By Kate Scanlon | OSV News
WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The annual Conservative Political Action Conference returned to the nation’s capital in March after several years in Florida during the COVID-19 pandemic. Former President Donald Trump, who has launched his third bid for the White House, delivered a speech to the conference arguing he will “complete the mission” in a “final battle.”
The conference, once a collection of conservative elected officials, policymakers, and commentators, has largely been remade in the image of the 45th president, mostly featuring his staunch allies and supporters. Former U.N. Ambassador and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who, as of the conference, was Trump’s only declared major Republican rival, also spoke at the conference in a less prominent timeslot.
Trump, who is seeking a second term after losing re-election to President Joe Biden in 2020, has since made unfounded claims of systemic election fraud, claiming without evidence the election was stolen from him.
In a speech that echoed themes of what Trump called “American carnage” in his 2017 inaugural address, Trump sought to tie his own grievances to those of his base.
“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice,'” Trump said March 4 in a speech at the conference. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”
In his remarks to the conference, Trump pledged to the crowd, “We’re going to finish what we started,” blurring the lines between criticism of himself and of his base.
“They’re not coming after me; they’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way,” Trump said.
Robert Schmuhl, professor emeritus of American studies at the University of Notre Dame who studies the modern American presidency, told OSV News that “much of Donald Trump’s appeal comes from his emphasis on grievance.”
“For some people, they are able to identify with his bill of particulars, politically, socially and culturally,” Schmuhl said. “Other people are more interested in policies and proposals to address problems. They tend to be more future-oriented. A Trump campaign that looks backwards and stresses the delusion that he won in 2020 might be able to win the Republican nomination with 30-35% of the party’s base, but it’s highly doubtful that the approach could carry him back to the White House in the general election.”
CPAC attendance dwindled in 2023, according to multiple reports, which did not go unnoticed by some of Trump’s critics. His onetime ally, former Gov. Chris Christie, R-N.J., said on ABC’s “This Week” on March 5 that Trump measures crowd sizes as an example of his influence, but noted, “you saw the scenes at CPAC, that room was half-full.”
“He’s the frontrunner and ahead in the polls,” Christie, who is Catholic, said, likening Trump to an incumbent president seeking re-nomination. “Of course, he’s the frontrunner. But there are lots of indicators here that he’s not what he used to be. So we’re gonna see how that plays out.”
Schmuhl said that “many of Donald Trump’s supporters see him as an incumbent, and he cultivates that perception as much as he can.”
“In reality, of course, he’s not an incumbent. But his election in 2016 and his term in office give him a standing and stature that are different from other presidential candidates,” Schmuhl said.
Trump’s attempt to return to the White House as an ex-president is not entirely without precedent: Grover Cleveland served non-consecutive terms in the White House. But there are indications Trump may not be able to replicate that feat, as his lingering presence in Republican politics may have hurt his party’s chances in the 2022 midterms, some analysts said.
Schmuhl noted Cleveland “is the only former president to return to the White House.”
“In Cleveland’s case, he won the popular vote in three straight presidential elections: 1884, 1888, and 1892,” Schmuhl said. “Trump was behind in the popular vote twice: 2016 and 2020. Theodore Roosevelt tried to return as president in 1912 by mounting a third-party campaign — but finished second.”
Polls of Republican primary voters show Trump remains a heavy favorite with his base, however, some polls suggest that a more narrow field may allow a rival to slip past him for the party’s nomination. Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., who is Catholic, currently appears best positioned to do so but has not yet formally declared his candidacy.
Trump did not mention DeSantis by name in his CPAC address, but took thinly veiled shots at DeSantis’ potential candidacy.
While CPAC has taken on an air of what some have since dubbed TPAC, the conference of Trump’s biggest fans and conservative activists is not necessarily reflective of a wider right-leaning electorate, where some voters are eager to move on from Trump.
Another conference, the Principles First Summit, took place at the same time as CPAC. The group says it is seeking to “advance a more principled politics in the United States,” and featured several staunch critics of Trump and his rhetoric. Though smaller than CPAC, the group wrote on Twitter that its volunteers “gave CPAC a run for its money — literally.”
The group’s founder Heath Mayo told attendees they were not there to “fawn over someone,” but “because you still believe in our country and you hold a set of principles higher than your loyalties to any politician or party.”
“While we are still in our early days and may always be the underdogs, this room today makes the trendline clear,” he said. “CPAC is shrinking and Principles First is growing.”