Three years ago, I made a short documentary at CPAC called On a Day That Doesn’t Exist. The “conference”—more like a festival if you’re anyone but an elected official or a lobbyist—ran for three or four days, but we only went for the last two, February 28 and 29, 2020. Despite being Bernie Sanders supporters in the last two elections, we all wanted to check out the scene and get a nice little movie out of it. Living in Baltimore, CPAC 2020 was only about an hour or so away, down in National Harbor, MD. I’m not sure where it was held this year—and I know last year was in Florida? Texas? Georgia? because of mask mandates. Even if our trip was a total bust, we had little to invest or lose.
But I was still surprised by how close we could actually get with a camera and a microphone. After receiving our badges, we knotted our way into the convention center and found the main hall, where Ivanka Trump was speaking about nothing with a few other people—including, I think, recently scandalized CPAC head Matt Schlapp—to a nearly empty room. But things were not deserted: even on day one, there was the bizarre buzz of a carnival and an airport, a place where state senators and Congressmen from the South mingled with morning zoo radio hosts, drag queens, and Donald Trump super fans. We ran into some Young Republicans just after they’d ousted a neo-Nazi from the building—or was it the other way around? I remember coming home that night and looking over the footage, and feeling a deep sinking in my stomach, and a cold I’ve rarely felt before, and never looking at footage I’ve shot.
It’s remarkably easy to keep your distance and composure when filming, but at home, the real violence behind these eyes and in their words was chilling. I only say all this to set up day two, when then-President Trump spoke. Pulling in that day was completely different: besides the charged air of a V.I.P. in the Zone (snipers, dozens of cop cars, armed guards at every door, an endless series of metal detectors), there was a pickup truck sponsored by Project Veritas rolling around the front of the complex, with an electronic sign that said something like, “EPSTEIN DIDN’T KILL HIMSELF.” Once we finally got inside, and found our spots, and Trump took the stage, the reality really hit me that this was no different than filming a band at the Ottobar, or The Crown, or even Whartscape more than a decade ago.
People didn’t respond to him like a politician, or even a leader. They responded to him as a performer, an actor, a presence, a comedian (even he was surprised by the Michael Bloomberg joke that leveled the room). I started up on the stands with CNN, then made it up to the pit with other accredited photojournalists, and even after two hours, Trump’s charisma and skill as a speaker was undeniable. The first half was pure entertainment—New York Bitching—but as I got closer, he started throwing out more red meat: “little angels” being “ripped out of the womb” by their heartless, cunt mothers—or something to that effect. Keep in mind we accredited photojournalists were standing right next to a section of diehard true believers, people who’d paid hundreds of dollars to sit this close to their (current king). They weren’t there to howl at Bloomberg or Elizabeth Warren jokes, they wanted to hear about the little angels and the Democrats killing them.
We left National Harbor on that night that didn’t exist, and felt certain he was going to win a second term. Despite good news that day for Sanders, it was short-lived, and he’d quickly be stabbed in the back and every other section of his body by his opponents in the race, finally throwing an easy debate to Dementia Joe Biden in the name of honor, grace, nobility, respect, whatever. He should’ve asked him to spell the word “RED” and to count backwards from 99. Just like Trump is going to call Ron DeSantis a rapist on live television at the first debate. I’ve maintained throughout the last three years that, unless imprisoned or invalid, Trump will run again and win. In the absence of any clear challenger on either side, Trump’s one-of-a-kind ego world machine remains unstoppable. The “bogus” aspects of the 2020 election are less suspicious than the outright crime of the Supreme Court deciding the 2000 election, and as long as he doesn’t embrace transphobia and tiptoes around coronavirus, I don’t see how anyone can beat him.
“I am your retribution” proves that Trump still has it: the juice and creativity of an entertainer that I saw in a packed hall on a day that didn’t exist in February 2020, just before the world locked down. He’s Zelig, he’s Dorian Gray, he’s Boba Fett, he’s the Cheshire Cat, and your bitchy Jewish aunt, and so much more—he’s your Savior. Even an emergency celebrity candidate like Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, or Edward Norton (it’s in his blood) couldn’t stop him unless they start now. In June 2023, eight years after he announced his first run for President, we’ll know where we stand, and how likely the madness of the Trump era continues, an era that never really ended. Despite his refusal to return to Twitter, Trump’s longer missives on Truth Social, and his increasing speaking appearances, get far more attention than Biden or anything his administration is doing. He remains the One Free Radical.
Marianne Williamson is our other radical, my vote for president this time. Why not? Fuck You! But she doesn’t stand a chance unless the media take her seriously, which they won’t. Trump will be treated basically the same, but his voters don’t abide by the media like liberals, centrists, and “sane Republicans.” I can’t stress enough how far gone America is when it comes to electing a president. Between two stale choices, you can only go one way. But when Donald Trump is an option? You’re in denial if you don’t think it’s going to happen again. Unfortunately, no one has come forward as an alternative, and this stupid world might just keep going down, down, down for another four years.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith