Former U.S. President Donald Trump dramatically raised the stakes of the 2024 election on Saturday as he warned he was the only candidate who could save America from "warmonger" Democrats and the "zealots and fools" of the mainstream Republican party.
Darkly invoking a nation on its knees, Mr. Trump told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that Americans were "in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the people who hate it and want to absolutely destroy it."
"We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open border zealots and fools," he said, singling out multiple luminaries of the traditional party by name.
American voters, Mr. Trump said, were tired of "entrenched political dynasties in both parties, rotten special interests, China-loving politicians" and supporters of "endless foreign wars."
"We're going to have Word War III if something doesn't happen fast," he cautioned in a section voicing disapproval for U.S. aid to Ukraine.
"I am the only candidate who can make this promise: I will prevent World War III."
Mr. Trump spoke for around 100 minutes to close out the four-day CPAC, a short hop down the Potomac River from the nation's capital Washington.
CPAC was until recently the premier gathering of conservative thought leaders in America — but it has been swallowed whole by Mr. Trump's far-right "Make America Great Again" movement, with pundits referring to the event lately as "MAGApalooza."
"We are going to finish what we started," Mr. Trump said as he took to the stage, prompting a chant of "Four more years, four more years!"
The 2023 edition featured speeches from some of the country's most committed Trumpists — and even Brazil's defeated former President Jair Bolsonaro — although many potential 2024 candidates and Republican leadership skipped the convention.
The meeting drew smaller crowds than usual, raising questions over its continued relevance as many speeches played to empty rows of seating.
But the room was packed as Mr. Trump made his case for a second term, as he faces accusations of trying to steal the 2020 election through a multi-step criminal conspiracy that included inciting an insurrection.
For the most part, he rehearsed the same litany of voter fraud conspiracy theories and grievances against law enforcement and "radical left" prosecutors that he dusts off for every post-presidency public appearance.
The address offered a split screen with the conservative Club for Growth's donor retreat in Florida, where much of the Republican establishment had decamped for the weekend.
At CPAC, vendors hawked books, dating apps and even WiFi services specifically marketed for conservatives. The hats, flags, mugs and other merchandise on offer was almost exclusively aimed at the Trump faithful.
A line-up of panelists who took the stage before Mr. Trump's address unleashed an avalanche of conspiracy theories and anti-trans rhetoric as speakers boasted their Christian principles.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence, who lead the pack chasing Mr. Trump, skipped the event, avoiding the humiliation of being booed by the former President's fans.
Mr. Trump mentioned neither by name, confounding analysts' expectations for attacks targeting both.
But delegates did heckle his only declared Republican rival Nikki Haley repeatedly, during and after her appearance on Friday at the convention.
Mr. Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon and celebrity ally Mike Lindell were treated like royalty as they walked the halls of the National Harbor convention center, preaching election denialism.
"It's not going to be a fair election," Mr. Lindell told AFP of the 2024 race.
"But when 90% of the people in this country want Donald Trump, he should win anyway, even with the crooked elections."
Before Mr. Trump took to the stage, it was revealed that he had won the convention's straw poll of potential Republican leaders with 62% of the vote — with Mr. DeSantis a distant second at 20%.
"In 2016, I declared: I am your voice. Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution," Mr. Trump said.
"I will totally obliterate the deep state. I will fire the unelected bureaucrats and shadow forces who have weaponised our justice system. And I will put the people back in charge of this country again."