‘Do you miss me yet,’ Donald Trump asked the crowd in his opening remarks at the Conservative Political Action Conference this afternoon: the most important annual conference for the Republican party. The former president was given the keynote address at CPAC, with anticipation that he might have a big announcement to make about his future plans, including the possibility of another run for the White House.
In a speech that ran for roughly 90 minutes, Trump never committed himself to a 2024 bid, but he teased it several times. ‘I may even decide to beat them for a third time,’ he said at the start of the speech: the first of many references to what he continues to claim was a ‘rigged’ election, despite having these allegations shot down in the courts. He pushed the idea even further at the end of his address, proclaiming that ‘a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House. I wonder who that will be...who, who who will that be, I wonder.' He encouraged people to head to his website to get involved: the landing page is actively taking donations.
Having been acquitted by the Senate (for the second time) on charges of impeachment from the House of Representatives, there are no legal barriers to Trump running again. And based on today’s show, he is seemingly eager to do so. But with the election another four years away, it’s prudent from Trump's perspective to hold back slightly: not least because confirming a run now might encourage potential challengers to do the same. Instead, Trump indicated tonight that he plans to play the role of kingmaker in the midterm election next year, ‘actively working to elect strong, tough, smart Republican leaders’ - who continue to show their loyalty to him.
While Trump stopped short of a big 2024 announcement, his speech was packed with information that is set to shape the future of the Republican party and American politics. He shot down rumours that he would be setting up a party to challenge the GOP: ‘We’re not starting new parties...we have the Republican party. I'm not starting a new party.' He doubled down on Trumpian policies - ranging from the border wall to a crackdown on big tech companies - and called on President Joe Biden to reopen the schools immediately. As far as his infamous methods of communication, Trump had one message to his fans and critics: ‘'You haven’t heard anything yet.'
What was most telling, however, wasn’t the contents of Trump’s speech (which turned into a ramble towards the end, bouncing between self-praise for his premiership and a continued unwillingness to accept the election result). It was that this was taking place not at a personal rally, but at CPAC: a conference that historically caters to a broad tent of conservative thinkers and voters.
This was not the Republican’s show, but Trump’s show. He read out the names of every GOP representative that voted for his impeachment, calling on the audience to ‘get rid of them all.' The crowd booed and cheered along. He insisted that the Republican party remained united, whilst almost in the same breath claimed that certain Republicans - those who would break from Trumpism - threatened to ‘destroy the country.’ With no established opposition leaders in US politics, there tends to be a power vacuum after a lost election, in which candidates slowly come forward to compete in the battle of ideas and eventually run in the presidential primaries. Trump is moving quickly to avoid any such power gap opening up. His speech today made it abundantly clear that he’s not going anywhere: he plans to continue to shape and mould the party in his image.
And it would seem, for now, establishments like CPAC are willing to go along with him, giving Trump the platform and primetime slot to showcase himself as the leader. This year’s CPAC straw poll would suggest Republican voters are also still supportive of the former president, with 55 per cent selecting him as their preferred candidate in 2024.
But it’s a long road to the next presidential election: and as Trump’s presidency illustrated, much can change in a short period of time. The battle for the soul of the Republican party would have taken place with or without Trump’s interference: but his eagerness to stay on increases the stakes. Next year’s midterms are now set not just to be a referendum on the start of Biden's term, but a stand-off between Trumpian candidates and those who would leave him and parts of his legacy behind.