Donald Trump emerged from his luxurious Palm Beach exile to wallow in the warmth of devotees at the Conservative Political Action Conference 170 miles away in Orlando. Is he a spent supernova, or a giant barely submerged land mine that could obliterate the landscape at any time? Either way, we’ve seen our future. There will be no avoiding him. Deputy Editorial Page Editor David Mastio and Commentary Editor Jill Lawrence consider his Sunday speech, all 90-plus minutes:
David: Trump’s CPAC comeback speech revealed a sad little man, angry at local courts and politicians and disappointed in the federal judges he seated, but who “didn’t have the guts or the courage” to bow to him. Trump tried to carry on as if he hadn’t been impeached after the Capitol was ransacked by a mob, but even the lies seemed faintly ridiculous. “We will win. We’ve been doing a lot of winning,” was the wacko fib he launched his speech with, as if he hadn’t cost Republicans control of the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House. Trump Republicans know that truth.
And even with a golden Trump idol on hand, 45% of CPAC attendees, in the organization’s straw poll, said they’d vote for someone other than the former president in the 2024 Republican primary. That’s a disappointing showing for a man out of the limelight for only a few weeks and way up from 2019, the last time the straw poll was taken, when fewer than 20% were looking for an alternative to Trump.
If he can’t get to 90% support at CPAC, the core of the Trumpian Republican base, he’s going to be weaker nationwide. Maybe Republicans are looking for a new messenger, even if they’ll stick with the redefined platform of Trumpism. That’s the one optimistic takeaway I saw anyway in a crowd happily nodding along to nonsense.
Jill: I had no luck finding any sliver of hope. Trump came out to the strains of Lee Greenwood’s totemic Republican song about being “proud to be an American,” and then his whole speech was an attack on America, laced with ad hominem attacks on his enemies, from Joe Biden (cruel, anti-science and not grateful enough to Trump for his COVID shot) to Liz Cheney (“warmonger”), including a callout of every member of Congress who voted to impeach or convict him. That is frightening.
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Even more frightening was his checklist of voter suppression measures for state legislators — no early voting, “eliminate the insanity of mass … mail-in voting,” voter ID required, and (cue the outrage) get rid of automatic registration for felons and welfare recipients. Why? Because our election system is worse than a third world nation and, oh yeah, he won, but maybe he didn’t, but he will again. Maybe in 2024.
Fact-checking is a useless exercise for a speech like this one. It was a swollen greatest-hits parade of lies, laughable braggadocio, deliberate double talk, ugly insults, ugly transactionalism and — from the man who tried to overturn an election, incited a deadly riot and is under investigation in many civil and criminal cases — the despicable (from him) claim that “we know that the rule of law is the ultimate safeguard. We affirm that the Constitution means exactly what it says, as written. As written.”
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David: Maybe I am drunk on relief that Trump is no longer in office, but I found a lot to be positive about in the quality of the lies Trump delivered. They were down, way down.
He referred to “Joe Biden’s anti-science school closures,” when every parent who has been awake and home-schooling or hybrid schooling their kids knows who was president when schools closed and when they failed to open this fall. Those are Donald Trump’s school closures, if any president has anything to do with them.
He called Biden’s first month in office the “most disastrous … in modern history.” Please, is that even plausible? It doesn’t take some fact-checking whiz kid to point out that’s not true; it merely takes consciousness, or a look at Biden’s approval ratings. If anything, this has been the most boring first month in history. We’re reduced to getting worked up about Neera Tanden’s mean tweets.
Trump says his listeners are going to face “$5, $6, $7″ a gallon gas. Yeesh. Gas prices are going to triple? I’ll take that bet.
RINOs are out to “destroy our country itself.” Everyone knows that the Republicans in name only are plotting just that.
I know this is wildly optimistic, but I’ll just say it: Trump is becoming a parody of himself, and his hold on the Republican Party is only going to weaken. Four years is a long time, and without constant access to American brains, Trump is going to fade.
Jill: There were actually a few points on which I found myself nodding in full agreement with Mr. Trump. For instance, when he said that “we’re in the middle of a historic struggle for America’s future, America’s culture, and America’s institutions, borders and most cherished principles,” why yes, yes we are. “Our security, our prosperity and our very identity as Americans is at stake, like perhaps at no other time.” Yes to that, too.
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He is the threat. He and those who follow him and believe him when he calls the Republican Party “the party of love.” I truly hope you are right that he is fading. Listening to him echo his Jan. 6 speech, I was haunted by the prospect of more violence, more killing, from those who aren’t satisfied by a conference at an Orlando Hyatt or watching it on TV.
I suppose there is some encouragement in the “mere” 55% support level for Trump in the straw poll, but isn’t second-place Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just a mini-Trump? Together they’ve got 76% of that crowd. Not enough to give me hope. And you know what did better than anyone? Trump’s agenda at 95%. Whatever the heck that means. Sex, lies and racism? Deadly riots fueled by Trump delusions? Corruption and grifting and cozying up to despots? How about potentially criminal, irrefutably fatal dereliction of duty in the face of a pandemic?
No, I’m not over it yet.
I just wish I didn’t have to be reminded of it again. And again. And again.
Trump will be with us, world without end, God help us.
David Mastio, a libertarian conservative, is the deputy editor of USA TODAY’s Editorial Page. Jill Lawrence, a center-left liberal, is the commentary editor of USA TODAY. Follow them on Twitter: @DavidMastio and @JillDLawrence