Trump's Juice is Gone, But it Doesn't Matter

Donald Trump made his brief return to the spotlight Sunday night, closing out CPAC 2021 with an obscenely long speech. He railed against President Joe Biden, whinged about the election being unfair, decried the Democrats’ liberal agenda, and even called for the jobs of Republican lawmakers who supported his second impeachment. Ever the showman, Trump named Wyoming Rep. Liz Cheney, easily the highest profile and most reviled among his supporters, last to a chorus of boos.

Based on that information alone, you might think Trump’s speech was a rousing call to arms for the GOP, invigorating the party to fight for the man and his ideals. That might wind up being true. But it was also clear to anyone watching that Trump has no juice.

That’s not through lack of trying. Republicans still love him—he’s still the proverbial favorite in 2024, and basically everything at CPAC was catered to his reemergence, from the bizarre golden statue (that turned out to be made in Mexico) to most of the merchandise being sold. Politicians and pundits fawned over him. Ted Cruz, a 2024 presidential hopeful himself, said “Donald Trump ain’t goin’ anywhere.”

But all the praise and deference couldn’t make up for the disappointment of the real thing. Trump got plenty of loud reactions from the CPAC crowd, but from his hushed tone to repeated lies about election fraud, even attendees had to know they were watching an empty imitation of what they came for. They were hoping for the loud, fiery, blustery Trump who buffaloed through controversies and scandals into the White House like an undeniable force of nature—not the withering loser who repeats himself and doesn’t know when to cut his remarks short. It was eerily similar to Trump’s late campaign speeches, painfully boring affairs where his crowds were totally unreactive. Trump wasn’t the same after his COVID-19 diagnosis and recovery, and despite his regular amount of makeup he didn’t look like himself. Hours before the speech, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton shared a photo of he and Trump on the golf course at Mar-a-Lago in which the former president was covered in band-aids and looked noticeably strained.

Trump’s appearance wouldn’t have mattered much if it didn’t match his lethargic, repetitive attempts at bluster. The crowd essentially willed him through his speech, which at this point is an apt metaphor. Trump will own the Republican Party as long as he wants to, with willing lackeys like Cruz and Josh Hawley doing the heavy lifting as they poll in the single digits, their presidential aspirations pushed back another four years. Trump, meanwhile, will lie in wait, emerging every so often to remind the GOP who’s really in charge. There’s no need to create his own political party when there’s one still completely bent to his will.