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Robert A. George writes editorials on education and other policy issues for Bloomberg Opinion.
The former president made a “semi-Trumphant” return on Sunday. Donald Trump’s rapturous reception at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, made clear that the conservative movement, as well as the Republican Party, belongs to him. Yet there were also signs that his brand is tarnished.
Trump made the expected attacks on President Joe Biden and the anticipated elbow tosses at Republicans deemed either insufficiently loyal or outright treacherous. There were nods and winks to a 2024 run, when he will win for “a third time.”
And yet, the CPAC straw poll (which, in fairness, is notorious for not being so accurate) shows that the devotion is not quite total. Yes, Trump won, but he did so with a mere 55 percent. Meanwhile, not only did local boy Ron DeSantis come in second, with 21 percent, the Florida governor lapped the field with 43 percent in a separate survey with Trump not included.
Perhaps those results explained Trump’s surprisingly low-energy performance. The crowd in the room and at home got “TelePrompTer Trump,” as he stuck to the script and included few if any of the improvised bits that energize him and his audience. Trump upended a tradition (shocking, right?) by attacking his successor, but the criticism of Biden was … bland. It was the “most disastrous first month in history,” he said. Biden had taken the country “from America First to America Last,” Trump declared.
Give Trump this: By so soon breaking the tradition of not attacking one’s successor, he’s arguably doing Biden a favor. Not that Biden needed it, but Trump shined a huge spotlight on the priorities of the current occupant of the Oval Office. Biden is most vulnerable on schools — he promised to get the majority open within 100 days. But he still has nearly two months to fulfill that vow. If he does, what does Trump say? Similarly, the president has more than enough time to get border security right.
Not surprisingly, Trump sounded most sad as he again circled back toward the Big Lie about the 2020 election — saying that the Republican Party must be the party of “honest elections,” because the last one was “rigged.” It was similar to the rhetoric that sparked the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, which the so-called law-and-order former president failed to mention. Indeed, in a meaty passage in which Trump tried to articulate an ideological underpinning to Trumpism, he said that one of its pillars was “no riots in the streets.” Riots in the Capitol, apparently, are allowed, if not encouraged.
Trump also urged the party to make voting harder. “We must have one election day — not 48,” he said, essentially calling for rolling back early voting. He called for curtailing absentee voting and all but ending mail-in voting. That Republicans once benefited (and still do, in many cases) from most of these innovations (see Florida) means nothing. In fact, many GOP-leaning legislatures are already trying to push through retrograde “reforms” that are tantamount to voter suppression.
This is the hangover the Republican Party must deal with for at least two years and possibly four. That even 45 percent of the CPAC base is wary of supporting Trump in 2024 would be encouraging if not for the fact the party is already working to sabotage the franchise for as many voters in as many states as possible. This is a desolate road to go down. But Trump wants to go there, and a significant number of Republicans are prepared to follow him.