Donald J Trump had run out of steam. Somewhere around the 15 minute mark, after repeatedly lying about winning the election that he lost, claiming Joe Biden was about to trigger a flood of illegal immigration into the country, and referring, rather absurdly, to the new administration as “anti-science”, the former president started to appear flat.
It was Trump’s first public speech since he’d boarded Air Force One to the strains of Village People’s “YMCA” the morning of Biden’s inauguration. Monday morning Australian time, he took the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida (headline: “America Uncanceled”) for a turgid 90 minute rerun of his greatest hits.
A Trump speech isn’t a speech so much as an event. The former president does not talk like a normal person. He rambles, he jokes, he revs up the raucous crowd, dropping quietly into that conspiratorial, personal register. And he lies. A lot.
But at times today, it felt the audience at CPAC, the kind of people so deeply embedded in the former president’s cult of personality that they greeted him with a garish gold statue, needed to be injected with enthusiasm Jeb Bush-style.
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They booed half-halfheartedly when Trump announced Biden was about to open up the country to “dangerous predators” from Latin America
“By the hundreds of thousands, by the millions they’re coming!” he warned.
They weren’t too excited by his attacks on trans women athletes, a new bit in the Trump repertoire.
Instead, what got them going was a tired, unconvincing rehashing of the same old conspiracies and grievances. Trump, who treats winning like a kind of divine right, spent a lot of time lamenting the sheer injustice of the American people not letting him be president again.
“So how the hell is it possible that I lost?” Trump asked, continuing the dangerous lie which led his supporters to try and storm the US Capitol just weeks ago.
By reminding the crowd of the great betrayal, he injected fury back into their veins.
The Supreme Court, Trump said “didn’t have the guts or the courage to make the right decision”.
He spat bile at each GOP representative who had voted for his impeachment, naming them individually.
And, in true reality TV style, Trump continued to tease about the prospects of running again in 2024.
“We will take back the House, we’ll win the Senate, and then, a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House, and I wonder who that will be?” Trump said.
“Who, who who will that be, I wonder?”
The message was clear. The Republican Party is Trump’s to do with as he pleases. He may be a one-term president, who presided over the deaths of nearly 500,000 Americans from COVID-19 and left the country bitter, broken, and exhausted, but for a GOP base increasingly unmoored from reality, he is a living deity, and the party’s kingmaker for many elections to come.
But there are also signs that interest is waning in the parallel universe of Trump. CPAC is about as deep in the Trumpian swamp as you can get. But even there, he only got 55% of the conference’s infamous straw-poll, a barometer of who the American right see as their lodestar. Ron DeSantis, the Florida governor who carved a political career out of licking Trump’s boots, was next.
Outside that parallel reality, Joe Biden has approval ratings Trump never had. He’s back to doing presidential things like bombing Syria, to coos of approval from Liberals. And after four years of the comic horror show in the White House, many Americans are more than happy to look away.
CNN and MSNBC didn’t even carry the speech. The New York Times write-up was more than half-way down the homepage. In Orlando, Trump roared about the injustice of it all. Most of the country ignored him, the bad memories of a bad dream.