Oxon Hill, Maryland The ex-president closes his eyes and enjoys the cheers of his admirers. Donald Trump goes through the names of his most loyal friends: Jair Bolsonaro, who has found shelter in the United States since the lost Brazilian presidential election, is sitting in the front row.
“Very, very popular” is Bolsonaro, Trump enthuses, the Brazilian stands up and bows. Both politicians have been friends for a long time – and neither of them recognize their electoral defeats to this day. “Bring me back to the White House,” Trump calls to applause, “I’m your vengeance.”
On Saturday evening, Trump gave the closing speech at the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), the largest right-wing conservative gathering in the United States. In terms of content, she recalled his appearances in 2016, when the Republicans won against Hillary Clinton with him as a candidate. In 2020, Trump lost to Joe Biden. Now he wants to secure his party’s nomination for the third time in a row.
Germany also addressed Trump at one point. “I warned the world about Nord Stream 2,” he said of the German-Russian pipeline, which was shut down after the outbreak of the Ukraine war.
Trump threatened an “immediate end” to aid to Ukraine if he became president again and promised to “finish out” his refugee wall with the money.
Part of the base is stubbornly loyal to Donald Trump
Most recently, Trump had lost support among major donors and in polls. In addition, several investigations are ongoing against him, including for inciting the riot during the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. In the last congressional elections, the candidates he supported performed poorly in rows. And yet a sizeable section of the Republican base remains with Trump.
At CPAC, they cheered him as he invoked the “fight to save our country, which is being destroyed by junkies, Marxists, thugs, refugees and socialists.” They hooted when he said, “They’re going to want to stop me, they want to shut you up, but they’re not going to make it.” And they celebrated his course in isolationism. “We will never pump unlimited money into endless wars again,” Trump promised. “I am the only candidate who can guarantee: I will prevent World War III.”
Trump got by far the most speaking time at the four-day conference, he was on the stage for almost two hours. The CPAC used to bring together the various conservative currents in the USA. After its inception in 1974, the spectacle was considered “Woodstock for conservatives”. But since 2011, with the rise of the Tea Party movement, the conference has become increasingly radical.
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Today, the CPAC seems more loyal to Trump than ever, some participants are already calling it “TPAC”, in reference to the Trumpists’ dominance. This development reflects the growing rift within Republicans. In addition to Trump, former UN ambassador Nikki Haley and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have made their Republican bid official.
Other campaigns are in the pipeline, including by ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence. A promising candidate is Ron DeSantis, governor of Florida, who wants to separate Trump’s party and is the only politician in polls to come close to the ex-president. DeSantis also criticizes the aid to Ukraine and recently warned of a “blank check from the USA”.
Why Ron DeSantis stayed away
The governor canceled his participation in the CPAC and thus avoided a direct confrontation with Trump for the time being. The 44-year-old is demonstratively focusing on supporters outside of the Trump universe, on Friday he was celebrated at the powerful “Club for Growth” in Florida. The influential conservative organization that lobbies against taxes broke with Trump some time ago.
Last week, DeSantis released a book detailing his fight against Disney and celebrating Florida as the state “where wokism will die.” DeSantis is expected to announce his candidacy in late spring. This Sunday he will deliver a keynote speech at the prestigious Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California – another signal that the candidacy is imminent.
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Trump’s opponents can’t get past the former president. At the CPAC, his competitors tried to differentiate themselves from him without alienating the Trump disciples. Haley and Pompeo were two of the few top moderate Republicans on CPAC. Both were formerly part of Trump’s government, now they are calling for a restart of their party.
Haley avoided calling Trump by name but called for following “a new generation of politicians”. Trump is 76 years old, incumbent Biden is 80. “It’s a crisis of conservatism,” said Haley. “We’re right, but people have lost faith that we’re right.” Pompeo, who has yet to announce a candidacy, warned of “tragic egos that refuse to face reality.”
An anti-ESG candidate takes Donald Trump as a role model
Candidate Ramaswamy called Trump an “inspiration” but also said Republicans shouldn’t “look in the rearview mirror.” Like Trump, Ramaswamy initially does not want to rely on large donors, but on a grassroots movement. “Fortunately, I’m able to finance my campaign myself,” he told Handelsblatt.
The 37-year-old started his career as a biotech investor and hedge fund partner. He received attention for his book “Woke, Inc.”, which is directed against ESG funds. In his speech at CPAC, he focused on culture wars and freedom of speech, and invoked a “new national identity in America.”
Various scenarios are circulating among Republican strategists as to how the fight for the nomination will take place. The primary elections will begin in spring 2024, at the end of which the Republican and Democratic candidates will be determined. Joe Biden will probably apply for a second term in the near future, so far the Democrats have only had one challenger, Marianne Williamson.
Among Republicans, 30 or 40 percent support for Trump might be enough to secure him the nomination, says party expert Matthew Continetti of the American Enterprise Institute think tank. Trump as a candidate is “the most likely option for the moment”.
However, polls show that a significant portion of Republican supporters want an alternative. In a Fox News survey, Trump received 48 percent approval, DeSantis 28 percent. Trump has threatened to run as an independent candidate if Republicans don’t run him again.
“Like Hitler and Stalin”
His fans at the CPAC continued to regard Trump as the only true leader of the United States, and moderate voices were rare. Pro-Trump fundraiser Maga Inc. welcomed fans into the setting of a replica Oval Office, which featured a Trump cardboard cutout sitting at the presidential desk.
“It feels like Maga Country!” exclaimed Trump’s son, Don Junior, on stage. Kimberly Fletcher, chair of the right-wing parent organization Moms for America, compared “today’s woke curriculum” to “the propaganda of Hitler and Stalin”. There were hardly any sponsors from business. While just a few years ago Facebook, Google and Twitter were handing out merchandise, this year the big social media corporations were nowhere to be found.
Sarah Palin, former vice presidential candidate, said she was confident Trump would do it again. “He stands for our freedom, for our God-given rights,” she told the Handelsblatt. The Democrats wanted to control the people. “Trump has been mocked, he has been criticized, but he’s just right about a lot of things.”
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