Former president Donald Trump returned to the political hustings Sunday night, delivering a characteristically long, self-indulgent castigation of his political enemies. In the short run, his CPAC appearance reestablishes himself as a force within the Republican Party. In the long run, however, it might come to be seen as his high-water mark rather than the start of a Trumpian tidal wave.

Trump’s speech was really two speeches resting uneasily inside one another. The first half was scripted and focused on President Biden and the Democrats. He harangued them on issues ranging from immigration to pandemic school closures to Afghanistan to energy policy. But for all of his verve, this part of the talk felt flat and boring. He even referenced the 2015 Trump Tower escalator ride that launched his candidacy. It was like the greatest-hits album of a once-famous band, the type fans buy to relive their happy memories and everyone else avoids.

The second half was Trump unbound — the part in which he unleashed his characteristic fury and revealed his essential character. This was the part of the speech when his narcissism conquered his judgment and that of his advisers, who reportedly had wanted him not to dwell on the 2020 election or take aim at intraparty adversaries. Trump agonistes is always self-absorbed and vengeful, and his display of pique was intense even for those familiar with his volcanic explosions of wounded pride.

The election was stolen, he claimed, and failure to see this and act on it was weakness. The Supreme Court lacked the courage, he said, to right the wrong, adding it should have merely waved aside the matter of his lack of legal standing. Congressional Republicans who refused to overturn the electoral college votes on Jan. 6 were also weak. Left unsaid was whether he thought those who stormed the Capitol that day to force Congress to do that were in the right. Silence does speak a thousand words.

Moved by his hatred, Trump threw down the gauntlet against his intraparty foes. He said each of the 10 representatives and seven senators who voted to impeach or convict him deserved to face a primary challenge and be defeated. Many in the audience cheered, but it is far from clear they constitute a majority of Republican primary voters. Trump’s challenge, however, means he has crossed his political Rubicon. He must win these challenges to maintain his influence. Anything else will reveal him to be a paper tiger.

In his first public appearance since leaving office, former president Donald Trump further cemented his dominance over the Republican Party. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

The CPAC straw poll tantalizingly suggests that might be what happens. The January YouGov-Ethics and Public Policy Center poll of Trump voters, which I helped develop, shows that Trump’s base lies among “very conservative” voters. That’s exactly to whom CPAC appeals — the most right-wing elements in a distinctly conservative party. Yet 32 percent of CPAC attendees either thought that Trump should not run again in 2024 or had no opinion, and only 55 percent said they would vote for him in a GOP primary if he did. The YouGov-EPPC poll showed that Republican moderates and “somewhat conservatives” are much less likely to support Trump in 2024. If he could get only 55 percent support among his fervent base, he clearly would get much less in the broader GOP.

This in turn suggests his opposition to incumbent Republicans might be less decisive than many think. Each of those members has carefully built up his or her own base of support over years. As impeachment and the Jan. 6 riot fade from view, those members’ opposition to the Biden agenda will likely be more important to GOP voters. Indeed, Trump’s most prominent GOP foe, Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.), is filling her daily Twitter feed with news of her staunch opposition to the House Democratic agenda. It’s far from clear that primary voters will care more about Trump’s personal grievances than their member’s actual behavior by next summer.

Trump has nonetheless tied himself to the mast of his challenges. Over the next year and a half, any sign that his targets might survive will be rightly interpreted as a vote against Trump’s leadership. This would likely cause Trump to double down, as that is what he always does when threatened. More anger and bluster will ensue, all directed at conservative Republicans for the sole purpose of avenging a perceived slight to his person. Republicans could come to see him as a political King Lear, thundering on the heath in his madness, rather than a righteous and sound leader.

Ancient Spartan mothers told their warrior sons to “come back with your shield or on it.” Trump is now back on the political battlefield. We’ll see how he returns.

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