Donald Trump returns to the political stage on Sunday determined to show that he is still a major force in America and ready to purge his critics within the Republican party.
In his first post-presidential speech, Trump will address the biggest annual gathering of grassroots conservatives in Orlando, Florida, immediately after a poll is expected to show he is most attendees’ first choice for the Republican nomination in 2024.
“We’re looking forward to Sunday,” Trump’s son, Don Jr, told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “I imagine it will not be what we call a low energy speech, and I assure you that it will solidify Donald Trump and all of your feelings about the Maga [Make America great again] movement as the future of the Republican party.”
CPAC has always offered a glimpse of tectonic plates shifting beneath the conservative movement. In 2009 the conference disavowed the presidency of George W Bush, which had led to the Iraq war and ended in financial catastrophe. In 2016 it was wary of Trump, who cancelled his speech, but a year later it had fully embraced him and his administration.
In 2021 the conference seems to offer proof that the Republican party is no longer in the political mainstream but has veered into far-right extremism. Speakers have raged against “cancel culture”, radical socialism and “big tech” companies while pushing Trump’s bogus claims of election fraud and denying he has any culpability for the subsequent insurrection at the US Capitol.
CPAC is also working doubly hard to shore up Trump’s position as Republican standard bearer even after he lost the trifecta of White House, House of Representatives and Senate and was twice impeached.
Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC, told the Washington Post: “Even though Donald Trump is a one-term president, there’s this feeling among Republicans that he was a huge, smashing success.
“That doesn’t mean that every moment of every day, of every news cycle, was pleasurable. What it means is that from a policy perspective, he basically ticked through the list of things that he said he would do.”
The cult of personality has manifested itself in Trump bumper stickers, hats, T-shirts, face masks and other merchandise with slogans such as “Trump 2024” and “Miss me yet?”, as well as a giant gold-colored statue of the 45th president dressed in a jacket, red tie and Stars-and-Stripes boxing shorts and wielding a star wand.
Speaker after speaker has ostentatiously pledged their loyalty, implying that the genie cannot be put back in the bottle. Ted Cruz, a Republican senator for Texas, told attendees on Friday: “Let me tell you something: Donald Trump ain’t going anywhere.”
The posture has ensured that Trump’s small band of foes within the Republican party has been targeted for criticism just as much as the man who beat him last November, Democratic president Joe Biden.
Trump Jr warned against any return to an old Republican party beholden to special interests by singling out Liz Cheney, the daughter of Bush’s vice-president Dick Cheney and the No 3 Republican in the House. Cheney voted for Trump’s impeachment after the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol and criticised his plan to appear at CPAC.
Cheney, Trump Jr argued, “is the leader of that failed movement and, if we want to go back to losing, if we want to go back to an America last policy, we should be following that,” he said. “But I don’t, and I don’t think anyone in this room does either.”
Matt Gaetz, a Florida congressman who held a rally in Cheney’s home state of Wyoming to demand her resignation, earned cheers CPAC by asserting: “If Liz Cheney were on this stage today, she would get booed off of it!”
He continued: “What does that say? The leadership of our party is not found in Washington DC. You are the energy, we are America, that’s why they’re in the eight square miles of Washington DC, and we’re here in the sunshine state of Florida.”
Florida is also now Trump’s home as, since departing the White House, he has kept a surprisingly low profile at his luxurious Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. He spends most mornings on his nearby golf course, according to a CNN report, and claims he has increased his drive by 20 yards.
Many at CPAC have perpetuated and promoted Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, arguing that they justified new restrictions on voting. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri proudly defended his vote to challenge the electoral college result just hours after the riot at the Capitol.
“I was called a traitor,” he recalled to a noisy ovation. “I was called a seditionist. The radical left said … I should be expelled from the United States Senate. Well, as I said a moment ago, I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here. I’m going to stand up for you.”
Absences at CPAC are also a political barometer. Mike Pence, the former vice-president targeted by the pro-Trump mob on 6 January, declined an invitation, although organisers insist he remains on friendly terms with his old boss. There is also no sign of Cheney, the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, or former presidential nominee Mitt Romney.
But whether Trump, 74, can or will seek to regain power in 2024 remains far from certain. This week the Manhattan district attorney’s office in New York took possession of eight years’ worth of his tax returns and a mountain of other financial data as it conducts a criminal investigation into his business empire.
Joe Walsh, a Trump critic and former Republican congressman, predicted a rousing reception for him on Sunday but said of 2024: “I think he’ll string everybody along. It all depends on his health. Is he in jail? Is he a gazillion dollars in debt? But assuming he isn’t indicted, if he wants to run, it’s his. I don’t think any Republican will challenge him.”