In His Return to Politics, Donald Trump Uses Lies and Bullying to Threaten His Party

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Philip Elliott
·4 min read
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Former President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 28, 2021.
Former President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 28, 2021.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Feb. 28, 2021. Credit - Elijah Nouvelage—Bloomberg/Getty Images

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Donald Trump lost his bid for re-election almost four months ago, but judging from the former President’s remarks over the weekend, neither he nor a conservative enclave of his Republican Party have come to terms with that reality.

In his first public appearance since leaving the White House, Trump seethed in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Sunday about the election results, in which he lost the popular vote by 7 million votes to President Joe Biden. Against all evidence, Trump continued to falsely claim he had prevailed over the Democrats, the election was stolen from him and massive voter fraud had been perpetrated against America’s democracy. He cast doubt on the validity of an election that saw the highest levels of voter turnout in a century, threatened his critics by name and vowed retribution in the next round of balloting.

“But who knows? I might even decide to beat them for a third time,” Trump said, coyly hinting that he might seek the presidency in 2024.

Thus unfurled a 90-minute rant and reminder that, at least to one corner of the Republican Party, Trump is not just its most immediate past but perhaps also its future. The former reality star remains an animating force in American politics, a voice that is the loudest in an already noisy space of conservative braggarts and provocateurs. Among the self-selecting slice of conservatives who attend CPAC, which is hosted by the American Conservative Union, Trump remains the most popular figure; he captured the majority of participants’ support in a much-watched but seldom-predictive straw poll held at the conference each year.

Trump’s dominance on the right — at least as perceived three years before its first presidential primaries — is cause for plenty of angst among other quarters of the GOP. Trump still commands the attention of much of the party that he remade in his image and led to crushing losses in the White House, the Senate and the House. His brand of politics has proven toxic in the suburbs, among women and with persons of color. His antagonism wins high marks in conservative media but disdain among the swing voters the Republican Party needs if it’s to regain power. And rather than heed the warnings — issued without ambiguity by voters last November — there remains a sect of the party that thinks Trump offers a prescription for the GOP’s comeback.

To those doubters, Trump has a clear message: excommunication. During his rambling, campaign-style appearance, Trump called out the skeptics in his party and those who voted against him during his second impeachment. He lashed out at those who sought to hold him accountable for inciting an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, ignoring the event itself that left several people dead in its wake. The true sin was disloyalty to Trump, not the attempt to overturn the legitimate vote tallies. And when it came time to discredit hate, Trump was silent, standing on a stage that more than a few people noted looked an awful lot like a Nazi insignia.

Trump’s continued hold on the GOP shows few signs of weakening. Even as he inspires fretting among party stalwarts, he remains a dominating force — one that the Establishment wing of the GOP cannot risk losing. For now, Trump appears to be stepping away from a threat to start a splinter third party. If the GOP thinks its prospects are tough at the moment, imagine a conservative party cleaved in two.

For his part, Trump seems to understand that last point all too well. As he took the stage on Sunday, the mischief in his voice was as clear as his willingness to spread non-facts in pursuit of his grievances. “Do you miss me yet?” he said to cheers. In that room, the answer was clear.

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