“Winning less than 15 percent of the vote is a rebuke for the billionaire businessman,” the Washington Times said of the straw poll (which it usually sponsors), “and it underscores just how uncomfortable both Republican Party leaders and high-level conservative activists are with Mr. Trump.”
Or, you know, not. After Trump won the nomination and the presidency, CPAC skipped the presidential straw poll for a few years. In 2019, Trump was the pick of 82 percent of respondents.
Again, this is a shift that reflects opinion of Trump, certainly, but should not be considered predictive both because it is a sample of a self-selected group and because, well, it has not always been terribly predictive. But it’s still remarkable — and perhaps unexpected — that Trump’s support in the poll taken during the CPAC that ended on Sunday was at only 55 percent. Of those who responded, two-thirds said they wanted him to run again, meaning that a third of the fervently right-wing crowd wasn’t committed to the idea.
Trump has been out of office for only about six weeks (as he reminded conference attendees during his speech there on Sunday), meaning that American politics still largely operates in his shadow. It’s easy to assume he will have an influence in the Republican Party over the medium term, something which he himself has insisted will be the case.
But we have to separate out a few things. There's Trump the elected official, who still obviously has a strong base of support. There's Trump as validator, the guy who makes endorsements in the elections of other people. And there's Trumpism, a vague description of what Trump brings to American politics.
Trump addressed that last idea in his CPAC speech.
“Many people have asked what is Trumpism, a new term being used more and more,” Trump said. “I'm hearing that term more and more. I didn't come up with it. But what it means is great deals, great trade deals, great ones, not deals where we give away everything, our jobs, our money.”
Asked during a Fox News interview a few hours later if CPAC's support for him reflected the party broadly, Trump again insisted that the support was based on his approach to trade.
“[Republicans] want great trade deals, not these horrible deals that we've had for years, where the United States get ripped off,” he said.
This is an odd bit of revisionism that's honestly a bit baffling. Perhaps Trump thinks that his legacy on trade is his best path forward politically or for political fundraising; perhaps he thinks that it is the best inoculation against questions about his efforts to undermine confidence in American democracy.
But it’s nonetheless the case that “Trumpism” is not about trade. It is, instead, about an approach to politics that is predicated on emotion, not policy.
Trump won the 2016 Republican primary because he was willing to do something that Cruz, Paul and other Republican officeholders weren’t: lean into the conspiratorial fringe of Republican politics. Trump was a creature and consumer of far-right conservative media and he echoed its rhetoric back to an electorate that was similarly saturated in its tropes. He bashed immigrants at his campaign announcement in 2015 because that had been the cause du jour since the prior summer. Trump said the things that random pundits on Fox News said, and that conferred an air of authenticity on him that resonated with Republican voters.
What Trump showed wasn't really that he had unique insights into Republican politics or policy. In fact, he eschewed policy details, an approach the rest of the party embraced in 2020. What he showed was that a personality centered on mainstream right-wing grievances could win elections.
This lesson was taken to heart around the country. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) is a conspiracy theorist steeped in a different sort of right-wing rhetoric, but her enthusiastic embrace of cultural fights in her primary bid last year made her a national figure. She won the Republican primary and, in a strongly Republican district, a seat in the House.
Politico published a history of her brief political career last week. Greene’s election is “less the fulfillment of a dream,” Michael Kruse wrote, “than the culmination of a desperate, years-long search for an identity that fulfilled a yearning for affirmation and attention.”
That … might sound a bit familiar. Not only because of Trump but because of a galaxy of other right-wing figures who have similarly realized that there’s power to be wrung from performative conservative politics. In January, the New York Times explored the way in which struggling “influencers” on social media found Facebook fame by shifting hard to the right.
Didn't Trump do essentially the same thing?
That's what Trumpism is, really. It's not about trade; it's about leveraging social tools and fiery rhetoric to get attention, money and power. It's not about Trump. It's about how Trump became Trump.
This makes an assessment of the post-Trump world trickier. Former Obama adviser David Axelrod is broadly right when he says that the Republican Party’s short-term problem is that “Republicans love Trump and a majority of Americans really do not.” But a lot of Republicans often embrace transient avatars who defend the right’s more extreme positions.
Trump’s CPAC appearance reminded me of a book event I attended in 2013. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin was signing her then-new book about the purported “war on Christmas” at a Barnes and Noble near Bethlehem, Pa. (Get it?) Hundreds of people came to meet her and have her sign books — but most of those with whom I spoke shrugged at her potentially running for president in 2016. To some, she was a symbol of failure, having lost her 2008 vice-presidential bid. To others, she was just a marker of the past, however recent that past might have been. Palin was once a right-wing darling, but the right wing then moved on.
The former president will try very hard to prevent that from happening. He’s made clear (as he did on Sunday) that he’ll back candidates in upcoming races and has reportedly been in discussion with two loyalists — former campaign spokeswoman Katrina Pierson and former ambassador Ric Grenell — about their potentially running for office in Texas and California, respectively. Trump has a good (but not perfect) record of success in endorsements in Republican primaries, where the electorate is more conservative and more pro-Trump. But by weighing in eagerly on a platform little more complicated than “are they supportive of me,” Trump risks diminishing the value of his endorsement. It will only take one or two endorsements crumbling in scandal or humiliation for Trump’s power in the primaries to wane.
Republicans love Trump because he is constantly beating up the political left, often on the basis of the sort of false assertions that populate right-wing media. If he starts to lose the brawls he picks, as he lost the 2020 presidential election, that love will probably fade.
That’s why the CPAC straw-polls results from Sunday are so interesting: among the group which should be expected to be most fervently pro-Trump, just over half would support him in the primary in three years. Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), who won his election by embracing Trump and Trumpism (as defined above) at the height of its power, got 1-in-5 votes. Trump can’t afford to not be the future of the GOP but it’s not clear how long he can keep presenting himself in that way.
What Trump showed was that there were not actually subjects or views which would be seen as beyond-the-pale by Republican voters. Once that’s the standard, the path is cleared for a Greene or a Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) to head to Washington, regardless of how Trump feels about it.
The best example of the detachment of Trumpism from Trump is probably Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.). Trump endorsed Cawthorn's primary opponent, but quickly embraced him after Cawthorn won the Republican primary. Cawthorn came to Washington prepared to focus on culture fights, infamously forgoing a legislative team in favor of a communications one.
That is the essence of Trumpism: climbing onto a platform from which to fight over political culture. In that regard, Trump is at an additional disadvantage moving forward. These are wars that unfold on social media and, unfortunately for Trump, his voice in that realm was diminished significantly following his response to the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6.
In other words, Trump won't be able to control Trumpism. He'll be able to endorse candidates, but a few stumbles there and his endorsement won't be seen as essential. Even at a conference predicated on its enthusiasm for him, a third of attendees weren't eager to see him run again.
This is not where Trump wants to be.