CPAC Showed That Trump’s Personality Cult Is Still Alive — and Still a Threat

In the classic 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard, Gloria Swanson plays the has-been Hollywood diva, Norma Desmond, desperate for adoration, utterly infatuated with the spotlight. One of its most famous lines — “Alright, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close up” — captures the unseemly spectacle of someone far past their sell-by date who refuses to accept their fall from stardom.

“You see,” the has-been actress utters with undistilled terror, “This is my life. It always will be. There’s nothing else. Just us and the camera — and those wonderful people out there in the dark.”

When Donald Trump stepped up to the podium at the CPAC event in Orlando, Florida, this weekend, it was, unsurprisingly, both a ghastly and incredibly tired remake of Sunset Boulevard, a reprise of yesterday’s news, of the former president’s greatest hits, from a man who cannot imagine a world without himself at the center.

During a bizarre CPAC presentation, Trump named all the Republicans who had crossed him and threatened to destroy their careers. He asked his audience — plaintively — whether they missed him yet. He claimed he had won the last election and would, if he so chose, win again in 2024. To this last point, his cult-like audience — which had already paraded through the conference center, in imitation of strong-men idolatrous cults in locales such as North Korea, a golden bust of the disgraced ex-president — responded, on cue, and overwhelming evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, “You won! You won! You won!”

Trump, in gilded retirement at Mar-a-Lago not only refuses to accept that Joe Biden won last year’s election, but he also hasn’t even remotely begun to consider the possibility that the GOP might ever be anything other than a vehicle for the enrichment of the Trump family. He has, these past months, teased the possibility of starting a third party; at the CPAC event, however, he scotched those rumors, instead urging GOP members to donate to political action committees controlled by Trump himself, along with members of his inner circle.

That decision wasn’t exactly a surprise; after all, most of the GOP is still in lockstep with Trumpism, convinced the election was stolen, and, as January 6th fades into the past, more than willing to forgive and forget the ex-president’s incitement to deadly violence. In the past couple weeks, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy traveled to Mar-a-Lago to pay an obsequious homage to the man whom, back in January, he had screamed at during a profanity-laden phone call at the height of the Capitol siege. So, too, did GOP whip Steve Scalise, make a kiss-the-ring visit to the exiled president.

Mitch McConnell, who bared just a touch of courage after the Senate impeachment vote by saying on the Senate floor that there was no doubt that Trump was responsible for the events of January 6th, followed up with an astounding public display of gorging himself on humble pie. What would he do if the inciter-to-insurrection ran again in 2024? He would, he promptly answered, “absolutely” support Trump in 2024 if the party nominated him again as its presidential candidate.

Even Mike Pence — yes, the same Mike Pence who ran for his life as a Trump-inspired mob, responding in real time to Trump tweets, hunted him down to hang him for treason — has been sweet-talking the Don in recent weeks. At least Pence had the good sense to skip CPAC this year. Other Trump cabinet members, including Mike Pompeo, took the event as an opportunity to climb ever further up Trump’s private orifices, banking on a display of unflinching loyalty to Number 45 as their best chance to become Number 47 should the Don suffer an unfortunate mishap — say a short spell in prison for tax evasion, or for threatening elections officials.

Meanwhile, state GOP chapters around the country are busily censuring GOP congressmembers and senators who voted to impeach or convict Trump. And GOP-controlled legislatures are pushing through legislation aimed to prevent the sort of non-existent “fraud” that Trump still claims cost him the last election. Of course, since the fraud wasn’t real, what this means in practice is a vast effort to contract the electorate and to make it harder for people of color, the poor and students to cast ballots in coming elections.

The ungodly CPAC display this past four days made two things absolutely clear. The first is that CPAC, and by extension most of the GOP, is nothing more or less than a personality cult; the values that have traditionally animated conservative movements in the U.S. have, now, been entirely subjugated to the allure of Trumpism. The second is that Trump’s financial interests — which are all he really cares about at this point — clearly lie not in putting his own dollars on the line by building up a third party, but in milking the GOP faithful for all he can, as quickly as he can, before his myriad legal woes catch up to him.

Toward the end of Sunset Boulevard, Desmond shoots an ex-lover as he attempts to walk out on her. In a bizarre twist, the dead man then narrates his posthumous understanding of how this will all end. He imagines the headlines that will accompany the announcement of his murder. “Forgotten star, a slayer, aging actress, yesterday’s glamor queen.” Instead, as Desmond is perp-walked down her palace steps, the cameras keep clicking, and the diva remains, even in delusional disgrace, the star of her own show.

Having failed to deal Trump a political death-blow in the Senate during the impeachment trial, the GOP is now stuck with its very own Norma Desmond. Trump is always ready for his close-up, because without the sound of the adoring claque, he is nothing.