At CPAC Trump made a terrifying new promise to his followers: I will hurt Democrats for you

Donald Trump once told his supporters he was their voice. More than a year removed from the presidency, his remarks at CPAC make clear he now wants to be returned to Washington as their fist. Andrew Feinberg reports from Orlando, Florida

<p>President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday </p>

President Donald Trump speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday

From the moment the stage crew began to set up Donald Trump's lectern on the stage at the 2022 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), there was a change in the atmosphere.

Part of it was the lectern itself. Heavy enough to require handing by several workers and equipped with its own hardshell travel cover, the design of the stand Mr Trump has used during recent public appearances evokes – perhaps deliberately – the “Blue Goose” the famous lectern used by whoever the sitting president of the United States might be on any given day.

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Whether use of the ersatz presidential speaking stand – devoid of the seal which now travels with the man who defeated Mr Trump in November 2020 – was Mr Trump’s deliberate choice meant to keep a presidential aura around him or a selection made by the security detail charged with keeping the ex-president alive because the lectern is (like its more famous doppelganger) bulletproof, Mr Trump’s representatives would not say in response to queries from The Independent (though one agent stationed in the CPAC press area said the agency “doesn't get involved in his lectern decisions, but we couldn’t tell you if we did anyway”).

But by the time Mr Trump’s arrival was two hours away, the normal CPAC inter-segment programming – the commercials for the various conference sponsors and advertisements for other American Conservative Union content – had faded away and was replaced by Mr Trump's signature playlist. The only indicator that he wasn't speaking at one of his “Save America” rallies was a small concession to the host, a CPAC logo plastered over the lectern’s face.

But even though the trappings of previous Trump rallies – the Secret Service with their magnetometers, the street vendors hawking anti-Hillary Clinton T-shirts across the street, the musical selections – was the same, something was different this night.

Thirteen months removed from the end of his presidency, Mr Trump appeared devoid of any of the concerns that might have restrained him in his first – or second – campaign for the presidency, or any time during his four years in office.

Twice impeached, twice acquitted, the disgraced ex-president's remarks made clear he no longer has any care for the so-called "swing voters" or has any desire to use a third campaign – if he chooses to mount one – to reach out to voters beyond those with a mindset similar to the crowd who paid the ACU large sums to see him on Saturday.

From the start, Mr Trump chose to highlight and thank some of the most toxic characters in today's GOP, at least according to what were once the normal standards of politics.

Representatives Matt Gaetz – currently under investigation for sex trafficking – and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who on Friday spoke at a gathering of openly antisemitic and racist white nationalists, both got shout-outs from the former president.

Mr Trump even had no qualms about praising Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelensky, the man who he'd tried to extort into opening a sham investigation into Joe Biden two years prior, and leaned into his chummy relationship with the man who the GOP-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee found to have interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf.

As he bragged of being the only 21st century president on whose watch Vladimir Putin did not invade another country, Mr Trump stuck to the now-common GOP talking point which blames Joe Biden for the invasion Mr Putin launched on Wednesday, he leaned into his prior praise of Mr Putin.

“Yesterday reporters asked me if I thought President Putin was smart. I said: ‘of course he’s smart’." Mr Trump recalled.

Continuing, Mr Trump bashed a familiar target – Nato – and the rest of the world’s democracies as “not so smart” for having employed economic sanctions in response to Mr Putin, and again boasted of having “gotten along” with the Russian dictator.

The grievances he listed were similarly mind-numbingly familiar.

He ran through a laundry list – his first impeachment over his extortion of Mr Zelensky, the 2020 election conspiracy theories, and his ongoing grievance with the Department of Justice, which he accused of “waging war on an opposing party” and “prosecuting their political opponents for fabricated crimes”.

But as he read through his prepared text from a teleprompter, there was an undercurrent of menace in his remarks.

“Our most dangerous people are people from within ... because they make us weak,” he said.

The Donald Trump of 2016 and 2020 would not have said anything of the sort. But the Donald Trump of 2022 – and the Republican Party he leads – have internalised the idea that the greatest threat to the United States comes not from a resurgent, imperialist Russia, or even the illegal immigrants Mr Trump once promised a wall to defend against.

“Under Joe Biden, we’re losing our country, no different than if we’d lost it in a war,” he said.

During his previous campaigns, Mr Trump once told his supporters: "I am your voice".

And though he didn't say so explicitly, the Donald Trump who spoke on Saturday was telling his supporters he'd be more than a voice if returned to office. He will be what they truly want – a fist, empowered by their votes to smash the "enemy within", to hurt the people – minorities, liberals, educated professionals – from whom they feel under threat.

"Our mission in 2022 and 2024 is to take on this radical and power hungry ruling class and to deliver them and electoral defeat so resounding that they are exiled into political oblivion, never ever to return again," he said.

"They use big tech to censor you. They use the deep state to spy on you. They use the intelligence agencies to frame you, they use the media to slander you, they use the legal system to persecute you, they use rigged elections to disenfranchise you, to destroy you and ruin your lives," he continued, adding later: "They hate us all.”

Though his prepared remarks were careful to characterise what his supporters desire as a political defeat for his adversaries, what he meant was simple: Elect me, and I will hurt them for you.

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