Trump Rocks CPAC
If Donald Trump can perform every night at his upcoming rallies like he did last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual meeting of right-wingers held near Washington, D.C., his reelection will be a very likely reality.
There is simply no potential candidate in the Democratic Party who wouldn't be absolutely blown off the stage by him. I say this as a libertarian who is not a Trump fanboy but a skeptical supporter of the president. Reason.com writer Nick Gillespie said, “But he was not simply good, he was Prince-at-the-Super-Bowl great, deftly flinging juvenile taunts at everyone who has ever crossed him, tossing red meat to the Republican faithful, and going sotto voce serious to talk about justice being done for working-class Americans screwed over by global corporations.”
The president appeared to improvise most of the speech, which lasted over two hours. The 72-year-old former reality TV star hit every greatest hit in his repertoire ("Crooked Hillary," "build the wall," "America is winning again," and more all made appearances) while riffing on everything from the Green New Deal to his own advanced age and weird hair to the wisdom of soldiers over generals. At times, it was like listening to Robin Williams' genie in the Disney movie Aladdin, Howard Stern in his peak years as a radio shock jock, or Don Rickles as an insult comic. When he started making asides, Trump observed, "This is how I got elected, by going off script." Two years into his presidency and he's just getting warmed up.
He talked about the Democrats backing the Green New Deal (GND) who "are talking about trains to Hawaii," he then said. "They haven't figured out how to get to Europe yet." He begged the Democrats not to abandon the GND because he recognizes that the more its details and costs are discussed, the more absurd it will become. "When the wind stops blowing, that's the end of your energy," he said at one point. "Did the wind stop blowing, I'd like to watch television today, guys?" "We'll go back to boats," he said, drawing huge laughs when he added, "I don't want to talk [the Democrats] out of [the GND], I just want to be the Republican who runs against it."
He joked about being in the White House all alone on New Year's because of the government shutdown. "I was in the White House and I was lonely, so I went to Iraq," he said, recounting that when his plane was approaching the U.S. airstrip in Iraq, all lights had to be extinguished for landing. "We spend trillions of dollars in the Middle East and we can't land planes [in Iraq] with the lights on," he said, shaking his head in disbelief. "We gotta get out." He talked about the generals he met there who, contrary to the Pentagon brass he dealt with, said they could vanquish ISIS in a week.
Trump was able to cover a YUGE amount of material in two-hours-plus. After speaking sympathetically of immigrants who want to come to the United States and saying that we need more people because the economy is doing so well, he immediately dismissed the Guatemalans, Salvadorans, and Hondurans traveling north in caravans across Mexico. In a bizarre display of simultaneous empathy and contempt, he talked at length about how female migrants are being systematically "raped" but also how the caravans were filled with criminals and drug dealers. It was "sad to see how stupid we've become" to think that the caravans are filled with good people. As he has been doing since his State of the Union address, he has been laying out a partial, inchoate case for a skills-based immigration program. He explained walking away from the table with North Korea even as he noted yet again that he has a great relationship with the dictator Kim Jong Un. In a long riff on trade policy, he invoked the "Great Tariff Debate of 1888" and how China "and everyone else" had been taking advantage of us until he started pushing back. He took time to talk about how no, really, the crowd at his inauguration was in fact historically large despite all publicly available evidence.
All in all, it was, in the words of Daniel Dale, the Washington correspondent for the Toronto Star, "one of the least-hinged speeches Trump has given in a long time." It was indeed all over the place but like the weirdly wide-ranging and digressive speech in which he declared a national emergency, it was also an absolute tour de force, laying out every major point of disagreement between Republicans and Democrats (abortion, the Second Amendment, and taxes, among other things) while tagging the latter aggressively as socialists who will not only end the private provision of health care but take over the energy sector too. Those charges take on new life in the wake of the announcement of the GND and comments, however short-lived, by Democrats such as Kamala Harris, who at one point recently called for an end to private health care. And over 100 House Democrats have signed on to a plan that would end private health insurance in two years. For all the biting criticism and dark humor in today's speech, Trump has mostly ditched the "American Carnage" rhetoric that marked his first Inaugural Address, pushing onto liberals and Democrats all the negativity and anger that used to surround him like the dust cloud surrounds Pigpen in the old Peanuts cartoons. "We have people in Congress right now who hate our country," he said. "We can name every one of them. Sad, very, very sad."
At moments, he seemed to be workshopping his themes and slogans for 2020. "We believe in the American Dream, not the socialist nightmare," he averred at one point. "Now you have a president who finally standing up for America." The future, he said "does not belong to those who believe in socialism. The future belongs to those who believe in freedom. I've said it before and will say it again: America will never be a socialist country." That's a line that may not work forever, but it will almost certainly get the job done in 2020.
While the president gave an epic speech, he still is not crystal clear about certain details and facts. He hammered trade deficits in a way that will remind anyone with an undergrad economics course under their belt that he fundamentally doesn't know what he's talking about. He misrepresented both NAFTA and the new trade bill he crafted with Mexico and Canada, and at the exact moment that hundreds of wearied listeners started leaving the ballroom at The Gaylord Resort and Convention Center, he claimed that not a single person had left their seat.
But the 2020 presidential race is not going to be decided based on which candidate is more tightly moored to reality. It's going to be decided, like these things always are, by the relative health of the economy and the large vision of the future the different candidates put forward. As the economy continues to expand (however anemically compared to historical averages) and he continues to avoid credible charges of impeachable offenses, Trump is becoming sunnier and sunnier while the Democrats are painting contemporary America as a late-capitalist hellhole riven by growing racial, ethnic, and other tensions.
If President Trump can continue to perform the way he did today at CPAC, it remains to be seen what Democratic rival can rise to that challenge.