Trump entered the stage yesterday at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, to confirm to everyone that he is still the leader of the conservative movement and that even outside the White House, he is the most relevant figure the Republican Party has had since Ronald Reagan. It’s that clear.
Out of the White House, but not defeated
On January 6th, after the absurd irruption of some of his supporters in the Capitol, the political machines of the Democrats (and even of many leaders of the Republican Party) went into full steam ahead mode to transform that mistake into the political tomb of the then-still president. For a moment, it seemed that they had succeeded: Trump was shut out of the social networks, faced a barrage of statements of estrangement and a new impeachment process, which this time had a real chance of being approved in the Senate.
However, even then, in the most difficult moment, people did not abandon him. As January went on it became clear that Republicans could not betray him and get away with it. Along the way there were rumors about the formation of a third party, visits from the Republican National Committee (RNC) to speak with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and eventually a second failed impeachment in the Senate.
Now, on February 28th, just 8 weeks after the infamous rally outside the Capitol, Trump relaunched his political career in the heart of Florida, in front of an audience that fully supports him and has the strength to define the shape and path of the Republican Party for years to come. He came to CPAC not as a defeated warrior seeking the warmth of retirement, but as a general reorganizing his troops after a strategic retreat, having lost neither the loyalty nor the enthusiasm of his men… and women, of course.
Just the second act
In his approximately one-hour speech, he talked about immigration, his achievements as president, the fraud he denounced in the election, the threat of the big technology companies and the traitors within the Republican Party, all of it faithful to his macho and crude style, but also emotional, authentic and highly effective.
When Trump speaks, he does not give the impression of simply being a speaker reciting what a political advisor told him, but a platoon leader, perhaps a bit narcissistic, but courageous, capable and loyal, explaining to his soldiers the true situation on the battlefield and giving them confidence to persevere in combat.
Listening to him in person is interesting, emotional and almost theatrical, perhaps more akin to a wrestling arena experience than a traditional political event. With Trump the facts and figures are present, but only in a supporting role; it’s the stories that matter.
The one Trump told yesterday is the story of a successful president who repositioned the United States and defends the pride of America, backed by the millions in his movement; that president was knocked out of re-election in 2020 due to a fraudulent injustice by traitors and the Democratic Party, but he is prepared to fight on and defeat them again “for the third time” in 2024.
In short, Trump managed to adjust his narrative in such a way that the defeat of the November 2020 elections will not be perceived within his movement as the tragic closure of the third act of a movie without a happy ending, but only as the beginning of the second act, where the hero faces a moment of darkness and difficulties, which he will have to overcome to give life to the glorious conclusion of the narrative in an eventual third act, whose climax would be the 2024 elections.
Before November 3rd of last year, 2024 did not appear in Donald Trump movement’s plan, because everyone took for granted that he would be reelected and in any case for 2024 they thought of Ivanka or Donald Trump Jr. However, now for millions of Americans the glorious return of Trump in 2024 is something as evident as the sun over their heads.
To achieve such a turnaround in his movement, without losing authenticity along the way, would be a truly extraordinary piece of political goldsmithing, although, of course, it does not mean that the entire Republican Party is under Trump’s “spell.” For many local leaders and militants, the populist – and sometimes chauvinistic – style that has become Donald’s hallmark is almost unbearable, but they’re going to have to suck it up, because there is no conservative politician whose endorsement even comes close to the intensity and loyalty displayed by the 45th president’s supporters.
And that brings us to one of the main lessons learned from this whole process. Many thought that, since Trump’s charm was grounded in his aspirational image of the American achiever, electoral defeat would “disempower” him in the eyes of his supporters. More or less the argument went like this: “They will see that the ‘messiah’ bleeds, and then they will become disenchanted with him,” but what those analysts did not understand (because they know neither about religion, nor about stories, nor about politics) is that vulnerability makes the leader more attractive. Human beings support the hero precisely because we know that he is not invincible, and that he is at risk, but still he perseveres, and we believe that eventually he will win.
Thus Donald begins a new stage, at the same time humanized in defeat and strengthened in the support of his movement. It was very clear: the activists, the campaigners, those who visit door to door, those who give life to the Republican Party, are committed to Trump, because they perceive from him that same commitment and authentic loyalty that not even in 100 lifetimes could project, for example, a Mitch McConnell (in spite of all his indisputable political virtues).
In 2015, when Trump’s presidential aspirations were taking their first baby steps, he got just 3.5% of the support in the traditional CPAC poll, far below Rand Paul, who at the height of the “libertarian moment” led that exercise with more than 25% of the support. Much has changed in six years and perhaps much more will change between now and 2024, but today, with 97% approval, 95% support for his path to lead the party and 55% of the support in the poll for him to run in the next presidential election, Donald J. Trump is the candidate of conservative people, for better or for worse.