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The second coming – Donald Trump emerges from seclusion before an adoring crowd | United States

The former president demonstrates his control of the Republican Party


“DO YOU MISS me yet?” asked Donald Trump. After an ignominious and uncharacteristically quiet exit from the White House—following an attack on the Capitol on January 6th by his incensed supporters, who sought to overturn the results of the presidential election—the former president emerged from his purdah on February 28th. The venue was the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of activists that once sat at the far right of Republican thought, but now appears to be its centre. For most of its history, the event was held just outside Washington, DC. This year it migrated to Orlando, in Mr Trump’s new home state of Florida, where adulation greeted him.

At the start of the conference, supporters paraded a golden statue of the former president through the convention hall; during his speech, the crowd chanted, “We love you.” The veneration affirmed what has become clear since Mr Trump left office: there is no Republican civil war. He spurned the idea that he would form a separate party to advance his agenda. Why would he need to, he asked? “We have the Republican Party.”

Loss has not altered Mr Trump’s demeanour. He continued to insist he had actually won the presidential contest. Emboldened by a party that has thrown its lot in with a rejected president (anomalous in the modern political era), Mr Trump continued to reiterate, without any new evidence, that his defeat was fraudulent. The commitment to this belief is complete. “We’ve been doing a lot of winning,” he said in the opening minutes of his 90-minute speech, peppered with the usual rally hits—such as whinges about trade deficits with China and bird-killing wind turbines—and spiced up with some new ones: some of the biggest applause came when Mr Trump expressed support for new laws, introduced by Republicans in dozens of states, to make voting harder.

Traditionally, ex-presidents settle into elder-statesman roles, criticising their successors sparingly, if at all. Mr Trump unsurprisingly shattered that norm. He painted Democrats as bent on destroying America. President Joe Biden, he argued, had a plan to “cancel border security” and invite millions of illegal immigrants across open borders to destroy American life. Mr Biden’s failure to quickly open schools was a cave to teachers’ unions (Mr Trump called it the “most craven act of any president in our lifetime”). The Democratic Party is really a Trojan Horse for socialism and eventually communism. The delegates lapped it all up.

Mr Trump also unsubtly teased a future presidential run. Once the party recaptures Congress in midterm elections in 2022, he mused, “a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House, and I wonder who that will be. Who, who, who will that be? I wonder.” He also asked attendees to support his fledgling political operation, which will become a vehicle for him to intervene in primary fights. Already, Mr Trump has endorsed the opponent of a Republican congressman in Ohio who voted to impeach him, and he called out the names of every single Republican in Congress who had done the same, applauding efforts by state Republican parties, which have become increasingly aligned behind him, to censure them.

Given the adulation of the most committed Republican voters, most of whom still approve of the former president and tell pollsters they will take their primary voting cues from him, once critical Republicans have turned accommodationist. Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican in the House of Representatives, initially condemned Mr Trump for his alleged complicity in the assault on the Capitol, but has since doggedly defended him. He credited the ex-president with boosting the number of Republicans in the House, and for attending rallies while ill with covid-19. “Listen—we’re going to continue to do exactly what we did in the last election,” he promised from the same stage Mr Trump spoke from one day later.

All of this reinforces Mr Trump’s pre-eminent position atop the GOP. The distinction between Republicanism and America First Trumpism is growing ever smaller. The party’s fondness for free trade, for instance, and principled scepticism of state power are long gone, provided they are the ones wielding that power. For as long as the party’s primary voters remain devoted to their leader—and as long as officials who are privately Trump-sceptical think that the president’s coalition will help them beat Democrats—there is no reason to think that this hold will be broken. Dutiful Republicans have already introduced measures that seek to tighten voting rules in 45 states, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice, a think-tank at New York University. That reinforces Mr Trump’s unsubstantiated theory that Democrats could have won only by cheating. Republicans’ scepticism of democracy, which began while Mr Trump was in the White House, is not about to slow now that he is outside its gates, clamouring to be let back in.