In his keynote CPAC speech, Donald Trump once again demonstrated why his leadership of the Republican Party has led to electoral loss after electoral loss. His rambling speech was unlikely to appeal to anyone not already firmly ensconced in the conservative bubble. When he did settle into a coherent statement, it was more often than not a vicious attack on his Republican rivals.
The combination is a looming nightmare for the GOP. Trump has no vision for the future himself and is determined to torch the party if it attempts to move on from him. The media loves Democrats in disarray stories, but Trump makes it clear that there is an almost limitless potential for Republican dysfunction in 2024.
It would be giving Trump too much credit to say that his speech had a theme. He alternately boasted about his exaggerated accomplishments as president and whined about how persecuted he is. He repeatedly claimed that he had won the 2020 election, of course, reiterating the election lies that led to the January 6 insurrection. He repeated false claims that he forced NATO countries to pay more for their own defense, and that he had almost finished his border wall. He also claimed radical leftists kept calling him during his presidency to compliment him on his handling of the economy.
Interspersed with these greatest hits was a familiar list of grievances. He kept returning obsessively to the numerous criminal prosecutions targeting him. He attacked Stormy Daniels, the adult performer to whom he made hush money payment ahead of the 2016 over an alleged past affair. He also insisted again he had not pressured Ukraine to dig up incriminating material about Joe Biden.
Normally, Trump’s meandering and tedious speech would signal a potential opening for his rivals in the GOP. But the annual CPAC straw poll suggests that Trump continues to have a stranglehold on the party faithful; he won 62 percent of the vote. His chief rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, only garnered 20 percent.
More than that, Trump signaled his willingness to target his intra-party opponents with the kind of attacks usually reserved for Democrats. The speech was directed not just against Biden, but against what Trump referred to as an older Republican Party “ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, and fools.” He singled out former House Speaker and current Fox Network board member Paul Ryan as enemies. And he also targeted Jeb Bush – the former governor of Florida who recently praised Ron DeSantis, Trump’s chief rival in the still-nascent 2024 race.
Trump gestured at some possible policy differences with Republican rivals. He attacked right-wing efforts to cut Medicare or raise age requirements for Social Security (hearing CPAC enthusiastically applaud New Deal programs was a little surreal). He also promised to oppose forever wars, and suggested he would not support Ukraine in its efforts to force out invading Russian forces.
Trump also went all in on election conspiracies, insisting he wanted to end mail-in votes and have single-day voting. The specifics are again secondary to the sentiment; Trump is telling GOP voters that the electoral system is rigged and unfair. This is his reaction to losing elections. So, if he loses the Republican nomination, what is he going to do? Is he going to concede quietly? Or is he going to claim his Republican rivals stole the election?
Trump is an ongoing threat to the country. But before that, he’s a threat to the Republican Party. He will likely have trouble in a general election, but he is also signalling more and more clearly that he is willing to tear the GOP apart if it defies him.