Grievance and Greatness

Donald Trump makes his political comeback by dusting off an old predictable playbook that most Republicans now accept as gospel.

Donald Trump made his post-White House comeback at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Sunday, reclaiming the mantle of Republican leadership while dusting off his tried-and-true playbook of falsehoods, attacks, grievances and grandiose self-importance.

Few presidents in modern U.S. history have been as consumed by personal slights as Trump has — or as obsessed with punishing those he perceives to be disloyal.

Likewise, few presidents have spent as much time boasting about themselves — or bending the truth whenever it suits them.

All of these traits were on full display at CPAC, where a gilded, larger-than-life statue of Trump — the kind of idolatry you’re more likely to see in Pyongyang than in Orlando — previewed the fawning that awaited the former president.

Those eager to praise Trump included prominent Republicans like House Minority Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), confirming what many already knew: The GOP has largely embraced Trumpism, having realized it’s much easier to tap into people’s anger, attack your opponents and play the victim than to offer substantial solutions to difficult problems.

President Donald Trump is introduced on stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland on March 2, 2019. At this year’s CPAC gathering in Florida, Trump may no longer have been president, but he was clearly still the de facto leader of the Republican Party. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Trump dismissed speculation that he’d form his own party as “fake news” (even though the idea came from him) and declared that he would unify the Republican Party — while calling out those Republicans who tried to hold him accountable for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

He also used the occasion to extol his own greatness. (Hint: If you constantly have to remind people how great you are, you may not be as great as you think you are.)

Indeed, Trump’s self-congratulatory, rambling 90-minute speech was filled with the usual hyperbole and falsehoods — the biggest being the lie that just won’t die: that he won the election over Joe Biden.

At this point, it’s not even worth regurgitating all the evidence debunking Trump’s claims of massive fraud. Suffice it to say, the only “massive” thing about the election was the 7-million-voter lead Biden racked up over Trump.

Even though Trump’s advisors told him it would be better to stick to his accomplishments (and not say anything that could get land him in legal trouble), the former president couldn’t resist rehashing the lie that Democrats stole the election. Hinting at a possible 2024 run, Trump told the cheering audience: “I may even decide to beat them for a third time.”

(Trump did resist the temptation, though, to blame his loss on voting machines operated by Dominion and Smartmatic, both of which have been launching multibillion-dollar lawsuits against those who’ve peddled false allegations against them.)

Trump also boasted that “we’ve been doing a lot of winning,” even though he lost the White House and Republicans lost the Senate.

He did go on to talk about his accomplishments, some of which were real but most of which were exaggerated or simply not true. (The same could be said of his attacks on Biden.)

There was the usual line that Trump “built the strongest economy in the history of the world.” In truth, he inherited a strong economy from Barack Obama (who helped it recover from the Great Recession) and basically kept it humming along. The value of the stock market did surge under Trump’s watch — and joblessness among minorities hit record lows —  but both inequality and the deficit soared.

The pandemic erased many of these economic gains, however, in part because of what critics say was a delayed response by the Trump administration to acknowledge the pandemic’s existence.

But Trump recounted a cherry-picked history of what he still calls the “China virus.”

He was accurate in pointing out that his administration put up $10 billion to fund the development of vaccines, although only Moderna took the money (the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was self-funded, although the government did agree to buy 100 million doses of it).

Trump neglected to mention, however, that less than 3 million people had been vaccinated out of the 20 million he pledged to vaccinate by the end of 2020.

But perhaps the biggest omission was Trump’s steadfast dismissal of scientific advice — especially about masks, which potentially cost tens of thousands of Americans their lives. A report by the respected Lancet medical journal said that Trump’s “inept and insufficient” response to the pandemic led to 40% more deaths compared to other wealthy nations.

Particularly egregious was Trump’s swipe at the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, for not recommending masks early in the pandemic. That’s true, but as experts learned more about the pandemic, by April, Fauci and the CDC were unanimously encouraging people to wear masks.

In contrast, Trump dismissed masks even after he created a super-spreader event at the White House Rose Garden last fall that infected several prominent Republicans — and even after he came down with COVID-19 himself.

And while Trump deserves credit for the vaccine push, according to many reports, his administration failed to build up the necessary infrastructure to distribute those vaccines, significantly slowing down their initial rollout as Biden took office and scrambled to set up supply chains and federal guidance.

It was also a bit odd for a man who openly mused about injecting ultraviolet light into the body to kill the coronavirus to label Biden as “anti-science” — at a conference where the audience was largely mask-less (and booed when asked to put them on).

Equally baffling was Trump’s assertion that Biden “has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history.”

I’m not sure what Trump’s definition of disastrous is, but Biden has a higher approval rating (about 60%) than Trump had at both the start and end of his presidency.

So far, Biden is well on track to exceed his promise of vaccinating 100 million Americans in 100 days. In fact, he recently announced that all Americans can be vaccinated by the end of May, two months earlier than he originally pledged.

Unlike Trump, Biden seems to realize that it’s better to under-promise and over-deliver (and look like a hero) than to over-promise and under-deliver (and look like a failure).

Biden’s also in a good position to have his $1.9 trillion stimulus package passed in a few weeks.

It’s a “disastrous” first month that most presidents would kill to have.

Also confusing were Trump’s attacks on Biden for not wanting to reopen schools, considering that Biden is doing everything he can to do just that (something that Trump wasn’t able to do while he was president).

Some of Trump’s most meandering remarks were on China. As president, Trump succeeded in recognizing China as a geopolitical competitor, but when it came to specifics, his math rarely added up.

He took credit for imposing “hundreds of billions” of dollars in tariffs on China, neglecting to mention that tariffs are in fact taxes paid for by American consumers. (American taxpayers have also spent tens of billions of dollars bailing out farmers hurt by the tariffs).

And according to a study commissioned by the U.S.-China Business Council, Trump’s trade war with Beijing reduced U.S. economic growth and cost 245,000 American jobs.

As for Trump’s fixation on America’s trade deficit with China, it hit a record high under his tenure, growing to over $530 billion — all while foreign direct investment to the U.S. plummeted (but grew in China).

Perhaps not surprisingly, Russia did not get much air time in Trump’s speech, even though under his watch, Moscow reportedly engineered the SolarWinds cyber hack on government and corporate networks — an attack akin to a cyber Pearl Harbor.

Trump downplayed the attack and suggested that China, not Russia, was behind it despite all evidence to the contrary.

In contrast, Biden on Tuesday announced sanctions on senior Russian officials for the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and is reportedly preparing more sanctions for, among other things, SolarWinds and alleged Russian bounties on American troops in Afghanistan.

Trump largely confined his remarks on Russia to a bizarre claim that “they cut back on production. And we got it back up.” It’s unclear what he meant, but presumably he was referring to not having to rely on Russia or Saudi Arabia for oil. While he took credit for America’s energy independence, that was, in fact, achieved under Obama (although we will never be fully independent because oil is a globally traded commodity).

On that note, Trump derided Democrats for adopting renewables like wind power over fossil fuels, citing the “windmill calamity that we’re witnessing in Texas.”

Trump’s strange obsession with windmills goes back years. He repeatedly blames them for killing birds, even though, as Business Insider pointed out, wind turbines kill about 234,000 birds every year, while cats kill 2.4 billion birds.

As for charges that frozen wind turbines were responsible for the recent power outages in Texas, wind makes up roughly 7% of Texas’s energy supply. The bigger culprit was frozen natural gas pipelines. Regardless, the blackouts in Texas were mostly the result of a decentralized, deregulated electrical grid that was never properly weatherized for extreme cold.

Unlike Trump, who politicized natural disasters when they occurred in blue states, Biden did not blame Texas officials for the outages. He did what all presidents except for Trump have done in the past: quickly and quietly declared a state of emergency to distribute federal aid to the state.

Biden also did not say a peep about Ted Cruz flying down to Cancun while the rest of his state froze, but the message was clear: “I’m too busy doing actual work to waste my time taking cheap potshots at my opponents.”

If Cruz were a Democrat, Trump would’ve spent weeks coming up with Twitter hashtags about his Cancun escape.

In fact, for policy wonks like me, the last few weeks have been heaven. Instead of trying to decipher one-line presidential directives via tweet, we’ve had meaty policy debates to dissect, from Biden’s jam-packed legislative agenda on coronavirus relief, infrastructure and immigration, to his foreign policy moves on Iran, Syria, Russia and the EU.

This gets to a fundamental pillar of Trumpism: It rests on sensationalism over substance.

Beyond Trump’s penchant for petty name-calling, he’s a master at exploiting America’s culture wars.

The issue doesn’t particularly matter as long as it riles people up.

A classic example: Trump warning that transgender people will ruin women’s sports. I can’t even begin to paraphrase what he said so here it is in full:

“Joe Biden and the Democrats are even pushing policies that would destroy women’s sports. A lot of new records are being broken in women’s sports. Hate to say that ladies, but got a lot of new records, they’re being shattered. [inaudible 00:45:28] the weightlifting. Every ounce was like a big deal for many years. All of a sudden somebody comes along and beats it by a hundred [inaudible 00:45:36]. Young girls and women are in sex that they are now being forced to compete against those who are biological males. It’s not good for women. It’s not good for women’s sports, which worked so long and so hard to get to where they are. The records that stood for years, even decades, are now being smashed with [inaudible 00:46:00]. Smashed. If this does not change, women’s sports, as we know it, will die. They’ll end. It’ll end.

What coach, if I’m a coach, I want to be a great coach. What coach, as an example, wants to recruit a young woman to compete if her record can easily be broken by somebody who was born a man. Not too many of those coaches around, right? They are around, they won’t be around long because they’re going to have a big problem when their record is… We’re 0 and 16, but we’re getting better. No, I think it’s crazy. I think it’s just crazy what’s happening. We must protect the integrity of women’s sports. So important. Have to.”

Umm, come again?

Beyond the babbling diatribe, if Trump was truly concerned about women’s sports, he could’ve mentioned the coaching sex scandals that have rocked the world of women’s gymnastics.

But he’s not concerned. He just latches onto the latest loaded issue that energizes people but has little actual bearing on their lives. (Some Republicans dwelled on the life-altering issue of Mr. Potato Head becoming gender-neutral.)

And that’s been Trump’s — and the GOP’s — winning formula: Play off voters’ emotions and misplaced priorities instead of offering real solutions to the hard problems that actually matter.

One policy area, however, that is both emotional and relevant is immigration, and here, Trump has excelled in capitalizing on one of the thorniest issues in U.S. politics.

At CPAC, Trump resurrected much of his inflammatory and false rhetoric on the subject.

He said Biden is bringing in thousands of thousands of refugees from all over the world. “People that nobody knows anything about. We don’t have crime records. We don’t have health records.”

Not true. Refugees are among the most vetted in the world, and Biden is simply restoring refugee caps from Trump’s historic lows.

The former president also said Biden would shut down Immigration and Customs Enforcement and release “killers, rapists, drug smugglers, gang members and sex offenders” into the country.

Not true. ICE isn’t going anywhere (although far-left progressives would like to dismantle it — a pipe dream). Biden did seek a 100-day pause on deportations, but a judge denied the request. Regardless, the pause would not apply to murderers or other serious criminal offenders.

Trump said he brought illegal border crossings to “historic lows.” The pandemic significantly cut down on border crossings, but otherwise Trump’s numbers were on par with Obama’s.

Trump claimed he built 500 miles of his “amazing” wall. Not true. He built 80 miles of mostly fencing (none of which Mexico paid for). The rest was replacing structures that previous administrations had erected.

What’s interesting is that Trump doesn’t need to lie about immigration. There are very real policy differences between Democrats and Republicans on the issue and Trump could just as easily use facts to make his case.

For instance, Biden has consistently advocated giving aid to Central American countries to address the root causes of migration, but Trump could make a legitimate argument that corrupt governments in those countries tend to squander that aid.

And Biden is about to face the same dilemma that Trump and Obama did: a surge of unaccompanied children at the border. Trump could talk about the complexities of dealing with unaccompanied minors (many of whom are deliberately sent across to the border by their parents).

Instead of resorting to calling Mexicans rapists and criminals, he could point out that many migrants are never deported because the courts are so backed up. (According to The Washington Post, nearly 70% of the 1 million migrants who arrived as part of families between 2014 and mid-2020 still have court cases pending.)

Trump could also make the case that offering citizenship to 11 million undocumented immigrants — as progressives want to do — could trigger a new wave of illegal border crossings.

Likewise, instead of making misleading claims on Biden’s energy positions, Trump could talk about the heavy costs of transitioning to renewables when much of the world still relies on coal — something climate change activists often gloss over.

But this would lead Republicans down a path they’ve been veering away from since the Clinton years: offering alternatives to Democratic proposals, instead of simply criticizing and obstructing them.

OK, you don’t like Green New Deal proposed by progressives? Fair enough. It is an expensive proposal. But what’s your alternative to combat the growing number of climate change-driven natural disasters that are costing taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars?

OK, you don’t want to forgive everyone’s student loan debt? Understandable. So how are you going to address the fact that Americans are being priced out of college?

In other words, what’s your plan?

For years, the only substantial legislation that Republicans have proposed are tax cuts, which at some point can’t cure all of society’s ills.

Yet this wasn’t always the case. Prior to Obama, for example, most Republicans didn’t question the science of climate change. Many even embraced the notion of “cap and trade” because it was a conservative, market-based approach to environmental regulation.

Similarly, one reason why Republicans have never been able to offer an alternative to Obamacare is because Obamacare is their alternative. It’s a conservative, market-based approach to expanding health care, as opposed to the single-payer system progressives support.

And it was only eight years ago that prominent Republicans like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), now a staunch Trump supporter, came together with Democrats to support comprehensive immigration reform.

But that was eons ago.

Today, Republicans have learned what Trump has known all along: It’s a lot easier to heckle from the sidelines than to roll your sleeves up and get in the game.

Grievance is easier than governance.

Not all Republicans, however, have taken the easy way out. Notably, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and fellow GOP moderates have offered ideas that merit serious consideration.

Romney’s plan for providing a permanent child tax credit — along with tax increases and spending cuts to pay for it — is in many ways better than the Democrats’ plan of a temporary, unpaid-for child benefit.

Likewise, Romney, along with Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), said they would introduce a bill to gradually increase the minimum wage to $10 an hour, while also requiring businesses to use E-Verify to ensure they don’t hire illegal immigrants.

It’s not the $15 an hour that Democrats want, but it’s a good starting point for a compromise. And while the E-Verify mandate rankles progressives, it may actually boost overall earnings because undocumented workers tend to accept lower wages.

The problem is that problem-solvers like Romney are in the minority.

Polls consistently show that Trump remains popular with the majority of Republicans, while support for establishment figures like Romney rarely cracks 20%. Moreover, impeachment only seemed to increase Trump’s popularity among Republicans.

The CPAC presidential straw poll confirmed his staying power: 95% of conference attendees said the GOP should continue to embrace Trump’s issues and policy ideas; 68% said Trump should run again in 2024; and 55% said they would vote for him if he did.

Barring sickness or a prison sentence, Trump is all but certain to run again in 2024. But a few of my political junkie friends have floated the theory that Trump doesn’t really want to run again and — beyond a bruised ego — is relieved he didn’t win this time around.

Indeed, now that he appears to have recovered from his election loss, if CPAC is any indication, Trump will be in his element the next four years.

He gets to relish his role as disruptor-in-chief and de facto leader of the Republican Party.

He gets to bask in the adulation of cheering crowds and feel presidential without having to deal with all the problems that come with being president.  

He gets to wield his power by doling out endorsements to Republican candidates eager to curry favor with him.

In other words, he gets to do all the fun stuff without all the tedium of actually governing, which he never much cared for anyway.

He can be the showman without having anything to show for it.