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Trump at CPAC: What Year Is It?

If Donald Trump is back in 2015 form then the 2024 election is his to lose.

Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC
(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“That’s why I’m standing before you. Because we are going to finish what we started. We started something that was America. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory. We’re going to make America great again.” 

The Conservative Political Action Conference was, by all reports, a much diminished affair this year. Like much of the country, CPAC remains not fully recovered to pre-Covid lockdown glory (not that I would know what that looked like; I’ve never been, and, at this rate, seem unlikely to ever go). But if it is a pettier kingdom than it once was, Donald Trump remains its sovereign. 


The 45th won the conference straw poll handily, with 62 percent. And though some viewers were predictably put off by a speech they found “dark,” Trump won the day rhetorically, too. His CPAC address suggests a renewed focus by his re-election campaign on the themes and realities that placed him in the White House in the first place. 

“In 2016, I declared I am your voice. Today, I add I am your warrior, I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.” Much has been made of this line in particular, a new “American carnage” synecdoche for the speech as a whole. And it should be, for to those not blinkered by the conventions and norms of professional politics, “I am your retribution” is a reminder of what made Trump a special candidate from the start. 

“I had a beautiful life before I did this. I lived in luxury. I had everything. People said to me, ‘Are you sure you want to do it, sir?’ I said, ‘Oh, this will be so amazing.’ What the hell did you get me into? I didn’t know the word subpoena. I didn’t know the word grand jury.” This is the fact that the deranged have so much difficulty acknowledging; it still rankles, and so they still reach for fantasies of Russian conspiracy. 

George W. Bush became president the old way, the final rung on an American cursus honorum, scion of an establishment family and already a governor. Barack Obama streamlined the Clinton process, the presidency a stepping stone into the public-private life of wealth and power that defines our global elite. Joe Biden, too, only became rich after becoming a senator. Trump broke that mold, leaving a life of opulence to enter an arena that has left him far more vulnerable than he ever was before.

This is why the MAGA base believes him when Trump says, as he has before and did again last week, “But they’re not coming after me, they’re coming after you and I’m just standing in their way.” He stands for the base; he stands up for them—it is what representation, re-presentation, means. “When a wonderful town in Ohio has difficulty, we are going to take care of that town, that city, that village prior to worrying about the rest of the world.” And if Trump sticks to that, he will be the 2024 Republican nominee for president. 


“People are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see America first. That’s what they want. It’s not too complicated.” It really isn’t that complicated, putting America first. On trade, on the border, and most of all on foreign policy, this is where Trump has further set himself apart from the American political establishment and its conventions, assumptions, and interests as a global class apart. 

“At the top of my list, we’ll be stopping the slide into costly and never-ending wars, we got to stop it. Can’t keep spending hundreds of billions of dollars protecting people that don’t even like us.” As the last year of Ukraine hysterics has shown, Europe has no interest in pulling its own weight and the old GOP has no interest in making them. “We are never going back to a party that wants to give unlimited money to fight foreign wars that are endless wars, that are stupid wars, but at the same time, demands that we cut veterans benefits and retirement benefits at home.”

On China: “They built their military and they have a very powerful military with the money that we gave them. How stupid are we?” On his record: “I was the only president in modern history who did not have any new wars, no new wars. I finished some old ones.” On his temperament: 

Remember when the Democrats and my Republican opponents would often look at me during the debates or whatever and they’d say, “No, no. He’s going to bring us into World War III because it’s a personality type.” They said I had the personality. No, I had the personality type that kept us out of wars because people knew that they weren’t going to mess around with us.

Is he wrong? 

If you look at Ukraine, and we all feel so badly about it, but why isn’t NATO putting up dollar for dollar with us? We put up $140 billion and they put up just a tiny fraction of that. And we all want to see success, but it’s far more important to them than it is to us because of that location.

No one talks about NATO like Trump: 

They’re rich as hell right now, they spent on an office building that cost $3 billion. It’s like a skyscraper in Manhattan laid on its side, it’s one of the longest buildings I’ve ever seen, and I said, “You should have, instead of spending $3 billion, you should have spent $500 million building the greatest bunker you’ve ever seen.” Because Russia wouldn’t even need an airplane attack. One tank, one shot through that beautiful glass building and it’s gone.

Is he wrong? 

One can dispute the man on Iran, the danger to America it does or doesn’t pose and the tactics of non-proliferation. But that is a sideshow, and will be a sideshow, unless people like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo are allowed back into a Trump administration. There is potential for misstep in personnel once again. One cannot dispute that China is our nearest peer rival, however, or that our southern border is in chaos. Both are as much foreign policy and national security issues as they are trade and culture questions, and in regards to both of them Donald J. Trump shows himself less narcissistic than our political establishment. 

“Fentanyl is pouring in. Families are being wiped out, destroyed, and there’s death everywhere, all caused by incompetence. Millions of illegal aliens are stampeding across our border. Interior enforcement has been shut down.” A Republican House says it will hold Biden and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas to account for a worsening disaster, but Congress is weak, and there is only so much a realist can expect C-SPAN show ponies to do. “To stop the flow of deadly drugs, it will be my policy to take down the cartels just as I took down the ISIS caliphate that everybody said was impossible to do.”

The proverbial first step of recognizing that we have a problem in China has been taken by more and more of the governing class since Trump forced it on them, but he remains the boldest voice about it on the national stage. “I will revoke China’s most favored nation’s trade status immediately on day one, and I will implement a four-year plan to phase out all Chinese imports of essential goods and gain total independence from China. We have to do it.” Decoupling, as the nerds here in D.C. put it, will be a painful process, though, sure to meet resistance at home as much as abroad. “​​I smashed the false idols of the free trade fanatics. These are fools or they’re getting very rich, probably the second.”

If it was a dark speech, it is only because we live in dark times. Who can pretend now that they are certain their children will inherit a safer, more prosperous America than they did? There were thirty years of excess, America standing tall alone, detached from limits and reality, and now the bill is coming due. “If those opposing us succeed, our once beautiful USA will be a failed country that no one will even recognize. A lawless, open borders, crime-ridden, filthy, communist nightmare.” Is he wrong?

It was not a speech without hope, however: 

Our objective will be a quantum leap in the American standard of living, especially for our young people. As I announced yesterday, we will hold a competition to build new freedom cities on the frontier to give countless Americans a new shot at home ownership and the American dream. It’s such a wonderful, beautiful thing. 

I’ll challenge the governors of all fifty states, all fifty states, to join me in a great beautification campaign. We will rename our schools and boulevards not after communists, but after great American patriots. We will get rid of bad and ugly buildings in return to the magnificent classical style of Western civilization. 

We will support baby boomers, and we will support baby bonuses for a new baby boom. How does that sound? I want a baby boom. Oh, you men are so lucky out there. You’re so lucky. You are so lucky, men. 

Our country will shine, thrive, and prosper like never before. All of this is within our reach, but only if we have the courage to complete the job, gut the deep state, reclaim our democracy, and banish the tyrants and Marxists into political exile forever.