Donald Trump on Saturday branded himself a “political dissident” facing persecution from “thugs” in the US justice system as he issued a dystopian rallying cry for voters to back his return to the White House.

Trump was speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland, a prominent gathering of activists that has been entirely captured by the former president and his allies in recent years.

Trump has placed his own sense of victimhood at the heart of his 2024 presidential campaign on the back of the 91 criminal charges filed against him. But he has recently elevated his grievance by comparing himself to Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who died suddenly in prison last week.

“I stand before you today not only as your past and hopefully future president, but as a proud political dissident,” Trump told the crowd.

“I would rather lose my freedom than surrender to this group of thugs and tyrants, and fascists, scoundrels and rogues”, he added, citing US President Joe Biden and “deranged” prosecutors.

Saturday’s South Carolina primary is expected to bring him closer to clinching the Republican presidential nomination with a victory over his only remaining rival Nikki Haley.

His CPAC appearance capped four days of Trump-friendly elected officials and media talk show hosts, who filled the large resort hotel along the Potomac River with apocalyptic depictions of a country run amok with inflation and immigration.

“I told you that if Crooked Joe Biden got to the White House, our borders would be abolished, our middle class would be decimated, and our communities would be plagued by bloodshed, chaos and violent crime. We were right about everything,” Trump said.

CPAC once showcased traditional mainstream Republicans, but is now dominated by Trump, his allies and their fierce unilateralism, economic populism, and opposition to immigration. This year the slogan of the event was “where globalism goes to die”.

Sympathy for the rioters who stormed the US Capitol to overturn the 2020 election result was widespread among the speakers and the attendees, as was mockery of Haley’s presidential bid. There were also conspiracy theories about Michelle Obama preparing to jump into the race on the Democratic side. There was disdain for Ukraine aid and calls for a peace deal with Vladimir Putin.

“Welcome to the end of democracy, we are here to overthrow it completely”, Jack Posobiec, a conservative author and one of the speakers, said on Thursday. Of Trump, he later said: “[There is] one man who will never be destroyed and never let America be destroyed because he loves her too much.”

Trump has used his judicial problems to rally Republican support. On Friday night in South Carolina he said he was resonating with black voters because “they have been hurt so badly and discriminated against”. Black voters had “embraced” his mugshot “more than anybody else”.

The comments drew a sharp rebuke from the Biden campaign and underline how Trump’s provocative rhetoric risks alienating the swing and independent voters that will probably decide the election. “Donald Trump claiming that Black Americans will support him because of his criminal charges is insulting. It’s moronic. And it’s just plain racist,” said Cedric Richmond, a co-chair of the Biden campaign.

Nikki Haley said Trump’s comments were “disgusting” and called for a return to normalcy in Republican politics. 

CPAC featured appearances from international fans and allies of Trump and America’s conservative right, including Javier Milei, the president of Argentina, Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, and even Liz Truss, the former UK prime minister who oversaw a collapse in pound’s value and lasted just 50 days in office in 2022.

“Conservatives are now operating in what is a hostile environment and we essentially need a bigger bazooka in order to be able to deliver,” she told the crowd. In the hallway, a big banner touted her new book Ten Years to Save the West.

Also on the roster of speakers were some of the most likely candidates to be Trump’s vice-presidential pick, from Kristi Noem, the South Dakota governor, to Elise Stefanik, a New York congresswoman, to former housing secretary Ben Carson and Byron Donalds, a Florida congressman.

“I’m just going to say it. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris suck,” Noem said. “I’ve always supported the fact that our next president needs to be president Donald Trump,” she said.

Among the attendees, backing for Trump was nearly unanimous. “[Trump] is a little bit abrasive and he’s not as nice as he could be. But we need somebody like that because China wants to kill us and the left wants to take over the country. And we can’t be nice anymore,” said Stephen Robinson, an engineer from Virginia.

Even as the US and its allies marked the two year anniversary of Russia’s full blown invasion of Ukraine with pledges to stick by Kyiv, in the CPAC audience there was little backing for additional funding for Ukraine.

There was also little concern about the implications of Trump’s comments earlier in the month saying he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to Nato countries that don’t spend enough on defence.

“I think we’ve given a lot of aid to Ukraine, I don’t think it should be without end,” said Thea Alfes, who had travelled to the conference from Connecticut. “We have people sleeping on the street, we have a huge drug problem, what are we doing for that?”

Additional reporting by Lauren Fedor in Charleston

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