At CPAC, Trump Emerged as Opposition Leader | Opinion

In normal times, CPAC is an annual pilgrimage for me. The extraordinary events of 2016 pulled together a populist movement across the Western world in such a way that made attending this gathering supremely important. My commitment to CPAC is so strong that I even went to Sydney for Australia's inaugural CPAC conference in 2019. Donald Trump is the first Republican leader since Ronald Reagan to take CPAC seriously, and his devotion to it probably goes some way to explaining the loyalty he inspires among his supporters.

At last year's event, before the COVID-19 crisis, I was backstage with President Trump. There was a tremendous energy around him. Everybody there thought he was on course for a huge victory in the November election. Travel restrictions meant I couldn't attend this year's event in Orlando but, true to form, Trump was there, this time as an opposition leader. American politics has not had much proper opposition leadership for several years—an absence that is very unhealthy in any democracy. Following Hillary Clinton's defeat in 2016, there was a vacuum at the top of the Democratic Party that was filled by CNN and The New York Times. By the time Joe Biden won the nomination, the campaign was in full swing and the key message was simply "Vote for me, not the other guy."

On Sunday, Trump made it clear how he intends to use his new role. He will hold Biden's administration to account and he will not shy away from criticizing it when he has to. It's true that opposition leadership is, in certain ways, easier than being in charge, but it requires considerable amounts of energy and skill to be a truly effective opposition leader. Trump showed that he has what it takes to do this job well.

Some of Trump's messages were familiar, echoing themes that he talked about four or five years ago. His view is that the Democrats are weak; he disagrees with the decision to open America's borders to large numbers of people—many of whom do not wish the country well, and Biden's policy on China and Iran is, to him, highly questionable. He also made clear that he wants to combat the incredibly corrosive "cancel culture" that has taken hold in America.

Strong opposition leadership is about more than just complaining, however. The essence of it is offering solutions to problems that voters care about. With this in mind, whether you dispute last November's election result or think that Trump is a sore loser, he was right to point out that the need for electoral reform in America is urgent. He logically and clearly set out his vision to make elections free and fair. It is a tangible policy that state legislatures can act upon.

Trump CPAC
Former President Donald Trump walks off stage after an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in the Hyatt Regency on February 28, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them. Joe Raedle/Getty

If the Democrats oppose election transparency, they will need to marshal some very powerful arguments to convince the electorate that it is a good idea to maintain a broken system that damages America's reputation around the world. This is the sort of reforming idea that will serve Trump well.

Similarly, Trump's attack on the censorship-loving big tech companies could prove to be very fertile territory. His call for the repeal of Section 230 and his demand that these monopolies be broken up has the potential to appeal way beyond his base. No voter—Democrat or Republican—wants to be controlled by a corporation, after all.

Trump's grip on the Republican Party seems to be as strong as ever after CPAC. Indeed, he even felt confident enough to read out the names of the senators and representatives who have criticized him in recent months. There may well be some bitter battles ahead as his supporters seek to unseat his foes in forthcoming primaries. Divided parties never fare well, but my sense is that Trump will win all of these tussles easily and further unite the GOP around himself. I will be the first to acknowledge that we are talking about a cult of personality here, but that is because, in 2021, it is Donald Trump's Republican Party.

Perhaps the biggest obstacle Trump faces to going a stage further and being able to state unequivocally his desire to run again in 2024 is the means by which he reaches his voters. Without the tool of social media, Brexit and Trump's 2016 victory would never have happened. Modern technology offers the so-called populists a way of bypassing mainstream media and connecting with the public directly. Trump's mastery of Twitter in particular was key to his success. At the touch of a button, he could reach tens of millions of people instantly. With that medium closed to him currently, will something else that is as effective take its place? I just don't know.

For now, what is clear is that Trump's CPAC speech was disciplined and persuasive. It marked the start of a genuine period of opposition leadership, something that any functioning democracy should welcome. It was not so much a case of "Trump is back" as a case of "Trump never went away."

Nigel Farage is senior editor-at-large of Newsweek's "The Debate" platform.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.