The Martyr at CPAC

Donald Trump came to the conservative conference to air some grievances.

Trump speaks to reporters before his speech at CPAC.
Anna Moneymaker / Getty

Former President Donald Trump gripped the CPAC lectern as he workshopped a new sales pitch: “I stand here today, and I’m the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent—and very easily—World War III.” (Wild applause.) “And you’re gonna have World War III, by the way.” (Confused applause.)

It was just one in a string of ominous sentences that the 45th president offered tonight during his nearly two-hour headlining speech at the annual conservative conference, which for years prided itself on its ties to Ronald Reagan but is now wholly intertwined with Trumpism, if little else. Yet even amid cultish devotion, Trump seemed bored, listless, and unanimated as he spoke to a sprawling hotel ballroom that was only three-quarters full.

For much of the speech, Trump’s voice took on more of a soft and haggard whisper than the booming, throaty scream that characterized his campaign rallies. His language, by contrast, was bellicose. Tonight’s address was among the darkest speeches he has given since his “American carnage” inaugural address. Trump warned that the United States is becoming “a nation in decline” and a “crime-ridden, filthy communist nightmare.” He spoke of an “epic battle” against “sinister forces” on the left. He repeatedly painted himself as a martyr, a tragic hero still hoping for redemption. “They’re not coming after me; they’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way,” Trump told the room. He pulled out his best, half-hearted Patton: “We are going to finish what we started. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory.” He was heavy on adjectives, devastating with nouns. “We will liberate America from these villains and scoundrels once and for all,” he said.

This was only Trump’s fourth public event since he officially entered the 2024 race last fall. Rather than lay out his vision for America, he found a mess of topics about which to complain. The White House, Trump said, “wasn’t the easiest building to live in.” He opined that “illegal immigrants come in, and we house them in the Waldorf Astoria.” He characterized Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell as a “China-loving politician” and sounded legitimately disappointed when saying, “My wonderful travel ban is gone.” He lamented the halcyon days before he knew the terms subpoena and grand jury. He called Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg “racist” and griped about the “Department of Injustice.” Shortly before his speech, Trump told James Rosen of Newsmax that he intends to stay in the 2024 presidential race even if he is indicted in one (or more) criminal investigations. Relatedly, he promised to “totally obliterate the ‘deep state.’”

The audience, largely composed of Trump loyalists, hooted and repeatedly yelled “U-S-A!” A brief selection of the hats dotting the hallways outside the Potomac Ballroom: MAGA, ’MERICA, LET’S GO BRANDON, TRUMP WON, WE THE PEOPLE ARE PISSED. Trump’s solemn face was splashed across an array of comically dramatic acrylic paintings on display. (Kari Lake, the election denier who lost her race for Arizona governor last year, kissed one onstage Friday night.) Downstairs from the main stage, attendees could have their picture taken in a mock version of Trump’s Oval Office. Multiple people roamed the corridors in red, white, and blue Trump 45 baseball jerseys. As the former president spoke, supporters waved bright-red WE WANT TRUMP signs. But the man himself seemed only sort of into it, and very bitter.

It was a strange and lackluster conference—more of a “1 a.m. at the party” vibe than “the greatest political movement in the history of our country” that Trump invoked tonight. Perhaps, years from now, 2023 will be remembered as “the last gasp of CPAC.” Gone was the FoxNation sponsorship; Newsmax hoped to fill the void. Attendees could also linger at pop-ups from The Epoch Times, Right Side Broadcasting Network, America First, One America News, Lindell TV, Proverbs Media Group, and Patriot Mobile, which was pitching itself as a Christian cellphone company.

Aside from Trump, the CPAC lineup was missing many of its usual stars. And most of his potential 2024 challengers skipped the conference altogether this year; several instead attended a rival Club for Growth event in Palm Beach, Florida. Trump spoke just a few hours after Jair Bolsonaro, the former president of Brazil, and Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow, who announced the formation of something called an “Election Crime Bureau.” Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado came next with a fire-and-brimstone speech peppered with Bible verses. “We must stand united in this battle against actual evil,” she told the room.

On Friday, former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gently distanced themselves from their old boss in their speeches. (Haley was met with chants of “Trump! Trump! Trump!” after she left the stage.) The businessman Vivek Ramaswamy, who is also running for the Republican nomination, paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech before pledging to get rid of affirmative action, calling it a cancer. He took aim at the Georgia congresswoman and Trump surrogate Marjorie Taylor Greene: “Do we want a national divorce, or do we want a national revival?” Trump, when rattling off thank yous and compliments early in his speech—Representative Matt Gaetz: “a great guy”; Dr. Ronny Jackson: “He’s a doctor!”—joked that Greene is a “low-key” person.

The CPAC straw poll, once a pivotal moment in the GOP election cycle, wrapped up 10 minutes ahead of schedule tonight. (On cue, someone tried to start a “Let’s go, Brandon” chant during the unveiling of the results.) Unsurprisingly, Trump won, with 62 percent of the vote, crushing his closest rival, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who received 20 percent. Curiously, Trump never mentioned DeSantis in his speech. (Tomorrow, DeSantis is scheduled to speak at the Reagan Presidential Library, and both he and Trump are soon headed to Iowa.)

Steve Bannon, proud recipient of a Trump pardon, was among the biggest celebrities of the weekend. Late Friday afternoon, he marched onto the stage in all black, three pens clipped to his shirt, and attacked Fox News for its alleged “soft ban” of Trump. He referred to the Murdoch family as “a bunch of foreigners” and said, “Note to Fox senior management: When Donald J. Trump talks, it’s newsworthy.” He fired up the crowd: “We’re not looking for unity. We’re looking for victory!” He pounded his hand on the lectern, summing up the theme of the weekend: “MAGA! MAGA! MAGA!”

As Trump spoke, another of the gathering’s many “Let’s go, Brandon!” chants broke out, and the former president thanked the crowd. At one point, he play-acted a scene between President Joe Biden and his son Hunter discussing the “laptop from hell” and received genuine laughs. Trump warned that Biden “is leading us into oblivion,” then promised to single-handedly end the war between Russia and Ukraine. Nearly every topic he touched—border security, foreign wars—had a way of coming back around to him, Trump. “NATO wouldn’t even exist if I didn’t get them to pay up,” he said. He then spoke hypothetically about Russia blowing up NATO’s headquarters.

“You know, I had a beautiful life before I did this,” Trump said wistfully at one point. “I lived in luxury. I had everything.” As the speech crossed the 90-minute mark, Trump was clearly losing the audience. He returned to the wartime language: “We will not yield. We will press forward,” he promised. “We will finish what we started.”