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Expect the worst from Trump loyalists at CPAC and in South Carolina this week

Trump is blocking out the sun and the road for new talent

Eric Garcia
Washington DC
Monday 19 February 2024 20:19 GMT
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(Getty Images)

On Saturday, former president Donald Trump will attend the Conservative Political Action Conference just outside of Washington, DC right before he hops over to the South Carolina primary, where he will almost certainly declare victory.

His address to the conservative faithful at CPAC — largely comprising snake oil salesmen, College Republican chapters looking for a fun weekend in DC, and the most dieheard conservative activists out there — will serve as a sort of homecoming.

Trump first addressed the conference in 2011. Doing so began his tease of running for the 2012 Republican nomination, during which he promoted the racist conspiracy theories that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and that he somehow did not deserve to have graduated from Columbia University or Harvard. Trump ultimately elected not to run that year, but his CPAC appearance marked a turning point. The reality television host from New York who spent much of his adult life as a Democrat would become the standard bearer of the Republican Party just five years later, in 2016.

In 2021, Trump gave his first major speech after leaving the White House — and, more notably, after January 6 riot — at CPAC, in his adopted home state of Florida. The fact that the gathered attendees welcomed him so resoundingly showed the party would stick with him rather than purge him and move on.

Indeed, Trump will be the dominant theme at this year’s CPAC. Former officials in his administration such as Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Ben Carson will speak, as well more Trumpish elected officials such as Senators JD Vance of Ohio and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama. MAGA acolytes such as failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and also-ran presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy will also be there.

In a sign of how much Trump has transformed the GOP, Ramaswamy, who has said Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy, will speak at the dinner named for Ronald Reagan, the president who supported a robust opposition to Russia and who called the Soviet Union “an evil empire.” This comes a week after a majority of Republicans voted against a foreign aid package that would have assisted Ukraine and House Speaker Mike Johnson refused to put the bill to the floor.

This contrasts greatly with last year’s CPAC, when the event at least tried to have a pretense of being neutral. Nikki Haley, clearly not a favourite among the MAGA faithful, addressed the crowd back then, as did former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. In a preview of his tepid approach to running for president, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis did not speak.

This time around, CPAC is going whole hog. The conference endorsed Trump shortly before he began his march through Iowa and New Hampshire. The 45th president is no longer a featured attraction of CPAC; he is the main attraction.

The same goes for his conquest in South Carolina. Every survey shows Trump decimating Haley, and he’s received the endorsement of the state’s Republican Senators Lindsey Graham — who once called Trump “a jackass” — and Tim Scott — whom Haley appointed to the Senate more than a decade ago to fill a vacancy — as well as the state’s governor Henry McMaster. Haley’s loss will come despite the fact the Palmetto State elected her governor twice and she governed as a fairly consistent conservative.

That may be why Haley has traversed around her home state, but also to Super Tuesday states such as California and Texas, in hopes of keeping her campaign alive. But a Trump victory in South Carolina would ultimately deny her the ability to make the case that she can challenge Trump.

All of this means that there will be no room for anyone else in the Republican Party in the forseeable future. In the past, runners-up in Republican primaries often would have a path to win the nomination in the next contest, as was the case with John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. But Haley — and DeSantis, for that matter — will likely not have a shot. Both of them deigned to cross Trump, and in today’s GOP, that means your career is dead in the water.

CPAC has for years been a showcase for up-and-coming talent within the party. In 2011, a hotshot young conservative lawyer called Ted Cruz served as Trump’s hype man right before he took the stage (few could have guessed that Cruz and Trump would end up engaged in a blood feud by 2016.)

No more will that showcasing of up-and-coming conservative talent happen. The 24-hour Trump show means that conservatism and fealty to the former president are one-and-the-same and no opposition will be allowed. And ironically, that will lock out future presidential hopefuls like Trump once was.

This article was amended on 20 February 2024. It previously referred to Vivek Ramaswamy as having said that Ukraine is not a democracy, but this was inaccurate. He had said Ukraine was not a paragon of democracy.

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