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Former President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Orlando, Fla.

John Raoux/The Associated Press

For a while, Donald Trump’s speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference Sunday was surprisingly flaccid, a listless recitation of grievances against the Biden administration, which is rapidly reversing the former president’s priorities on immigration, the environment and health care reform, while working to get a US$1.9-trillion stimulus package through Congress.

But the crowd erupted when he mused about seeking the nomination in 2024. “Who knows, I may even decide to beat them for a third time,” he speculated.

They roared when he claimed, yet again, that “we have a very sick and corrupt electoral process” and “this election was rigged and the Supreme Court and other courts didn’t want to do anything about it.” (The election was fair, as not only the courts but Republican officials in state governments and in his own administration concluded.)

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And they were thrilled when he described a core tenet of Trumpism – the new word for the beliefs his populist presidency embodied – as “upholding the Judeo-Christian values of our founders and of our founding.”

That’s why it doesn’t matter whether Donald Trump does or doesn’t lead the Republican Party into the next U.S. presidential election. The nominee will be a Trumpist because the base of the Republican Party is now Trumpist.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others are trying to steer the party back to its traditional emphasis on lower taxes, fewer regulations and a strong military – which Trumpism also embraces – while weaning the party off of the cult of personality surrounding the former president.

They will almost certainly fail. Mr. Trump has elevated Republican concern for illegal immigration into a deep suspicion of foreigners. Trumpist populism targets “the woke mob ... cancel culture” and an “oligarchy where big tech and the liberals rule,” as Josh Hawley, a freshman Missouri Senator and Trump acolyte, put it earlier in the conference.

And Trumpism dismisses the free press and the right of all eligible citizens to vote as fake news and rigged elections. Trumpism is openly anti-democratic.

Some of Mr. Trump’s fiercest conservative opponents believe the Republican Party is now mostly Trumpist. “I don’t know if he’ll run in 2024 or not, but if he does, I’m pretty sure he will win the nomination,” Utah Senator Mitt Romney glumly predicted earlier this month. For his part “I would probably be getting behind somebody who I thought more represented the tiny wing of the Republican Party that I represent.”

Ohio Representative Jim Jordan (the one who never wears a jacket) told the crowd: “He’s the leader of the conservative movement, the leader of the America First movement, the leader of the Republican Party and I hope on Jan. 20, 2025, he is once again the leader of our great country.”

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But if Trumpism is now dominant within the GOP, Mr. Trump may not always be. Even at CPAC, a venue filled with some of Mr. Trump’s strongest supporters, a straw poll showed that, while 95 per cent of attendees wanted the Republican Party to embrace Mr. Trump’s policies, only 68 per cent wanted him to run again.

The one-in-three who want him to stand down might have been thinking about Mr. Trump’s age: He would be 78 if he were inaugurated for a second term, the same age as Joe Biden is now. But unlike Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump is out of shape and suffered a severe bout of COVID-19.

He could be embroiled in civil or even criminal court cases. Most important, anyone not deluded by Mr. Trump’s conspiracy theories knows he lost the last election and would likely lose the next one.

This speaks to a decades-old sickness within the GOP. Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. But rather than broaden the party, many within it prefer to build walls and restrict voting.

The contest between Trumpists and non-Trumpists is already underway, as the two factions vie to see which wing wins the primary contests leading up to the 2022 midterm elections. Mr. Trump, after naming congressional Republicans who voted to impeach and convict him, promised in his CPAC address: “I will be actively working to elect strong, tough and smart Republican leaders” in upcoming elections.

If he succeeds, they’ll be Trumpists, every one.

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