The sagest advice given to Donald Trump all week came from a man who is neither a Republican nor an American.
Nigel Farage, the British politician, broadcaster and demagogue whose Brexit campaign coincided with Trump’s rise to power, warned his old pal against endlessly fixating on the 2020 election.
“This message of a stolen election, if you think about it, is actually a negative backward looking message,” Farage told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida.
“There is a better, more positive message the Republican party needs to embrace and it’s this: ‘We are going state by state, vote by vote to make sure that America has the best, the cleanest, the fairest election system anywhere in the western world.’”
Urging an end to the “big lie” obsession is heresy at places like CPAC, the Woodstock of the red meat right. Perhaps no pro-Trump Republican would dare breathe it to the former president, lest he slap them with a demeaning nickname, endorse a primary opponent or blackball them from his luxury Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
But Farage, as foreigner and fellow traveller, may have felt liberated to speak an inconvenient truth: that endlessly re-litigating the last election with false claims of voter fraud could prove a serious liability for Republicans in November’s midterms.
The former UK Independence party and Brexit party leader went on: “That negative anger must be turned into a positive. You’ve got to offer the voters of this country a shining city on the hill. You’ve got to give them a vision. People want dreams, people want hopes, and the deliverers of that message are you guys.”
The audience sounded receptive enough. And while some CPAC speakers did promulgate “the big lie” – Ohio Senate hopeful Josh Mandel declared, “I want to say it very clearly and very directly: I believe this election was stolen from Donald J Trump” – they generally gave greater emphasis to winning Congress in 2022 and, of course, Trump returning to the White House in 2024.
Jim Jordan, an Ohio congressman and close Trump ally, declared: “I believe President Trump is going to run again … I think if he runs, he’s going to win.”
But the annual CPAC straw poll testing who should get the Republican nomination raised more questions than answers. Of course Trump won with more votes than everyone else combined. But his 59% was not quite the overwhelming show of force he might have hoped for in what is usually the capital of Trumpistan.
There is now a clear alternative. Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, finished second on 28%, well clear of Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, on 2%.
In a separate poll where Trump was removed from the equation, DeSantis won by a landslide 61%.
On the other hand, Florida is DeSantis’s home state, so he might expect to punch above his weight here. The governor gave a well received speech on Thursday that notably failed to mention Trump. But the audience for Trump’s address on Saturday was appreciably bigger and brimming with “Trump 2024” badges and caps.
Even those sporting DeSantis regalia were not quite ready to back him. David Duffy, 57, a retired insurance worker sporting a giant “DeSantisLand” flag, said: “We want to keep President Trump as our president. We believe he still is our president and, with DeSantis being 42 years old, we want to give him a little bit more time.”
Asked for her 2024 preference, Marnie Allen, wearing a “DeSantisLand” cap, said: “Trump, only because I owe him. I think we all owe him to make up for the disasters and because he’s going to go in with a vengeance this time and take care of our fourth level of government: career bureaucrats. He will go in this time and he will take a machete to them.”
The 51-year-old from Orlando, who works in higher education, felt compelled to add: “Not a real machete, of course, but a figurative machete.”
Unless something dramatic happens – a criminal indictment in New York, say – the nomination remains Trump’s to lose. On Saturday he dropped his strongest hint yet that he does intend to pursue it.
He clearly did not get Farage’s memo. Trump told the audience: “The Rinos [Republicans In Name Only] and certain weak Republican politicians want to ignore election integrity also but we cannot ignore it. We have to fix it. Make no mistake, they [Democrats] will try to do it again in ’22 and ’24, and we cannot let them do that.
“And the way we [let them do that] is to come to a very powerful conclusion as to what happened in 2020. We stand down to stop talking about it, we stop making Americans aware of the cheating and corruption that went on. That’s really saying, ‘It’s OK, you can do it again.’ We can’t let that happen.”
The slapping sound you heard was a hundred Republican midterm candidates planting their hands on their foreheads. Trump is coming to a district near you, with a big lie to tell. It remains Democrats’ best hope of a midterm miracle.