shield for “hard-working citizens of every race, religion, color, and creed.”
“Many people have asked, ‘What is Trumpism?’” the former president mused. “A new term being used more and more.”
Trumpism (“I didn’t come up with” the name, he noted) means “great deals, great trade deals,” such as “the USMCA replacement of the horrible NAFTA.” Trump’s highlight of trade as his signature issue is interesting, as it is widely viewed by alumni of his administration as the policy matter where he most dramatically shifted the Overton window of acceptable discourse, where the man actually built some bipartisan bridges, as was once promised, making Democratic labor leadership sweat.
In a nod to how he once hijacked, but did not capsize, the old Republican coalition, Trump said his philosophy also “means low taxes” and the elimination of “job-killing regulations.” It means “very strong protection for the Second Amendment and the right to keep and bear arms.” When speaking more extemporaneously, Trump often lapsed into referring to it as “your Second Amendment,” at the very least an admission he isn’t a member of the NRA for the reasons Charlton Heston was.
But the meat of Trump’s speech was on the issue that launched him to power more than any other: immigration.
Allies of the president such as Stephen Miller anticipate, if not actively root for, a little bit of deja vu. That is, that like the last Democratic administration President Biden’s term will be defined by a national, existential crisis about immigration. Echoing talking points in recent weeks from Miller and other Trump alumni, such as former acting Homeland Security secretary Chad Wolf, Trump said: “By recklessly eliminating our border security measures, controls, all of the things that we put into place, Joe Biden has triggered a massive flood of illegal immigration.”
Trump argued that “we’re one country, we can’t afford the problems of the world as much as we’d love to” and “perhaps worst of all, Joe Biden’s decision to cancel border security has single-handedly launched a youth migrant crisis that is enriching…some of the most evil people on the planet. You see it every day, just turn on the news.”
But some things have changed since last decade.
After moving the Supreme Court right with the installations of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, Trump made clear he believed, unlike the Republican establishment, his achievement had been all hat and no cattle. Florida’s most famous resident could not depart the 170 miles south back to Mar-A-Lago without hitting on his most provocative, divisive hobby horse. Trump insisted still that the 2020 election was stolen from him. “They should be ashamed of themselves for what they’ve done to our country,” Trump said of SCOTUS. “They didn’t have the guts or the courage to make the right decision. They didn’t want to talk about it.”
Whatever one thinks of the charges Trump and his entourage levy, and I think they’re wholly unproven after the president was given months to prove his case, it’s clear that the reality of Trump hanging around means the voter fraud narrative has gone mainstream, if that word can be said to mean anything.
No matter how de-platformed Trump remains, no matter how pedantically the New York Times insists otherwise, this is no longer the stuff of the fringes. Trump, for now, still clearly sits in the captain’s chair of one of America’s two storied parties, a party that got more than 70 million votes, and nearly again captured Congress and the White House.
The prudent course, perhaps, if Democrats remain insistent on a 9/11-Commission style investigation of domestic extremism after the mayhem on Capitol Hill earlier this winter, would be for Republicans to offer a serious voting rules overhaul and inquiry in exchange, likely the least bad option for a minority party. If Democrats reject the offer, it would be an early mark against President Biden’s pledge for unity.
Because we know Donald Trump is licking his chops. Waiting for Biden to mess up. To be utterly captured by his left flank.
As Harry Kazianis of 19FortyFive correctly reported ahead of the address, Trump did not officially announce a comeback bid Sunday. He did everything but. “Don’t ever forget it. With your help, we will take back the House. We will win the Senate,” Trump said. “And then a Republican President will make a triumphant return to the White House.”
The politician-in-exile concluded, to frenzied applause of the faithful: “And I wonder who that will be? I wonder who that will be. Who, who will that be? I wonder.”
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