‘My ultimate and absolute revenge’: Trump gives chilling CPAC speech on presidential agenda

<span>Donald Trump speaks at CPAC in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on 24 February 2024.</span><span>Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP</span>
Donald Trump speaks at CPAC in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on 24 February 2024.Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

Donald Trump styled himself as a “proud political dissident” and promised “judgment day” for political opponents in an address that offered a chilling vision of a democracy in imminent peril.

In classic carnival barker form, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination accused Joe Biden of weaponising the government against him with “Stalinist show trials”. He pledged to crack down on border security and deliver the biggest deportation in US history if he wins the 5 November election.

Related: CPAC: Noem and Stefanik lead charge of the wannabe Trump VPs

“For hard-working Americans, November 5th will be our new liberation day,” Trump told a packed ballroom at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor in Maryland. “But for the liars and cheaters and fraudsters and censors and imposters who have commandeered our government, it will be their judgment day!”

He added: “Your victory will be our ultimate vindication, your liberty will be our ultimate reward and the unprecedented success of the United States of America will be my ultimate and absolute revenge.”

The overwhelmingly white crowd, many wearing Make America Great Again regalia, rose to their feet and roared their approval.

The former US president was speaking hours before an expected victory over Republican rival Nikki Haley in the South Carolina primary, making him all but certain to be the party nominee.

Meanwhile, organizers held a straw poll at the convention for Trump’s running mate: South Dakota governor Kristi Noem tied with tech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy at 15%, followed by former Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, current New York congresswoman Elise Stefanik and South Carolina senator Tim Scott. In last place was Nikki Haley at 2%. About 1,500 people voted.

Trump’s visit marked his 14th appearance at CPAC, breaking the record previously held by former president Ronald Reagan, according to his campaign. He appeared unbound and at times unhinged. The 77-year-old was bilious and bleak but also energetic and at times even humorous, less commander-in-chief than stand-up comedian. He told self-deprecating jokes about his wife Melania’s reviews of his speeches (“I ask our first lady, I say. So, baby, how good was that? She goes you were OK”).

His puerile parody of the speaking style, finger pointing and gait of 81-year-old Biden earned roars of laughter. And in a nod to his days as host of the reality TV show the Apprentice, Trump delighted the audience by shouting: “Crooked Joe Biden, you are fired! Get out of here. You’re destroying our country. You’re fired. Get the hell out of here!”

But, like demagogues of the past, the comedy and showmanship smuggled in a sinister undertow. Trump’s ability to play the crowd, turning its emotions from euphoria to fury as easily as flicking a switch, carry echoes that are hard to ignore.

The tone was set before he appeared on stage. A series of popular hits – Abba’s Dancing Queen, Johnny Cash’s Ring of Fire, Sinéad O’Connor’s Nothing Compares 2 U, Elvis Presley’s Suspicious Minds – was followed by the tinny sound of Justice for All, a rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner sung by defendants jailed over their alleged roles in the January 6, 2021, insurrection. The CPAC audience rose solemnly for the dirge that was recorded over a prison phone line.

As usual, Trump entered to Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA, hugged an American flag and painted an impossibly grim picture of an America overrun by bloodshed, chaos and violent crime. “If Crooked Joe Biden and his thugs win in 2024, the worst is yet to come,” he said. “A country that will go and sink to levels that are unimaginable.

“These are the stakes of this election. Our country is being destroyed, and the only thing standing between you and it’s obliteration is me.”

Facing 91 criminal charges in four cases, Trump projected himself as both martyr and potential saviour of the nation. “A vote for Trump is your ticket back to freedom, it’s your passport out of tyranny and it’s your only escape from Joe Biden and his gang’s fast track to hell,” he continued.

“And in many ways, we’re living in hell right now because the fact is, Joe Biden is a threat to democracy – really is a threat to democracy.”

Speaking days after the death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Trump hinted at a self-comparison by adding: “I stand before you today not only as your past and hopefully future president but as a proud political dissident. I am a dissident.”

The crowd whooped and applauded. Trump noted that he had been indicted more often than the gangster Al Capone on charges that he described as “bullshit”. The audience again leaped to their feet, some shaking their fists and chanting: “We love Trump! We love Trump!”

Trump argued without evidence: “The Stalinist show trials being carried out at Joe Biden’s orders set fire not only to our system of government but to hundreds of years of western legal tradition.

“They’ve replaced law, precedent and due process with a rabid mob of radical left Democrat partisans masquerading as judges and juries and prosecutors.”

Trump also spent time on his signature issue: he said his “first and most urgent action” as president would be the “sealing of the border, stopping the invasion ... send Joe Biden’s illegal aliens back home”.

The ex-president, who has spent years demonising immigrants, said: “They’re coming from Asia, they’re coming from the Middle East, coming from all over the world, coming from Africa, and we’re not going to stand for it ... They’re destroying our country.”

He promised to carry out the biggest deportation in American history. “It’s not a nice thing to say and I hate to say it and those clowns in the media will say: ‘Oh, he’s so mean.’ No, they’re killing our people. They’re killing our country. We have no choice.”

He added: “We have languages coming into our country … they have languages that nobody in this country has ever heard of. It’s a horrible thing.”

But Trump broke from the teleprompter into a series of bizarre riffs. One was a convoluted story about flying into Iraq in darkness: “I sat with the pilots ... the best-looking human beings I’ve ever seen. Not my thing ... But they are handsome. Central casting. Better looking than Tom Cruise. And taller.”

Once again he had the faithful eating out of the palm of his hand – a scene that may set off alarm bells for defenders of democracy. “By the way, isn’t this better than reading off a fricking teleprompter?” he asked. The crowd cheered.

“Nobody can ramble like this,” he said, adding: “They’ll say: ‘He rambled, he’s cognitively impaired.’ Well, it’s really the opposite. It’s total genius – you know that.” The crowd cheered some more.