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Max Burns Golden Trump statue at CPAC implies he's king of the GOP. But his position isn't secure.

If the Conservative Political Action Conference made anything clear, it’s that Donald Trump may not last long as the standard-bearer of Trumpism.
Image: gold statue of former President Donald Trump at CPAC
A conference attendee poses next to a statue of former President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Fla, on Feb. 26.Octavio Jones / Reuters

In 2016, Donald Trump stood alone in advocating his particular brand of nativism, bigotry and screw-your-feelings Twitter hot takes. Now that Trumpism has become the norm within the GOP, voters seem to be asking why they would again nominate a nationally unpopular standard-bearer instead of one of Trump’s more dynamic acolytes. Indeed, if this weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, made anything clear, it’s that Donald Trump may not last long as the standard-bearer of Trumpism.

The fracturing MAGA base is big trouble for the former president — and an opportunity for Trump proteges like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.

An overwhelming 95 percent of GOP activists at the event want a strong Trump-inspired national agenda going forward, according to a Washington Times/CPAC poll released during the event. And while CPAC attendees may represent an extreme fringe of the GOP, that fringe tracks with the broader party mood. A Morning Consult/Politico poll released just after Trump was acquitted in his second impeachment trial found 59 percent of Republicans still wanted him to play a “major role” in the GOP going forward.

But while the CPAC straw poll showed that Trump remains the first choice of these die-hard Republican activists, the margin should be way too narrow for the former president’s comfort. A full third of those polled (32 percent) said they didn’t think Trump should run for president in 2024 or were unsure that he should.

The fracturing MAGA base is big trouble for the former president — and an opportunity for Trump proteges like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Trump received 55 percent of the straw poll vote to the governor’s second-place 21. Without Trump as an option, DeSantis won a dominant plurality of 43 percent.

Though there would have been no Trumpism without Trump, Republicans’ hesitation highlights the fact that Trumpism can go forward without him — and maybe would be more successful if it did, as Trumpism’s policy goals wouldn’t face the distracting circus of Trump himself.

For all of Trump’s bluster, he generally proved ineffective at creating durable policy change — with the exception of the federal bench with its lifetime appointments, though how those judges rule in any given case is far from certain. Trump himself proved so personally unpopular that the conservative mainstreaming of Trumpism couldn’t save his doomed 2020 campaign. And Trump will spend the next four years separated from the social media platforms and presidential podium that made him a constant presence in American life.

“I don’t think they believe that Trump will actually be a candidate in 2024,” Republican strategist Mac Stipanovich told The Orlando Sentinel of the candidates coming up behind him.

While Trump was almost certainly boosted by the American Conservative Union’s decision to host CPAC right on his Palm Beach doorstep — a conscious effort at a “Trump coronation,” according to former ACU chief Al Cardenas — that decision only underscored his weakness by revealing the relative strength of his would-be heirs, DeSantis in particular.

Though Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ted Cruz of Texas have tried to position themselves as the presumptive heir to the MAGA movement, CPAC voters left Florida unconvinced: When Trump was excluded as an option, Cruz garnered support from only 7 percent of those polled. Hawley drew only 3 percent, on par with Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Trump’s biggest competitor, it turns out, is much closer to Mar-a-Lago. DeSantis, who cribbed Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in welcoming CPAC attendees to Florida’s “oasis of freedom,” also stands out as the runaway 2024 favorite among hard-line GOP voters (admittedly he was probably also boosted by local supporters at the convention).

With Trump removed from the CPAC survey, DeSantis easily lapped the field with a staggering 43 percent. His closest challenger, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, barely broke double digits, at 11 percent. The sharp rise of the DeSantis movement complicates an already difficult electoral math for Trump, who would face the real risk of losing Florida — now his adopted home state — to a governor whose approval rating far outperforms not only Trump’s, but every other GOP elected official in Florida.

While CPAC represents only one flank of the enduring Republican base, it is a crucial one. An unknown portion of rank-and-file Republican voters left the party following the Capitol attacks, and that Great Defection had the perverse effect of strengthening far-right control of the party at a critical moment. With moderates fleeing and critical voices like Sens. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Ben Sasse of Nebraska rebuked and censured by their state parties for supporting impeachment, MAGA advocates once stuck with Trump now have an overflowing buffet of ideologically aligned candidates from which to choose.

And given that his electoral defeat resulted in the former president facing an impeachment charge of inciting an insurrection, even the unrepentant Trump might have second thoughts about entering the 2024 race when candidates like DeSantis are actively transforming his movement into more concrete action. And Trump’s declining popularity indicates that what Republican voters find unpalatable is Trump himself.

DeSantis is positioned to burnish his conservative credentials in the upcoming state legislative session. A recent survey of Florida political experts — more than half of whom are Republicans and a quarter Democrats — expect DeSantis to come away from the session with big victories on red-meat GOP proposals like an anti-rioting bill targeting liberal groups like Black Lives Matter and new voter suppression legislation. With the votes to pass any legislation they want, DeSantis and Florida Republicans can credibly claim to be a more effective, less distracting version of Trump.

Trump will remain a vengeful voice within the GOP even if he forgos a third campaign for the White House. But having made their performative point in elevating Trump to the presidency in 2016, Republican voters may now want to prove that Trumpism can produce lasting policies that reshape American life. Unfortunately for a man who billed himself as a legendary dealmaker, Trump failed to enshrine his voters’ values into sweeping law, and that failure now has the movement he energized quietly weighing its options.