COLUMBUS, Georgia — The charisma and the crassness. The swagger and the ridicule. The yawning self-pity and the towering self-regard.
It was all there on Saturday in Columbus as a vintage Donald J. Trump, the former U.S. president, took the stage to persuade Georgia Republicans he should be their next one.
For Coastal Georgians attending the GOP convention, it wasn’t a hard sell.
“He doesn’t back down,” said Kandiss Taylor, chair of the 1st District GOP and former gubernatorial candidate. “He isn’t a coward.”
A day after federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment accusing him of 37 felony counts related to his handling of classified documents at his Florida estate, Trump sought — often with his characteristic hyperbole — to portray himself as the victim both of selective prosecution and political persecution.
“The ridiculous and baseless indictment of me by the [Biden] administration’s weaponized Department of Injustice will go down is among the most horrific abuses of power in the history of our country,” he said.
It wasn’t, as the unsealed indictment alleges, his own carelessness, or willful defiance of federal investigators, that have landed him in more legal trouble and the possibility of prison if convicted.
Rather, Trump said, its out-of-control prosecutors bent on denying him election to another four-year term in the Oval Office.
“I think [President] Joe Biden is trying to jail his leading political opponents and opponents,” he said, “just like they do in Stalinist Russia, or communist China. No different.”
“There’s never been a president so corrupt,” he added.
Wesley Cox of St. Simons said the roughly 5,000 people who crammed into the hall, most of whom were white and north of age 50, believe the former president, who is scheduled to appear in a federal court in Miami on Tuesday, a day before he turns 77.
“I think that the entire hall was 100% behind President Trump,” Cox said. “They’re aware of the fact that this is a politically motivated attempt by a sitting president, the first in U.S. history, to eliminate his chief rival.”
If Trump thought he needed to resort to the hard sell to persuade members of the Georgia Republicans gathered in the converted Confederate munitions plant that he is being targeted by out-of-control, politically biased prosecutors, he need not have worried. They are on Calvary with him. His battles are theirs and their battles, his.
“Our enemies are desperate to stop us,” he said. “In the end, they’re not coming after me. They’re coming after you, and I’m just standing in their way right now.”
Elsewhere in his speech, in a reprise of his now famous “American carnage” inaugural address in 2017, Trump portrayed a nation beset by crime, overrun by foreign migrants and too weak to defend itself against enemies.
He described those foes variously as “globalists,” “communists,” “Marxists,” “open-borders fanatics,” “environmental extremists,” “radical left Democrats,” “RINOs,” “fascist thugs,” and the “deep state.”
“Our country’s going to hell,” he said, citing Atlanta, without evidence, as “about the most dangerous city in the country.”
He insisted that only he, as president, can cure the nation’s ills and vanquish its enemies. “If you put me back in the White House, America will be a free nation again.”
Trump also rehashed the circumstances surrounding his January 2021 phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and other officials, during which he questioned the state’s vote count in the 2020 election.
It was during that phone call, now the subject of investigation by Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, that Trump asked Raffensperger to “find 11,780 votes.”
He said on Saturday that he had “every right” to challenge what he believed was a faulty vote count and called Willis a “lunatic Marxist.”
Three separate counts of the state’s roughly 5 million ballots upheld Biden’s narrow victory, court challenges by Trump allies were turned away, and bipartisan election officials have vouched for the results.
Notably absent from Trump’s remarks was bile directed at Republican Gov. Brian Kemp who, along with Raffensperger, Attorney General Chris Carr and other top state officials, as well as Coastal Georgia Rep. Earl “Buddy” Carter, skipped the convention.
Trump holds Kemp responsible for failing to press more zealously for a recount of the state tally in 2020, once describing him as a “turncoat,” a “coward” and a “complete and total disaster.”
How to reckon with Trump and the 2020 election is one of the fault lines in the state GOP, if not its most defining one.
Trump defeated Biden by 12.4% of the vote in Coastal Georgia, and most Coastal Georgia Republicans believe he was cheated from victory in the state vote count.
Where these Republicans differ is over what to do about it. Some want to put the unpleasantness in the rear-view mirror and move on. For others, the belief that Trump was cheated out of reelection — and election fraud, in general — fuels their involvement in the GOP and their allegiance to the ex-president.
Unlike many other speakers at the two-day convention, Trump himself didn’t exhort Georgia Republicans on Saturday to set aside their differences ahead of next year’s presidential primary on March 12 and the general election eight months later.
His speech was a reminder how unlikely that prospect was in the first place. He relishes being a disrupter. He doesn’t build bridges; he razes them. So for now, the party remains divided, with the far-right conservative base of the party tied to the mast of the former president’s uncertain political future.
In the weeks ahead, Trump’s deepening legal troubles could renew worries about his electability, even as he tries to make light of them. “Every time I fly over a blue state, I get a subpoena,” he joked Saturday.
Still, while those woes play well with the base of the GOP and may help him secure his grip on the party’s presidential nomination, they could also weaken his chances to win over moderate Republicans and centrist Democrats in the general election.
For Cox, that’s no problem.
“His electability, in my opinion, hasn’t has gone down any at all. I really believe that guy could serve as president of these United States from prison.”