It's Still Donald Trump's Party

CPAC famously rejects losers. So this time around, everyone pretended he really won.

In many ways, this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference—the annual gathering of right-wing activists, wonks, and politicos sponsored by the American Conservative Union, which took place this weekend in Orlando, Florida—was worlds away from last year’s edition.

The CPAC of February 2020, held per usual at the Gaylord Convention Center just outside D.C., took place just as the nation was getting seriously spooked about what was then known as the “novel coronavirus,” and it ended up featuring one of the nation’s first high-profile COVID scares. One pandemic later, this year’s jamboree unfolded at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, Florida—a state more laissez-faire than Maryland about thousands of mask-averse out-of-towners cramming into a hotel ballroom for hours on end.

Last year’s CPAC, taking place in the thick of the Democratic presidential primary, was full of election-year swagger, from the “America vs. Socialism” theme on down. One deflating electoral defeat later, 2021’s CPAC was a grumpier affair, with time slot after time slot given over to morose finger-pointing about what the heck happened in November. The event theme was significantly less cocky: “America Uncanceled.”

But one thing about this year’s conference was exactly the same as last year: Despite everything that’s taken place between then and now, CPAC and its attendees remained fiercely loyal to Donald J. Trump. From the MAGA hats festooning the crowd to the giant gold-painted statue of Trump himself that became a main attraction in the merchandise hall (“It’s definitely not an idol,” its sculptor insisted), it was plain that the Florida conference remained firmly centered around the ex-president, himself now a full-time Florida resident.

This both is and isn’t surprising. On the one hand, Republicans have remained fiercely loyal to Trump  ever since he won the GOP civil war, one his candidacy had provoked, by upsetting Hillary Clinton in 2016. On the other, there’s ostensibly nothing modern conservatives hate more than a loser—Sen. Mitt Romney, after all, was once a CPAC darling too.

Meanwhile, the GOP’s fault lines around Trump have been particularly pronounced in recent weeks following his monthslong campaign to declare the 2020 election results illegitimate and subsequent provocation of the January 6 Capitol Hill riot. Although Trump escaped his second impeachment again unconvicted, an unprecedented number of Senate Republicans joined Democrats in voting to convict him.

So how did Trump escape the twin stigmas of loser and arsonist at CPAC? Simple: It was a major theme of the conference that Trump hadn’t lost, not really. In panel after panel, speakers argued that the media and the Democrats had conspired to pull off an election fraud of historic proportions against the president and the country.

One Friday discussion, for instance, tackled the question: If the election was stolen, why didn’t the judges who heard the lawsuits brought by the Trump campaign step in and offer relief? The crack panel assembled to tackle the question included the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky, Fox News contributor Deroy Murdock, and Trump attorney Jesse Binnall.

Why didn’t the judges look at the evidence? “It’s very interesting, because judges even in ordinary election contests are very reluctant to overturn an election,” von Spakovsky offered. “And when it becomes an extraordinary election contest, one with national implications, and one in which they risk being attacked by one of the political parties, the pundits, and the news media, their reluctance to do anything gets even greater.”

“When you have judges that are taking on these cases,” Binnall added, “they’re also going home and watching the media. So when the media has this narrative that there is no voter fraud, that it’s debunked, that it’s baseless, and they say the same thing over and over again … judges are actually at home watching that. And they don’t want to be the first one to go out there to say that the emperor has no clothes.”

Does this mean, the moderator went on to ask, that all this evidence is just “accumulating in boxes around the country”? “Well, it may be shredded by now,” Murdock replied. “Maybe. Well, probably.”

You get the idea: The patently false notion that the election was stolen from Trump wasn’t just accepted at CPAC, it was the starting point for any and all discussions on the matter.

All this “lost cause” talk left the other Republican politicians, who were there to stake out early ground in the runup to 2024, in a bit of a bind. How were they to distinguish themselves as potential future torchbearers when the mood of the crowd was clearly to send the last torchbearer back up for another shot at the title?

Each attempted to walk the tightrope in his or her own way, with varying degrees of success. Sen. Ted Cruz, having plainly internalized that what the base wants is less hard-nosed policy positioning and more a constant stream of cultural grievances, embarked on protracted riffs about erstwhile Mandalorian actress Gina Carano, Mr. Potato Head, and media criticism of his recent trip to Cancun. Sen. Tom Cotton reminded everyone that the New York Times published an op-ed of his over the summer, which made some Times employees—“the little social justice warriors … all these children”—upset. Sen. Rick Scott delivered a halting address about the importance of GOP unity, although most of his jokes fell flat and he seemingly got lost in his notes, repeating a line twice about the importance of fighting for conservative values boldly and without apologizing to anyone. The crowd applauded politely at the appropriate times.

Others staked out their own ground more successfully. Sen. Josh Hawley, who has proven a singular talent at taking base-pleasing positions that at least nominally also comport with classically liberal principles, got huge applause when he bragged about contesting the election results on January 6. But in Hawley’s telling, that move was simply in the interest of provoking “a debate about election integrity”: “If we can’t have free and open debate in this country, we’re not going to have a country left. If we can’t have free and open debate according to the laws in the United States Senate, what good is the United States Senate? … I thought it was an important stand to take. And for that the left has come after me. They’ve tried to silence me. They canceled a book.”

Another hit came from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose singular refusal to impose statewide COVID measures of the sort employed by every other state made her a right-wing folk hero of sorts over the last year. Amid the standard-issue shots at the media and targets like Dr. Anthony Fauci and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Gov. Noem made the case that hers had been the route of governance in true accordance with small-government principles, and that her state’s economy had not suffered the same damage as others as a result.

“No governor should dictate to their people which activities are officially approved or not,” she said. “And no governor should arrest, ticket, or fine people for exercising their freedoms.”

And Florida Gov. Ron SeSantis, who kicked off the conference in his home state, made a similar argument: “We are in an oasis of freedom in a nation that’s suffering from the yoke of oppressive lockdowns … While so many governors over the last year kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up.”

On Sunday, the conference’s final day, attendees voted in the annual presidential primary straw poll. DeSantis picked up a respectable 21 percent, followed by Noem at 4 percent. Cruz, Hawley, and a handful of others kept their heads above 1 percent; Cotton and Scott clocked 0.4 and 0.2, respectively. (Romney managed 0.3.)

But the big man himself—a certain former president who pulled in 55 percent of the poll—had yet to say his piece. Donald Trump on Sunday delivered a speech that positioned him as the party’s unquestioned leader without fully committing to a 2024 run.

“Nobody’s ever had anything that we had,” he said of his political support. “And we started hearing ‘we love you.’ And I asked somebody—you know, cause we like Ronald Reagan, right, he was a great president, we had others—but I said, did anybody ever say that to Ronald Reagan or to any of our great—and to the best of all these political professionals’ knowledge, and pollsters, nobody’s ever heard that chant before now. So it’s an honor, believe me, it’s an honor. It’s a great honor.”

Trump, unsurprisingly, spent much of his time castigating the U.S. electoral system: “We have a very sick and corrupt electoral process that must be fixed immediately; this election was rigged, and the Supreme Court and others didn’t’ want to do anything about it.”

“YOU WON!” the crowd responded. “YOU WON! YOU WON!”

And Trump denounced by name each of the Republicans who had voted to impeach him for his role in inciting the events of January 6.

“Now more than ever is the time for tough, strong, and energetic Republican leaders who have spines of steel,” he said. “We need strong leadership. We cannot have leaders who show more passion for condemning their fellow Americans than they have ever shown for standing up to Democrats, the media, and the radicals who want to turn America into a socialist country. … If Republicans do not stick together, the RINOs that we’re surrounded with will surround the Republican Party and the American worker, and will destroy our country itself. … But the Republican Party is united. The only division is between a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks and everybody else all over the country.”

“With your help, 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.”