He came, he spoke, and he left the audience happy. Not that I view Donald Trump as a Caesar-esque figure, but a paraphrase of that Caesar-esque remark seems to describe well the former President’s speech and its reception yesterday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).
Two aspects of the speech – the former President’s longest public utterance since his pre-Capitol riot rally speech – made yours truly especially happy. First, he spent a fair amount of time defining what he (and many others, including me) called “Trumpism.” And second, his inevitable treatment of the election 2020 integrity issue was nearly as forward looking, and therefore constructively focused on how last fall’s unmistakable voting and vote-counting irregularities can be minimized from now on, as it was backward looking, and therefore divisively focused on claims of an outright political steal (which, as I’ve previously said, haven’t struck me as results-altering).
Trump’s attention to a Trumpist perspective counts mainly because at least in principle it conveys the idea that he’s interested in consolidating and strengthening his legacy by promoting a set of programs and policies, and not simply by mounting a comeback of his own and emphasizing personal loyalty. In other words, possibly along with not explicitly declaring even an interest in running for reelection in 2024, the former President has opened the door to the possibility of Trumpism without Trump – that is, the party’s nomination of a presidential candidate who’s with him on the issues but lacks his troubling personality traits.
Of course, talking this talk doesn’t mean that Trump will walk this walk. In this respect, I can’t help but recall the way he excommunicated from Trumpworld his first Attorney General and the former Senator from Alabama Jeff Sessions, who was a Trumpy (and in my view admirably serious) conservative populist way before Trumpy was cool, and in fact became the first sitting Senator to endorse his 2016 White House bid.
It’s true that Sessions was villified – and essentially denied a return to the Senate last year when Trump endorsed his much less ideologically Trumpian opponent in the state’s Republican primary – because he recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia.
But it’s also possible that the so-called “Russia-Gate” drama was (understandably, given its disgracefully partisan roots and its damage to his early presidency) a one-off event in Trump’s mind. In this vein, perhaps Trump’s continued cordial relations with House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy of California, who blamed him in part for the Capitol Riot, points to a more tolerant Trump going forward.
As for election integrity, don’t overlook the fact that Trump led off by demanding voter identification requirements. First, polls show it’s incredibly popular among the public, enjoying, for example, 76 percent approval in this 2018 Pew Research Center survey. In addition, however, there’s reason to think that Democrats might find it in their interests, too.
How come? Because of evidence that stronger ID requirements have actually spurred Democratic and non-white voter turnout – two paramount and related objectives of the party. Apparently, these rules so incense Democrats that they react both by voting in greater numbers, and by doubling down on efforts to register non-whites.
But regardless of motives, the outcomes should be applauded across the political spectrum. For they mean not simply that more votes are cast, and that voting becomes easier. After all, those shouldn’t goals for democracies that want to remain or become healthy. Instead, the combination of voter ID requirements and more registered voters would mean that voting by those who are eligible is maximized. Who could legitimately object?
So in theory, the election integrity portion of the Trump CPAC speech could help inspire at least a first needed election reform step that even the most extreme partisans would favor. For in states that tighten ID requirements, these new standards would logically set off a heated voter registration competition that would both increase turnout and greatly boost the odds of all ballots cast being valid ballots. That sounds like a win both for election integrity and for a more inclusive political system. And the faster the progress made by this reform campaign in state legislators, the likelier that America’s next presidential election will help bring the nation together rather than drive it further apart.