Having spent my weekend observing the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) here in the United States – wild, I know – I can confirm the least surprising thing you have heard this year: Donald Trump is still the undisputed leader of the Republican Party.
This was evident in many, many ways. The conservative activists in attendance were just as devoted to the former president as ever. Each Republican politician to appear on stage was eager to pay tribute, and panel discussions focused relentlessly on his personal bugbears.
Trump's lies about last year's election featured heavily, dressed up in euphemistic references to "election integrity".
And the former president got the definition of a hero's welcome when he showed up to deliver the keynote address yesterday. His speech was interrupted by multiple standing ovations, plus a chant of: "We love you!"
CPAC does represent the Trumpiest faction of the Republican base, but that doesn't change the key takeaway here.
Whatever you might hear from a handful of anti-Trump Republicans, there is still no serious threat to his dominance within the party, and no doubt that he – and no one else – will dictate its direction in the coming years.
I found myself wondering why.
It's a serious question. Why are conservatives still so wedded to Trump? The man who promised them they'd grow tired of winning has instead led them to a string of catastrophic political defeats, yet their unquestioning support remains.
The Trump record
Let's examine the Trump record.
He won in 2016 against Hillary Clinton, an extremely unpopular opponent, despite losing the national popular vote by 2.9 million.
Okay. That's one victory, albeit a narrow one, and against weak opposition.
In 2018, Trump led the Republican Party to a 39-seat wipeout in the midterm elections, handing control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats.
That was the Democrats' best midterm result since the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. They won the popular vote nationwide by 8.6 per cent, which was the largest margin ever recorded by either party in the history of midterm elections.
Last year Trump went up against Joe Biden, an ageing and gaffe-prone opponent he described as "the worst candidate in the history of presidential politics". He lost to that candidate. This time, the popular vote margin was 7 million.
Trump was the first incumbent president to lose an election since George HW Bush in 1992. He was the first Republican presidential candidate to lose Arizona since 1996, and the first to lose Georgia since 1992.
Finally, in January, Trump led the Republicans to a pair of defeats in Georgia's special elections, giving the Democrats control of the Senate as well. Georgia was supposed to be a Republican-leaning state.
Taken together, these results make Trump the first US president to see his party lose the White House, Senate and House of Representatives in a single term since Herbert Hoover in the 1930s. And Hoover had a little thing called the Great Depression to deal with.
This is a historically bad record, without even mentioning the fact that Trump had the worst average approval rating of any president since polling records began, or that he is the only president in history who's managed to get himself impeached twice.
After Trump left office, and after a mob of his supporters tried to overturn the result of a legitimate democratic election, polls consistently showed a majority of Americans wanted the Senate to not only convict him in his second impeachment trial, but ban him from seeking office ever again.
Let me repeat that last part: Donald Trump was so unpopular that most voters didn't even think he should be allowed to run in 2024.
'There's never been a journey so successful'
Trump acknowledges none of this. In his speech to CPAC yesterday, he kept talking about the need to keep winning. Here are a few of the quotes.
"There's never been a journey so successful," he told the crowd, perhaps forgetting that a different American president got elected four times.
"We will do what we've done right from the beginning, which is to win.
"We have to triumph. We have to have victory.
"We will take back the House. We will win the Senate. And then, a Republican president will make a triumphant return to the White House. And I wonder who that will be? I wonder who that will be? Who, who, who will that be? I wonder."
Typically, when a political party loses as consistently as the Republicans have these past four years, it recognises the need to move on to a different leader. Heck, in Australia, the major parties don't even bother to wait for a defeat any more.
And this rule applies in the US as well.
The Republicans didn't keep John McCain as their leader after his defeat to Barack Obama in 2008. In fact he and Mitt Romney, who lost in 2012, have become pariahs among most of the party's voters, who consider them losers.
Here is Trump's son, Donald Jr, talking about Romney and the other Republicans who voted to convict his father last month: "You obviously had the typical, the loser Republicans that couldn't get elected dog catcher today.
"The ones that are so weak, like the Mitt Romneys of the world. With Republicans like Mitt Romney, who needs Democrats? Those clowns."
McCain's claim to loserdom is that he was the victim of Obama's 2008 landslide, which came at the end of George W Bush's presidency, when the Republicans were deeply unpopular.
Romney ran against Obama when he was a polarising but relatively popular incumbent, and like most modern candidates who have challenged a sitting president, he failed to win.
Both men screwed up – McCain by suspending his campaign amid the Global Financial Crisis and choosing Sarah Palin to be vice president; Romney by slagging off almost half the country with his infamous "47 per cent" gaffe.
Presidential defeats aside, though, both led successful political careers. McCain won eight elections throughout his time in the House and Senate representing Arizona, while Romney was elected first as governor of deeply Democratic Massachusetts, and then as a senator representing Utah.
How do their records stack up against Trump's? Terribly, if you listen to the former president and his supporters.
And yet, McCain and Romney both faced a much stronger Democratic opponent than Trump did in either of his campaigns. They lost to Barack Obama. He edged past Hillary Clinton, and then lost to Joe friggin' Biden.
Consider as well: Trump won a lower share of the popular vote in both 2016 and 2020 than Romney did when he lost in 2012.
Past v future
You can understand why Trump was appealing to Republicans when he first ran for president. The party had tried nominating nice, polite candidates in the two previous elections, without success.
"They weren't tough enough," the argument went. "We are never going to win unless we nominate someone who will fight back properly against the left. Donald Trump might be vulgar, he might be rude, but he's a fighter."
That hypothesis seemed to hold up in 2016. But then 2018 happened. And 2020. First the House fell to the Democrats. Then the White House. Then the Senate.
More than 80 million Americans showed up to vote against Trump last year. What do Republicans think those voters will do if he's on the ticket again in 2024?
It's all well and good to say Trump "fights" the other side, but what does that accomplish if he keeps losing?
Just ask the British Labour Party – it might have some thoughts on the matter after its abysmal experience with Jeremy Corbyn, and his own "movement" of loyal supporters.
"Here's the problem for the Republican Party. A majority of Republicans love Trump and a majority of Americans really do not," Obama's top political strategist, David Axelrod, said during yesterday's speech.
If the Republicans nominate Trump again next time, they will be putting forward a candidate – on purpose – who lost the popular vote twice; lost as an incumbent president; is facing multiple criminal investigations; and is seen by most Americans as responsible for a deadly uprising against their own democracy.
I'm not saying the guy couldn't win, but it might be a good idea to at least consider other options. So far, there is no sign whatsoever of that happening.
The unbelievable truth
About 1000 words ago, I asked why. The answer is actually obvious: most Republican voters genuinely do not believe Trump lost to Biden. They read the record I laid out above and think it's fake.
They have accepted the lie that the election was "stolen"; that there was a massive conspiracy between Democrats, Republican state leaders, voting machine companies and judges appointed by Trump himself to deprive him of a second term.
The crowd at CPAC literally chanted, "You won! You won!" at him.
In the parallel universe Trump has constructed, utterly detached from reality, he is still a winner. Sadly for him, and for the cheering crowd at CPAC, the next election will be fought back in the real world.
- Sam Clench is the US correspondent for news.com.au