Trump Has Spoken. For Republicans, He Is Still the Leader

Trump received a standing ovation after his speech, and strengthened his position as the certain GOP leader. The question is, for how long?

Donald Trump gave his first speech since leaving the White House at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. Enthusiastically greeted by participants in the event, this year in Orlando, Florida, the former president appeared as the unquestionable leader of the Republican Party. He spoke of its future, stressing the need for unity around the conservative canon of values: limiting the role of the government, lowering taxes, deregulation of the economy, the right to bear arms and the affirmation of traditional values such as patriotism, the defense of unborn lives and the presence of religion in public life.

It was, however, mainly an appeal for unity around himself. Trump declared that “our journey” — which was supposed to mean the continuation of his right-wing populist policy — “has only just begun,” indicating he would run again for the White House in 2024. “I may even decide to beat them for a third time, OK?” he said, stating that he still thinks his reelection was stolen last November.

Opinion polls indicate that a great majority of Republicans want Trump to be their presidential candidate in four years. In straw polls taken during CPAC, traditional ballots to show who the party activists see as a candidate for the White House, Trump received the most votes at 55%. He decisively defeated such GOP politicians as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who each received a few percent of the vote.

Trump Slams Biden’s Policy

The largest part of the 90-minute speech was devoted to Trump’s scathing criticism of Joe Biden and his administration’s policy, which he dubbed “the radical left-wing” — even though the president has consistently distanced himself from the left wing within the Democratic Party. “In just one short month, we have gone from ‘America First’ to ‘America Last,'” he said.

He began with an attack on Biden’s immigration policy – executive orders canceling the construction of the wall on the Mexican border and ruthless deportations of immigrants without documentation, and taking steps to reunite families who were separated during arrest proceedings. He went on to criticize the refusal to open schools to normal — not virtual — classes, openings that are being delayed due to resistance from teachers demanding mass vaccinations first. According to Trump, this is an opportunistic concession to trade unions by Democrats. (“Joe Biden has sold out America’s children to the teacher’s unions.”)

Finally, he attacked the restrictions on oil and gas drilling that Biden introduced, which, as he claimed, will leave thousands of people jobless and make America dependent on foreign energy supplies.

Trump also spent a lot of time appealing for changes in election law that would eliminate mail-in voting (except for people who are abroad, such as troops on overseas bases), restrict the scale of early voting, and introduce voter ID laws. State legislatures, dominated by Republicans, are already passing bills to do that, and aim, in fact, to restrict voting for key groups of Democratic voters, African Americans and Latinos, in particular, who opted for mail-in voting or early voting most often during the pandemic, ahead of the traditional election date on the first Tuesday of November.

Trump Doesn’t Step Back

Trump’s speech in Orlando was another blatant dismissal of tradition. Former U.S. presidents have traditionally stepped back immediately following their terms in office, and refrained from attacking their successors. Herbert Hoover, despite his problem with accepting defeat in 1932, didn’t criticize Franklin D. Roosevelt until a few months later.

This comes as no surprise, of course, since Trump continued his effort to block Biden’s inauguration up to two weeks before Biden was sworn in, inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol while Congress was certifying the election. Even this evident attempt to breach a basic tenet of democracy, forcefully overturning the voters, did not cause majority of Republicans and party leaders to distance themselves from Trump. They had ignored his antics earlier, including his flirtation with the racist and anti-Semitic far right, his alliance with followers of conspiracy theories, his forcible suppression of peaceful demonstrations against police brutality in Washington and downplaying the COVID-19 pandemic, which only exacerbated the scale of the crisis.

Republican politicians generally yield to Trump’s followers, who dominate in the party. The GOP today is divided into Trumpists, who are even ready to support authoritarianism to stay in power, and traditional conservatives, who supported Trump’s policies but opposed the Jan. 6 riot. The traditional conservatives, like Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and former Vice President Mike Pence, didn’t come to Orlando. (Pence was invited but declined.) Trump targeted and attacked those who staunchly opposed him. The former president named all six senators and 10 members of the House of Representatives who voted in favor of his impeachment and conviction, and he announced that in the next congressional election he would support their rivals on the political right in primary challenges.

Trump, Numero Uno

After his speech in Orlando, Trump received a standing ovation, and commentators for Fox News concluded that he consolidated his position as the certain leader of the GOP. It is not clear, however, for how long. In the wake of Jan. 6, a number of registered voters have left the Republican Party. The outcome of the showdown between the establishment and the Trumpists may be decisive in the midterm elections in 2022. Trump promised to support “good” party candidates, and his status as the leader will depend on their success. At the same time, he emphasized that he would not form his own party, as that would mean defeat for the Republican Party.

Trump’s promises do not matter much. If he does not gain full control over the GOP, he will most likely seek to split up the party, since the only thing that he is interested in is being numero uno, not politically retired.

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