Donald Trump has his best and worst, as everyone does. When it comes to public speaking, his best hasn’t been around for a long time. But play the speech he gave at this weekend’s CPAC and you’ll see him in something like his old form. As always he lied and complained and said nasty things. He went very hard on the us-vs.-them, America’s ongoing clash of cultures. (As hard as this: “I am your retribution,” he told his followers.) There was nothing to admire about what he had to say. But he was sparky. You read about ancient Trump sitting at Mar-a-Lago, letting his campaign go to hell; you remember the droning waxwork who announced last fall. Instead sparky Trump shows up and it’s the first time since the old days, when he was baiting Jeb Bush and little Marco. To horserace the matter, he looks like a creature who can run for the GOP nomination and win it. That’s not the same as actually doing so. But it’s a lot better than looking like some heap that’s not just inhuman but inert, which the candidate was doing last November.
Attendance was down for the latest edition of the Conservative Political Action Conference, but the people who made it tended to go Trump. Fox sponsored nothing, only one member of the congressional leadership showed up to speak, but the gathering’s straw poll gave Trump a routine and inevitable 62 percent. During the conference a “Trump adviser” told Bloomberg that the candidate’s CPAC speech would, in the reporter’s words, “draw a strong contrast” with Ron DeSantis. The speech did no such thing. Trump, though revved up, kept his mouth away from any mention of intra-party competitors. He seemed bent on getting more out of the people who’ve already picked him, such as the several rows of true believers who packed a brief space in front of the CPAC stage for his talk. Mail-in voting’s okay after all, the big man told the crowd; go for it. And beware the apocalypse because those “globalists,” and the “Communists and tyrants,” are getting closer.
More votes and more fear from the same small crowd, that was the order of the day. Or perhaps he was offering more fear, not demanding it. Eight years ago Trump talked about a rigged system and the dumb people in charge, and so on. It was the kind of analysis you’d hear in a bar. Now it’s more what you’d see on a sinister crank message board. Steve Bannon started him on this line and the line’s been coming up heavy. Most words out of Trump’s mouth are still those of the same old slob, but for the big-picture stuff he’s imported lingo. Presumably his core followers want it there and he has to keep them happy, since his non-core followers have been vanishing. But, demand or supply, more fear’s being called for. That Trump has made this shift and can still sound perky shows that he understands nothing beyond working people’s buttons.
He unveiled his new opinion about mail voting toward the end of a 100 or so minutes of non-stop talk, around the part where he got to trans issues and made clear that new sensation wouldn’t pass him by (“Day one” to take some strong, unspecified action to keep trans women out of cis women’s sports). But most of the talk, score after score after score of the minutes in the 100 minutes, went to Trump: The Saga, meaning his narration of the heartaches forced on him by Democrats, the press, and investigators. “We used to build in this country,” the ex-leader mused. “Now we investigate.” His accounts of his own troubles played out against a quiet punctuated by responsive laughs and free of coughing; an encouraging quiet but not necessarily rapt. He did get a big response, including chants of USA, when he said he’d “obliterate the Deep State,” and there was similar for a Biden senility jab (this time with chants of “Let’s go, Brandon”). The trans material, bundled in there at the end, brought a roar.
The raid on Mar-a-Lago received 10 seconds of his time, no more. By story logic the raid might be the climax of Trump: The Saga, since the malefactors of state power sent their agents straight to his door and into his home. This was just last summer, but last summer’s crisis has faded. News stories on Trump’s speech leave the raid unmentioned, and he was too busy imitating General Milley’s dumb voice (up high, rasping, lurchingly emphatic: “Yes, sir, it’s cheaper, sir”) to replay details. The wall did show up, however. Trump says he built a bit of it, “as promised,” and he’s very stern with President Biden for not building the rest.
Trump: The Saga’s always a big affair, what with reminiscences about world leaders (“Vlad”), sideswipes about high-level policy (the Afghanistan exit, “greatest disgrace”), and assurances about staggering future results (a favorite: “I’m the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent—and very easily—World War III. Very easily”). For the opening and closing phases of his talk, Trump went even bigger. The opening was apocalyptic, in that Trump built to the following riff: “This is the final battle. They know it, I know it, you know it. Everyone knows it. Either they win or we win, and if they win, we no longer have a country.”
The close attempted majesty: Trump mounted through a peroration about making America rich again, making America strong again, making America safe again, and making America great again. A man was bringing his followers’ souls together, collecting them beneath the solemn oath that he alone took. That was the idea anyway. In the end it was Trump with some losers.