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Will Trump’s GOP rivals respond to his trash talk — ever?

Former President Trump
Greg Nash
Former President Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Md., on March 4, 2023.

You don’t have to be a partisan Republican to acknowledge that the GOP has a strong list of smart, thoughtful potential presidential candidates with their eyes on the future.    

And then there’s Donald Trump — proof that just as some things never change, the same is true of some people. If there was any doubt about whether time has mellowed Trump, those doubts were obliterated at the recent convention of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). 

His nearly two-hour speech was like taking a trip back in time. Trump mocked his fellow Republicans, something he did with great success in 2016. “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove and Jeb Bush,” Trump told his MAGA fans at CPAC. “People are tired of RINOs and globalists. They want to see ‘America First.’”

So much for Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment,” which says Republicans shouldn’t speak ill of other Republicans.

Trump told his loyal supporters, “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution.”

He told them about how his enemies tried to bring him down with “Russia, Russia, Russia.” He bragged that he is the only candidate who “will prevent — and very easily — World War III.”  Of his many detractors, he said, “They’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way.”

And, as he almost always does when he speaks, Trump said things that simply aren’t true. CNN — a channel that, admittedly, is no friend of Trump — called it a “wildly dishonest” speech and listed 23 false statements, adding, “And that’s far from the total.”

But playing fast and loose with the truth is hardly a deal-breaker for Trump loyalists. He overwhelmingly won CPAC’s annual presidential straw poll, winning 62 percent of the vote. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who didn’t show up for the convention — came in second with 20 percent.

But winning a straw poll at CPAC doesn’t tell us much about winning a real election. The audience at CPAC was a Donald Trump fan club. CPAC isn’t the place where independent, moderate voters show up to mingle — the kind of voters who have a big say in determining who wins close elections. People who attended the 2023 CPAC convention not only don’t vote like most Americans, they don’t necessarily vote even like most Republicans.

As NPR reported, “According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, more than half of Republicans say their party has a better chance of winning the presidency with someone other than Trump on the ticket.”

Trump is one of those pols you either love or loathe. And as far as one important voting bloc is concerned — college-educated suburban women — his personality is toxic. And anyone who hasn’t been in a coma for the past few years knows that Trump has become good at one thing: losing. He lost Republicans the House in 2018; he lost the presidency in 2020; and he caused the GOP to lose the Senate just before he left office in 2021. And again in 2022, thanks to the fringe candidates he endorsed, the red wave that supposedly was going to sweep Republicans to power was a mere ripple. The GOP even lost a seat in the Senate.

Still, Republicans are afraid to take Trump on directly. As Politico put it, “Save for a couple of vague comments [at CPAC] that could be construed as digs at Trump — [Mike] Pompeo cautioning against following ‘celebrity leaders’ with ‘fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,’ and [Nikki] Haley again calling for competency tests for politicians over 75 — no one dared to criticize the former president.” 

And that’s the dilemma for Republican candidates: how to distance themselves from Donald Trump while not saying something that might offend his loyal base, a base any candidate will need if he or she — and not Trump — wins the GOP nomination.

It’s not exactly a secret that many Trump allies hope there’s a large primary field. That way, the non-Trump candidates likely would split the vote, leaving Trump with more votes than any one of them — which is what happened in the 2016 primary.

As for Trump, he says, “I really say, the more the merrier.” Yes, the more “freaks” and “fools” in his own party he can humiliate during the campaign, who will have to decide how much trash they’ll take from Trump before standing up to him. 

Donald Trump didn’t get where he is by playing nice. His take-no-prisoners strategy worked for him in 2016 — and if his remarks at CPAC are any indication, he’s figuring it could work again in 2024. Fasten your seat belts; it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Bernard Goldberg is an Emmy and an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University award-winning writer and journalist. He was a correspondent with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel” for 22 years and previously worked as a reporter for CBS News and as an analyst for Fox News. He is the author of five books and publishes exclusive weekly columns, audio commentaries and Q&As on his Substack page. Follow him on Twitter @BernardGoldberg.

Tags 2024 presidential campaign CPAC 2023 Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign Republican Party

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