The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The GOP is trapped in Trump’s rendezvous with yesterday

Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Sunday.
Former president Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando on Sunday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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The act was old. The ­self-involvement was as intense as ever. The lies about the 2020 election continued. The dreary attacks on his foes, the unhinged hyperbole, the calls to suppress votes and the unconstrained nativism were reruns of earlier ­productions.

Donald Trump, the Sequel, drew a predictably ecstatic response at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando on Sunday as he assailed President Biden and made clear in a torrent of invective that hatred of immigration will be as important to any attempted comeback as it was to his rise.

Back were the “coyotes,” “the vicious evil smugglers,” “the illegal aliens,” “mass amnesty,” “chain migration” and every other epithet and catchphrase that form his tapestry of nativism. Back also were the throwback forms of McCarthyism as he accused Biden of moving the country toward “radicalism, socialism and indeed it all leads to ­communism.”

Yet if the CPAC conclave was a Trump revival, complete with a golden Trump statue, there was some quiet dissent just beneath the surface. When the results of the CPAC straw poll for 2024 came in, Trump received just 55 percent of the ballots. Imagine Tom Brady receiving 55 percent for MVP from Tampa Bay fans.

When protected by the secret ballot, the hard core was going a little soft. They cried “we love you,” but the eyes of nearly half of them were straying. Perhaps more on the right want to move on than will ever say so publicly.

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Running second was Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, the functional favorite son for the weekend, at 21 percent. It’s a sign that Trump is, for now, blocking every other Republican hopeful’s way that no other candidate got more than 5 percent.

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More deeply, the fact that Trump continues to define the GOP and command the stage as no one else in the party can speaks of his party’s lost opportunity.

Trump’s takeover of the party in 2016 was undeniably built on long-standing habits of opposition to immigration, the courting of racial backlash and the waging of culture wars. But Trump also spoke to the exhaustion of the old themes of Reaganism.

He did so inconsistently and often incoherently between 2016 and 2020. But he put pure economic conservatism, free trade and foreign intervention on trial. (He again attacked “endless wars” at CPAC.) He stressed big infrastructure spending (which he never delivered), defended Medicare and Social Security, and cast a rising China as a dangerous enemy to the well-being of working Americans.

Episodically, especially in launching his scattershot trade wars, he reminded voters of the ideologically nondoctrinaire persona he had cultivated. But there was no consistency except on “own the libs” issues. They again dominated his speech on Sunday with its requisite attacks on the “fake news media,” “politically correct far-left indoctrination training,” “far left lunacy” and, of course, “cancel culture.” He even charged that Biden’s transgender rights policies would “destroy women’s sports.”

The reality is that Trump is not the sort to devote himself to a lot of rethinking. His politics are all about himself — which means that the true litmus test on the right has become accepting his lies about what happened in the 2020 election. He drew loud applause at CPAC whenever he alluded to his false claims of electoral victory. “You won!” they shouted.

The resumption of the Trump Show reminded the GOP that it has the worst of all worlds: a cult of Trump without any of the benefits that might have come from a serious inquiry into why the old conservatism had been unable to stop him. Party leaders in their hearts know that they can’t win with Trump and Trumpism — and they can’t live without him and his followers.

They know his voters dominate party primaries and they need them to turn out to win House and Senate seats. But the more Trump dominates the conversation, the more he will continue to push middle-class suburban voters who embraced Biden last year — especially women — away from the GOP.

Which, sadly, is why one theme Trump harped on will be picked up by the mainstream of his party: his attacks on “ballots indiscriminately pouring in,” his assault on mail-in voting and his call for voter ID.

What Trump is saying is what many in his party believe, judging by their voter suppression efforts all over the country. The party won’t rethink, it’s not moving forward, and it can’t fully rid itself of Trumpism. So it can’t build a new majority. It can win only by stopping voters who reject them, as they rejected Trump, from casting ballots.

“Do you miss me yet?” Trump asked at the beginning of his address. Most Americans don’t, and his display at CPAC will do nothing to unleash a national wave of nostalgia. But his party will be stuck with him for a long time.

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