On Saturday, former President Donald Trump gave the audience at CPAC a potent reminder of what got him elected in 2016 and what may come in 2024. At age 75, Trump looks and sounds as young and energetic as he did during his first presidential campaign nearly six years earlier. He vowed that “2022 will be the year that millions of everyday citizens stand up to the left-wing fascists, and we will continue to make America great again.”
Speaking like a man who had already won the Republican Party 2024 presidential nomination, Mr. Trump did not disappoint his audience, as he tore into Joe Biden and the Democratic Party while laying out his vision of what needs to be done to salvage the listing ship of state. Political speeches are so often predictable, and even the 45th president’s staunchest supporters would be hard-pressed, these days, to argue that Mr. Trump is a reliable exception. But on this occasion, there were one or two notable differences, in tone and content, between what one would normally expect from the former president and what he delivered.
Whether or not you believe the 2020 presidential election was rigged in favor of Mr. Biden, it has become quite difficult to watch Trump speak, knowing that he will recount, in excruciating detail, the events of that fateful night almost a year and a half ago. Since there is no possible way to change what happened, it seems futile for Trump to endlessly recount that night over and over again. Prior to that election – going back to when he first announced his candidacy in 2016 – Trump’s public addresses had always been far less predictable and far more entertaining. But the election that, against all odds, put Joe Biden in the White House seemed to break Trump and trap him in an endless cycle of grievance.
During his CPAC address, Mr. Trump broke that cycle, perhaps understanding that a speech of this significance could not be dominated by the injustice – real or perceived – done to him at the end of 2020. So, while he referred to that election on several occasions, Trump did not make it the dominant theme of his address. Instead, he focused largely on the stark contrast between America under his leadership and the state of affairs today, little more than a year later.
Trump uses even stronger language than in 2016 but it seems more restrained and appropriate given the ordeals of the last few years. Though he made several political promises, such as getting voter ID laws and completing the wall, he was most powerful when he weaved together turmoil from the past with current events.
Ukraine and Russia
Perhaps the most memorable line from his speech came from his observations of America’s recent history with Russia: “Under Bush, Russia invaded Georgia, under Obama, Russia took Crimea, under Biden, Russia invaded Ukraine. I stand as the only president of the 21st century under whose watch Russia did not invade another country,” and punctuated that with, “I’m the first president in decades who did not get you into any wars. I got you out of wars.” If he decides to run in 2024, criticizing past commanders-in-chief from both parties while standing out as the peace president may resonate with voters.
Using the geopolitical situation to attack Biden, Mr. Trump observed, “You have to portray a strength to the outside world. Otherwise, they’re going to walk all over you, and that’s what they are doing now,” adding, “you can take the five worst presidents in American history and put them together and they would not have done the damage that Joe Biden and his administration has done in just a very short thirteen months.”
Trump also tied the Ukraine situation to Biden’s blunder in Afghanistan: “I have no doubt that President Putin made his decision to ruthlessly attack Ukraine only after watching the pathetic withdrawal from Afghanistan. The problem is not that Putin is smart, but the real problem is that our leaders are dumb.”
He did not neglect to link energy independence to Russia when he pointed out that Biden stopped the Keystone pipeline while approving Putin’s Nord Stream 2. “We would have been bigger than Russia and Saudi Arabia combined – times two – in a year. We should not be buying Russian energy but, rather, allow the people of our country to produce, like they did one year ago.”
Summarizing his successor’s foreign policy achievements, Trump delivered, as expected, a withering verdict with “China is threatening Taiwan, Russia is decimating Ukraine” and “Joe Biden has turned calm into chaos, competence into incompetence, stability into anarchy, and security into catastrophe.”
He used Ukraine to foreground illegal immigration and civil rights, criticizing the Democrats for being more concerned with protecting Ukrainian borders than the U.S. border. “If the radical Democrats truly want to fight for democracy abroad, they should start with the democracy that is under threat right next door, a place called Canada,” he said, also using the opportunity to say that “we stand with the truckers, and we stand with the Canadian people in their noble fight to reclaim their freedom.”
Like a skilled composer, Trump continued to pivot seamlessly between themes. Decrying the COVID mandates, he said, “we will never forget what they did to our children and hold them accountable at the ballot box this November.” It tied neatly in with Critical Race Theory and cancel culture: “The radical left is trying to replace American democracy with woke tyranny. They want to do the same thing to America that Trudeau has done to Canada and much, much worse.”
“They lift sanctions on Iran while they sanction and destroy our own citizens,” Trump continued, adding, “they stick the FBI on mothers at school board meetings while they teach four-year-olds to pick their own genders.” If there is one topic that unites parents on both sides, it is the destruction of the schools with woke ideology. His promise to “defend parents’ rights” may be the cause that allows him to do repeat the success of Governor Glenn Youngkin in Virginia.
With his CPAC address, Trump appears to have finally made the transition from a victim of the establishment to its fiercest adversary, once again, as he was five years ago when he descended that famous escalator and jumped into the political fray. His focus is on this year’s midterm elections, clearly, but beyond 2022, it appears there is little doubt what the former president has in mind.
~ Read more from Caroline Adana.