On his final day in the White House last month, Donald Trump told a small crowd of supporters at Joint Base Andrews, the military airport, that he had no intention of leaving the stage quietly.
“I will always fight for you, I will be watching,” the outgoing president said before boarding Air Force One for the last time. “We will be back in some form . . . we will see you soon.”
Now the 45th US president is set to make a splashy return to the fray on Sunday with a keynote speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of Republican politicians and media personalities that has become a kind of rock festival for rightwing activists, especially college students.
Ford O’Connell, a Trump supporter and former Republican congressional candidate, said attendees were “dying” to hear from Trump, whom he described as the “leader of the Republican party, even if he is not in office in the traditional sense”.
“These folks are unhappy about how the 2020 elections turned out, but their hair is on fire after a month-and-a-half of the Biden administration,” O’Connell said.
“What they want to hear from Trump is: how do you move forward in 2022 and 2024,” he added, referring to the midterm elections in two years and the next presidential contest.
Trump’s speech will end an unprecedented stretch of near silence for the former reality TV star, who built his political career on regular cable television appearances and constant tweeting. After leaving Washington, he took off for Mar-a-Lago, his resort in Palm Beach, Florida, and has stayed there since, playing golf and shunning the spotlight.
Shorn of his ability to communicate with to his millions of supporters on Twitter and Facebook — which banned him for his role in the deadly January 6 siege on the US Capitol — Trump has made just two notable interventions: he called in to Fox News to eulogise the late rightwing radio host Rush Limbaugh, and released a blistering statement attacking Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate.
Advisers had encouraged Trump to keep a low profile during his impeachment trial, which ended this month with his acquittal.
Trump will be the final speaker at the four-day conference, which is being held in Orlando, Florida — a city that is just two-and-a-half hours drive from his home and that has looser Covid-19 restrictions than CPAC’s usual location of Washington, DC. The former president is expected to speak in person, although event organisers have not confirmed the details of his speech.
The list of the other CPAC speakers reads like a who’s who of his fiercest defenders, including Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and Republican senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz — all of whom have been suggested as possible 2024 contenders that could carry Trump’s torch if he does not run again for president.
Trump has not ruled out another bid for the White House, despite mounting legal troubles, including criminal investigations in New York and Georgia.
His appearance at CPAC — an event dating back to a speech by Ronald Reagan in 1974 that has become increasing populist and Trump-centric in recent years — has also drawn attention to Republican party infighting.
Mike Pence, the former vice-president, who fell out of favour with Trump supporters after he certified Biden’s election win, is not attending the event. Nor is Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor who told Politico in an interview that ran earlier this month that Trump could not run for office again because “he’s fallen so far”.
The party’s divisions were laid bare in an awkward encounter on Capitol Hill this week, when reporters asked House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy whether Trump should be speaking at CPAC.
McCarthy replied, “Yes, he should,” before Liz Cheney, one of his deputies, interjected: “I’ve been clear in my views about President Trump . . . following January 6, I don’t believe he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country.”
After Cheney contradicted him, McCarthy abruptly ended the press conference, saying: “On that high note, thank you very much.”
Cheney was one of 10 House Republicans who joined all House Democrats in voting to impeach Trump last month, and is among a handful of critics on Capitol Hill who have openly castigated the former president despite knowing they run the risk of losing the support of party voters.
While a few elected Republicans, like McConnell, have joined Cheney in rebuking the former president, CPAC will serve as a stark reminder of how popular he remains among party activists.
A Suffolk University poll out this week found 46 per cent of people who voted for Trump last November said they would abandon the GOP if the former president broke away and formed his party. Half of those polled said the Republican party should be “more loyal to Trump”, compared to one in five said the party should be less loyal.
Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally and chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that organises CPAC, told Fox News this week the Republican establishment should recognise that it must now cater to a much broader church; one made up by the old party faithful and the supporters that Trump brought into the fold with his “Make America Great Again” movement.
“It’s Republicans, it’s conservatives — who are this big, big minority in this country — and then it is these new MAGA supporters,” Schlapp said. “This is now a coalition.”
But more moderate Republicans warn that by sticking with Trump, the party will never be able to win back the centrist conservative and independent voters who abandoned the party at the ballot box in November.
“It is important to remember there is a whole other wing of the party, and virtually no one from that . . . wing is being represented at CPAC,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran GOP pollster. “It is a gathering of the most conservative and some of the most active members of the Republican party, but it represents only a portion of the party.”