It was Sunday night at CPAC and everyone was waiting for the big star, recent election loser and twice-impeached former president Donald J Trump. The loyalists with their Confederate flags were perched outside by the palm trees; trucks with “JANUARY 6TH REUNION!” stamped on the side sped past the conference doors; scaremongering videos about “Antifa going international” were playing on the big screen. Everyone was getting a little antsy. It was over an hour since Don had been due onstage — was everything OK? Had he been hit by a Jewish space laser? Had Melania turned him to stone with a particularly withering look?
Then, all of a sudden, an hour and 10 minutes late, there he was. With big “ageing rock star going through the greatest hits on his final tour” energy, he crossed the stage like an alien who’s only read the theory of human movement and passionately embraced the flag. I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed when he makes a callback like that. Remember the days of injecting bleach for Covid? Remember that shtick about making Mexico pay for the wall? Remember when he said he probably could’ve stopped 9/11? Happy times.
And boy, did he play the greatest hits tonight. “The wall helped us a lot.” “Dangerous predators and vile coyotes” are pouring across the border by the “millions”. The “China virus” made him lose the election (except he didn’t really lose), because “actually, as you know they just lost the White House, but it’s one of those — but who knows, who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time, OK?”
There was “chain migration” and terrorist grandmothers coming to America with their sons. There were “globalists”. There were vaccines that Number 45 decided to take personal credit for: “It would’ve taken any other president at least five years,” by the way. The Second Amendment is “under threat”. He’s mad “they” went into Iraq “but they didn’t keep the oil”. Wind energy “is bad for the environment and kills birds and rots and rusts everywhere”. Democrats want to “defund the police”. “Dead people are voting” and the election was “rigged”. “Cancel culture” and the “fake news media” are ending free speech. “Space Force!”
Watch: Former President Trump speaks at CPAC
“Biden isn’t OK with energy,” Trump declared at one point, which is quite a startling sentence when you think about it. “He wants windmills, windmills,” he continued, “but windmills don’t work when you need them!” Though I suspect this was a reference to a debunked conspiracy theory about the winter storms in Texas, I also just love it as a standalone statement from an angry grandpa who just moved to a beachside retirement community in Florida. Why don’t the windmills work when you need them? Who moved the beach ball from under my sun lounger? Why does the sand stick to my toes like that? I don’t know, Gramps, but I made you another mug of covfefe so please stop slapping my hand like that.
What I do admire about Trump, though, is his unparalleled ability to squeeze the last drops out of the narcissist lemon. “We love you,” chanted the adoring crowd, who had earlier posed with a literal golden statue of the ex-president for unironic photographs. (I always find that golden statues are a good sign, psychologically speaking. Whenever you go round for a beer after your friend has recently broken up with their ex and they’ve commissioned a huge golden statue of him and keep yelling about how they’re LOOKING TO THE FUTURE, that’s when you know they’re really over it.)
“Did anybody even say that to Ronald Reagan?” Trump demanded almost immediately, when the “We love you” chanting commenced. “You know, I mean, this country really liked Reagan. But nobody’s ever heard that chant before — I was at a rally with people chanting ‘We love you’ and I asked someone, ‘Has anyone ever had that chant before?’ And he said, ‘No, we’ve never heard anything like it.’” Yes, that’s Donald J Trump entering himself into a Mean Girls-esque posthumous rivalry with Reagan about who’s more popular at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and what of it?
I’ve always thought Trump bore more than a little resemblance to Regina George: he’s blond, mean, in peak physical condition for a 19-year-old (at least according to his personal physician) and has a Burn Book aimed at discrediting his former closest friends-turned-newly acquired enemies. Standing in front of a large screen that promised “AMERICA UNCANCELED”, he rolled out a list of enemies tonight: Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Tom Rice, Anthony Gonzales, “the warmonger Liz Cheney”. “Democrats are vicious,” he said for good measure. “Evil? Well, there is evil there, well, they’re vicious, they’re smart, and they always stick together.”
Watch: Jim Jordan - GOP must stay united with Trump as the leader
The speech was full of hype lines, but as we reached the 90-minute mark, you could tell both speechmaker and audience were running a little out of steam. “We should have a reason for absentee voting!” he yelled, before immediately turning his head to the side and muttering, “Has to have a reason,” like his own Iago. “Rush is irreplaceable!” he shouted randomly later, but since he hadn’t mentioned radio host Limbaugh for about 20 minutes except in his own head, what most of us heard was “Russia’s irreplaceable” (the reaction was muted, to say the least.)
“We have to have triumph. We have to have victory,” he added in a breathy whisper near the end, which was more than a little unnerving. At one point, he appeared to make a shout-out to the heat death of the universe, something I’ve also given thought to during some of his longer speeches.
Of course, criticisms of Joe Biden popped up once or twice, but they were rare in comparison to the jabs made by the ex-president at members of his own party. “He said that because he didn’t really know what was happening,” he said of Biden two times in a row, leaning hard on the “senile Joe” strategy that never really paid off during the election cycle. Now, let’s be honest: the debates between Trump and Biden often were like watching two bald men fighting over a comb, but at least Biden didn’t yell at the attendees during his inauguration that he’s a hotter version of JFK and they know it.
Were there any surprises from Donald tonight? Not really. He all but announced a run in 2024, but it’s far from guaranteed that he’d get the nomination. He asked his supporters for further donations. He railed about the election for about 35 minutes, repeating well-worn conspiratorial lines about 3am vote dumps in Georgia and secret Democrat interventions. The last hardcore fans clung on til the end, their novelty hats from gigs long past perched on their heads and fraying, nodding along to the tunes they’ve come to know so well. But this felt so much more like an end than a beginning, a push for the final album rather than a bold new direction. When he finally wandered offstage toYMCA with a low-energy fist pump, I couldn’t help but feel that CPAC was fan service at its peak for Donald. On some level, this 74-year-old man lost his job during the pandemic and now probably wants to recline by the sea with a properly functioning windmill in peace. I know they mean well, but can the evangelical worshippers of the golden Donald calf please just let the poor man be?
Watch: Should Donald Trump run for office in 2024?