Trump is understood to be an effective marketer, a trait attributed to his ability to successfully brand things. During his time running for and serving as president, we could watch how this works. His Twitter feed and rallies were essentially large focus groups, with the president throwing out assertions and claims and seeing what worked and what didn't. Over time, smoothed-out phrases and ideas would emerge from this verbal rock tumbler and become fixtures in Trump's rhetoric, often integrated into elaborate cloaks meant to obscure obvious realities.
One of the first things he said during his lengthy speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday was a classic of the genre.
“He wants to put you all out of business,” Trump said of President Biden, the man who beat him in the 2020 presidential election. “He’s not okay with energy. He wants windmills, windmills. The windmills that don’t work when you need them.”
Trump returned to the theme later, as he lifted up an inaccurate line of argument about Texas’s recent power outages. He disparaged windmills as being “bad for the environment,” unreliable bird-killing machines that “destroy the landscapes.”
This is a very particular cloak that Trump has been sporting for about a decade. For years, he battled and disparaged wind power not in the United States but in Scotland, where an offshore farm threatened to be visible from a pricey golf course he’d purchased in the country. Trump fought and sued and disparaged and ranted, throwing out every nasty thing he could imagine to try to undercut the effort. This is an important part of how this works: Trump will happily embrace any claim, no matter how ridiculous, if it serves his purpose. He’s the salesman of dubious ethical fortitude who will do whatever it takes to close that deal.
As it turned out, his windmill patter worked pretty well in conservative politics, too, a world where seeking to ameliorate climate change is anathema simply by virtue of its existence. So the windmill stuff would pop up every so often over the past few years, this surprisingly complex line of attack from Trump that seemed out of place and surprisingly developed to new observers. But it wasn’t really that Trump felt much more strongly about it. He just already had the patter down.
Trump hasn’t yet finalized his sales pitch to America after hundreds of the supporters he had encouraged to come to Washington on Jan. 6 took his false claims about the results of the 2020 election at face value and attempted to block the finalization of Biden’s victory. In that CPAC speech, though, we could see how the head of the Trump Organization planned to sell the country on the idea that he bears no culpability for the insurrection — even as he worked to maintain the falsehood at its center.
For example, Trump embraced a line popular among Republican lawmakers in which they hand-wring about changes to voting procedures that allowed more mail ballots during the coronavirus pandemic. It’s a line that attempts to both avoid overt claims that rampant fraud occurred — claims that lack any credible evidence — but to preserve the idea that something shadowy or improper took place.
Trump being Trump, though, he pushed things a bit further.
“The Democrats used the … virus as an excuse to change all of the election rules without the approval of their state legislatures, making it therefore illegal. It had a massive impact on the election,” Trump said, later adding that “this alone would have easily changed the outcome of the election at levels that you wouldn't have even believed.”
It’s obviously not true that “all of the election rules” were changed before the 2020 election, or that all of the changes to voting systems necessitated legislative approval. The poster child for this line of argument, championed by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), is a change to the law in Pennsylvania that 1) passed in 2019, before the pandemic, 2) passed with Republican majorities in the legislature and 3) was flatly dismissed by a judge as a rationale to toss the presidential votes cast under the law. Other than that, great point.
Not that accuracy is a staple of Trump's rhetoric, of course. Nor was it the case that Trump's pitch to the adoring crowd at the right-wing conference was limited to similarly nuanced claims about the election results.
“We did even better in the second election than we did in the first,” he said a bit later. “You know, I won the first. We won the second. We did much better.”
He continued: “I received almost — listen to this number because, you know, the fake news doesn’t ever talk about these numbers — I just heard this one for the first time: I received almost 1.5 million more votes than all of the Republican House candidates combined. So how the hell is it possible that we lost? It’s not possible.”
Well, one answer is “gerrymandering.” There has been a deliberate effort from the GOP at the state level to redraw congressional lines to pack Democrats into districts, leaving fewer Democrats elsewhere to influence closer House races. Republican victors in House races in 2020 won by an average of about 96,000 votes; Democrats won by an average of 113,000 votes. Then, of course, there’s the down-ballot drop-off: People are more likely to vote for president (about which they’ve heard a lot) than House races (about which they often haven’t).
But this is an aside to the main point, that second polished stone Trump is sewing into his post-election cloak in which he asserts that the 2020 election wasn’t legitimate. Maybe Trump’s party wants to nuance what claims they’re making about the election being “stolen,” but that’s because they don’t have a personal psychological investment in not being perceived as a loser. Trump does. So he makes the claim.
In an interview with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), “Fox & Friends” host Steve Doocy characterized Trump’s CPAC claims about having won the election as a “joke,” which they were not intended as and which the crowd did not hear them as. (At one point, the crowd chanted, “You won” to Trump, and he replied, “We did.”) Jordan used Doocy’s comment to pivot to talking about how states changed their voting laws.
(One claim Trump didn’t make on Sunday, as The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler pointed out: his repeated and unfounded assertions about voting machines stealing votes. A few billion-dollar lawsuits from Dominion Voting Systems appear to have been an effective tool for getting Trump and his allies to hew a bit more closely to reality.)
One reason Republicans broadly aren’t eagerly reinforcing Trump’s specific nonsense about the election being stolen is the role that falsehood played in the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6. There is an obvious and demonstrable line from Trump’s false claims about the legitimacy of the election to his calls for a massive “wild” rally on that day in Washington to the effort to physically block the finalization of the election. Many Republicans are therefore trying to be careful in how they amplify that dishonesty.
Again, Trump isn't going to step away from that claim. So he instead wants to separate out the crowd at his rally near the White House on Jan. 6 from the crowd that stormed the Capitol.
“The press doesn't like to talk about it,” he said to Fox host Steve Hilton, “but the real number was much, much bigger in terms of the people that were at the location. It went all the way back, practically, to the Washington Monument. It was tremendous numbers of people — not the Capitol. I'm talking about the rally itself.”
“And it was a lovefest,” Trump continued. “It was a beautiful thing.”
It is true that not every person at Trump's rally stormed the Capitol. It is true that not everyone who stormed the Capitol was at the rally. It is also true that there was overlap between the two groups.
This is a similar defense to the one Trump offered after the violence in Charlottesville in 2017: Bad people did a bad thing but good people did a good thing. The good people were the Trump people. The bad people were other people. It’s not more complicated than that in Trump’s framing.
And so we have the sales pitch: The election was stolen from Trump so the country needs new laws to protect our elections. True patriots came to Washington on Jan. 6, a day later marred by people who did exactly what Trump wanted but whom he has to disavow. There are, as always, ancillary falsehoods and claims, one that may survive the tumble to become part of the established pattern (like that Trump called for more security, as he told Hilton), but that’s the core.
We will hear all of this for years to come. We’ll hear casual mentions of the Jan. 6 rally the media won’t talk about or of how Democrats changed the laws illegally. In a few years, those of us who were around at this time will hear a single word from Trump such as “lovefest” and immediately know what we’re being sold. And so, too, will the people who’ve bought the line.