Former President Trump delivered a preview of what to expect in next year’s presidential election in his address to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, framing the contest as an existential battle for the future of the country.
“We have no choice. If we don’t do this, our country will be lost forever,” Trump told a crowd of diehard supporters at the conference in National Harbor, Md. “People are tired of RINOs [Republican in name only] and globalists. They want to see America First.”
“This is the final battle,” he continued. “They know it, I know it, You know it, everybody knows it. This is it. Either they win, or we win and if they win, we no longer have a country.”
The former president went on to position himself as a “warrior” in a battle for “retribution” in Washington.
“In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today I add: I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” Trump exclaimed to the crowd.
Throughout the more than 100-minute-long address, the former president touched on familiar grievances, continuing to lament his loss in the 2020 presidential election and hitting the Republican establishment in Washington.
“We are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush,” Trump said.
He also continued his feud with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), referring to him directly after criticizing “China-loving politicians.”
“You listening to this, Mitch McConnell? You listening to this?” Trump said, echoing his earlier racist attacks against Elaine Chao, McConnell’s wife and Trump’s former Transportation Secretary.
While the former president wasted no time targeting adversaries like Ryan, McConnell and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), missing from his speech were any dings at potential 2024 challengers like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).
His speech often took on the air of a campaign rally as attendees broke into frequent chants of “Four more years!” and “USA! USA!” While CPAC’s crowd was at its most energized while the former president was speaking, not even Trump could ultimately attract a full room of attendees, as a wide section in the back of the ballroom remained empty.
Nonetheless, this year’s CPAC underscored the enduring popularity of the former president among the GOP grassroots. Throughout the week, guests and speakers alike made explicit their support for his 2024 candidacy with colorful Trump-inspired attire, and at times more subtly in their lack of enthusiasm for the other announced or presumptive White House candidates in attendance, like former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley.
Trump also dominated the event’s annual straw poll, winning 62 percent of the vote. DeSantis came in a distant second place with 20 percent support. Every other figure included in the straw poll came in with single-digit support or less than one percent support.
While CPAC demonstrated that Trump can still excite some of the party’s activist base as well as party donors, and while national polls show the former president still polling formidably, the conference comes ahead of what’s expected to be a messy GOP primary battle.
Pompeo used the Trump-friendly CPAC to take a swipe at the former president for adding nearly $8 trillion to the national debt. Haley, during her speech, said, ”if you’re tired of losing, then put your trust in a new generation. And if you want to win — not just as a party, but as a country — then stand with me” – a subtle jab at the former president, who is 76 while Haley is 51.
This week’s CPAC also came against the backdrop of a rival GOP event, the Club for Growth’s annual donor dinner, where many of the announced or widely presumed White House candidates spoke — except for Trump.
While Trump did not use the CPAC address to directly attack his potential 2024 rivals, he was quick to note his lead in the many polls of the hypothetical primary field.
“We’re leading every Republican by massive numbers,” Trump told the raucous audience.