(CNN)Nothing can destroy former President Donald Trump in the eyes of those who love him, one reason why his hold on American politics remains formidable.
The ex-President showed this weekend that defeat after a single term, the disgrace of his insurrection against American democracy and the deaths of 400,000 Americans on his watch in a pandemic he downplayed don’t hurt his appeal to Republicans. In fact, the efforts of potential 2024 rivals to replicate his extremism show Trump’s strange magic is only validated by his transgressions.
The former President was the star turn at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas Sunday — an organization that once lionized a champion of global democracy, President Ronald Reagan, yet has morphed into a Trump cult.
“We were doing so well until the rigged election happened to come along,” Trump said, voicing the lie at the center of the conference that he has made the entry point for GOP candidates in 2022, potentially poisoning US elections for years.
There is an argument that a former President who is out of power but still desperate for attention should just be ignored. Certainly, a rambling, vain and lie-filled speech by Trump lacked coherence and any kind of aspirational appeal, instead highlighting his characteristic cocktail of racial demagoguery, personal swipes at enemies, mountainous falsehoods and desperate trawling for personal adulation. To an outsider, it may have come across as tedious and a pale imitation of the rollicking and sometimes even humorous appearances that paved Trump’s path to power in 2016. But in hitting every sensitive hot spot in the conservative media canon — from law and order to “cancel culture” to immigration, to complaints that all the media speaks about is “race, race, race,” Trump demonstrated his still unmatched capacity to sell outrage politics. But more than that, he demonstrated his ability to conjure an alternative belief system that is divorced from reality but that his supporters immediately adopt — the hallmark of strongmen leaders throughout history.
He for instance launched into a searing attack against former Attorney General William Barr, who for most of his time in office acted as a political shield for Trump’s crushing of political norms but drew the line at his election lies.
“I said, ‘Bill, you got to move your ass. Our country is under attack,’ ” the former President said, thus confirming his own unprecedented assault on US democratic institutions while complaining that Barr had not authorized investigations into false claims of voter fraud in Pennsylvania. His admission underscored yet again that even the most zealous enablers who fail to buy into his abuses of power are sooner or later branded by the ex-President as heretics.
Trumpism is on the march in red America
Trump is not just popular at CPAC where the crowd greeted his speech with glee. That his populist extremism is now being implemented by GOP governors across states he won shows his enduring power. So do the countrywide efforts by Republican state lawmakers to restrict voting based on his lies about a stolen election. Trump’s capacity to orchestrate the behavior of Republicans is almost as intact as it was when he was sitting in the Oval Office — his derailing of a bipartisan, independent probe of the January 6 outrage is proof of that. All these are reasons why Trump cannot be just disregarded.
Six months after his supporters ransacked the US Capitol — amid an effort by top GOP officials to reinvent the history of that moment, the former President’s threat to American democracy remains extreme. And even if Trump never runs for President again — and he gives every impression of already being launched on a four-year campaign — the brand of grievance politics he invented and maintains will be on the ballot — as his list of possible heirs, from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, shows.
So while much of Trump’s speech was backward looking, providing a rosy and untrue picture of an administration that left his country deeply divided, the false belief system that has captured the hearts and minds of millions of voters is real.
The crucial question is whether the message that is so electric to Trump’s supporters will still cause the kind of revulsion among suburban and more moderate voters who deserted Trump’s GOP and saw him lose the House, the Senate and the White House over a single four-year term.
And could another messenger like DeSantis or Noem, or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott make it quite so bewitching to the conservative base?
The former President is relentless on targeting issues like undocumented migration, the calls by some liberals to defund the police and the rising crime wave to paint the country as out of control and under the sway of far left wingers — as a possible route to broadening his appeal.
But his continued torching of truth comes at a time when President Joe Biden is noticeably all but ignoring his predecessor, positioning himself as a moderate, traditional commander-in-chief. This week, Biden will discuss gun violence and crime in the cities that has spiked as the pandemic eases its grip. He will likely plead with Americans again to get vaccinated to finally defeat Covid-19 — even as Trump acolytes like Republican Reps. Marjo
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