I was in the lobby of the Gaylord National Resort and Casino in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside of Washington, and Donald Trump was still upstairs in the ballroom talking. It’s the third day of the Conservative Political Action Conference and the president, as the marquee closer, seemed intent not to disappoint the crowd of activists and reporters here for his act. When he first walked out onstage, he bear-hugged a large pole dangling the American flag.
At this point, he’d been talking for over an hour and twenty minutes, a cyclone sucking up every popular topic of political debate — the Green New Deal, tariffs, socialism, the federal investigations which threatens his presidency— and gossip — the engagement of Candace Owens, a far-right activist and his fervent supporter — and spitting it out in his free associative style. In total, the speech would last for two hours and two minutes, which gives it the meaningless but nevertheless widely noted distinction of being his longest since entering office.
The older women seated near me were gabbing about the Secret Service, how they wouldn’t allow them to carry their purses into the ballroom. They left the speech early and were waiting to exit the conference, their luggage piled around them. “What did he say?” one of them asked. Another replied, “Nothing much.” I’d failed to arrive early enough to get my press credential before the Secret Service sweep, and so I set up shop in a big leather chair and watched the speech as the women grew increasingly wary of my presence — and my laptop.
There are many women like them here, with warm smiles and quilted carryalls and a midwestern twang. And then there are the young white men in blazers and pressed white shirts and red or blue ties. And the young white women in their uniforms of heavy foundation and sheath dresses and tan patent leather heels or high leather boots. There are also the seedier looking types, like the man outside wearing a shirt that said, COMMIE KILLER. A reporter later identified him as one of the “Proud Boys,” which the Southern Poverty Law Center designates as a hate group. CPAC claims that more than 9,000 people attended this year’s confab, resulting in “3,370 media articles and posts” and “3,500 mentions of CPAC 2019 on television.”
This is the third consecutive CPAC attended by Trump, though his history at this event dates back to 2011, when he publicly dangled the possibility of running for president during a media tour to promote birtherism, the racist conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn’t a legitimate president because he wasn’t actually born in the United States. It would be another five years before he would run for the Republican nomination, and now here we are, with the sitting president doing a mocking impersonation of the Southern accent belonging to the attorney general that he fired and calling the Russia investigation “bullshit” in that same sprawling ballroom.
There’s almost no point in going over everything he said. He said a lot. And then he said some more.
He said many of the things he ordinarily says regarding his brief career in politics, starting with the Republican primary (he beat lots of candidates, didn’t you know) and the general election (the crowd is still chanting, “lock her up,” if you can believe it) and the media’s inability to grasp his sarcastic manner of speaking (he is a performance artist, and so he can’t be taken seriously when he does something like beg Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails in front of a large admiring crowd) and ending with the current day, where he is looking forward to another election. He regrets, he said, going so hard with the “Pocahontas” jab at Elizabeth Warren, because he should’ve really saved that for when he’s running against her next year.
My theory about these public spectacles, which in no way mimic how human beings typically communicate, is that they are an exercise Trump must perform when he needs to process the stresses and disappointment of a particularly bruising period — like this last week, when he left Hanoi empty handed after failing to come to an agreement with Kim Jong-un as, back home in America, his former lawyer and fixer delivered damning testimony against him before Congress. In that sense, today’s marathon monologue was like his press conference after the midterm elections, or his speech following the end of the government shutdown.
“You know, I’m totally off-script right now,” he said, at one point. “This is how I got elected: by being off-script. If we don’t go off-script, our country is in big trouble, folks.” At least in terms of his own behavior and its ability to create trouble for the rest of us, I think he might be right.