The latest Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington DC proved that former President Donald Trump remains firmly in control of the Republican Party going into the 2024 election.
The latest CPAC gathering was the first in the nation’s capital since the Covid-19 pandemic began. The gathering has long been a cattle call for potential Republican presidential nominees and other rising stars in the party. And it sets the tone for what conservatives will likely focus on in the next election.
Nowadays, like much of the rest of the conservative movement, former president Donald Trump has co-opted the event and made himself the centre of it. Many of the other speakers at the event came from the former president’s orbit while other speakers spoke to often half-empty rooms.
The conference's decision to continue to make Mr Trump the marquee speaker and organise the agenda around his priorities shows that the organisers and party elite very much recognise his firm grip on the base going into 2024.
Many of the panels focused on enforcing immigration, the former president’s main focus while he was in the White House. CPAC also focused intensely on targeting transgender rights.
Here are five takeways from CPAC.
It’s the Trump show
Mr Trump closed out the conference with a scorched-earth address, airing his grievances before a crowd that moved to its feet multiple times. The former president frequently criticised the ongoing investigations he faces from the Department of Justice, the Manhattan District Attorney, the Fulton County District Attorney and New York’s Attorney General’s office.
“I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” he said in a scathing exegesis. But many other Trump-world figures spoke at CPAC, including his son Donald Trump Jr and his fiancee Kimberly Guilfoyle, as well as Lara Trump, the wife of his other son Eric Trump. Former Trump campaign chairman and presidential adviser Steve Bannon also hosted episodes of his War Room show just outside the ballroom to rapt supporters. Similarly, in a compilation video before he took the stage, clips of Mr Trump were featured heavily.
On Saturday evening ahead of his address, Mr Trump overwhelmingly won the CPAC straw poll with 62 per cent of the vote, a clear sign that he dominates the party even as challengers – both announced and potential – wait in the wings.
Other candidates remain an afterthought
Florida Goveror Ron DeSantis has notably tried to avoid coming into direct contact with the former president. And for much of the conference, he remained out of mind for attendees. The Independent caught only one person cradling his new book The Courage to be Free, which the Florida governor has been promoting. Rather, the conservative golden boy chose to speak to donors for the fiscally conservative Club for Growth and on Sunday he spoke at the Ronald Reagan Library.
Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, so far the only major declared candidate other than Mr Trump, received only polite applause, even as she tried touching on the same themes that other conservatives focused on – such as the military utilising gender pronouns and saying that “wokeness” is a “virus more dangerous than any pandemic.” Indeed, little-known businessman and presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy seemed to get more applause at times than Ms Haley.
Similarly, when Ms Haley tried to work the room with supporters, she faced people calling Mr Trump’s name. Any potential contender for the GOP nomination will have to grapple with the fact the diehard faithful activists see themselves as his army, even if major donors move away from him.
Election denialism and January 6 become an article of faith
Throughout the conference, many attendees wore white shirts with the likenesses of Ashli Babbitt, the January 6 rioter whom Capitol Police shot as she attempted to push further into the US Capitol. Similarly, people signed a large document to honour those incarcereated for their actions during the 2021 riot at the Capitol as Congress ceritified the 2020 presidential election results.
In addition, the conference hosted a panel entitled “They Stole it From Us Legally” featuring Abraham Hamadeh, the former Arizona attorney general candidate who claims that his election was stolen. Similarly, the only other politician who received as much fanfare as Mr Trump was Kari Lake, the failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate who parrotted Mr Trump’s lies that the election was stolen and has herself refused to concede her race last year to Governor Katie Hobbs. Ms Lake won the CPAC straw poll for vice president. She also delivered Friday evening’s speech at the conference’s Ronald Reagan dinner, a sign that the conference sees her as a rising star.
Transphobia reigns supreme
Throughout the conference, panelists and speakers railed against transgender rights. During Senator Ted Cruz’s panel recording his podcast with talk show host Ben Ferguson and Senator JD Vance, he joked that if “transgender tech workers” saw a train derailment like in East Palestine, President Joe Biden would have been there immediately.
But the conference laid out how conservatives plan to frame their attack on transgender rights: as protecting people dealing with gender dysphoria from being preyed upon. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia laid this out when she said, “They tell us the most incredible lie that children can actually change their gender before they've even grown up, before they even finish puberty, before they've developed into an adult, before they're old enough to vote.”
Shortly after her address, there was a panel that featured Riley Gaines, a former college swimmer who has criticised the fact she lost to transgender swimmer Lia Thomas, and Chloe Cole, who has detransitioned and said she was pressured into transition. In addition, Mr Trump received one of his biggest applause lines when he talked about ending “chemical castration” for children.
Scandals loom over conference
This year’s CPAC was held as American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp faces allegations of sexual impropriety after a former staffer for failed Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker accused Mr Schlapp grabbing his crotch. Mr Schlapp vehemently denies the allgations, but he now faces a lawsuit from the unnamed accuser. Still, many attendees, including Mr Trump, made it a point to name check Mr Schlapp and his wife Mercedes, who worked in the Trump White House, in their speeches.
Similarly, Dominion’s lawsuit against Fox News for its promotion of election lies loomed large. Mr Bannon directly targeted Fox News in his address on Friday.
“They don't respect you,” he said to attendees. “Read the depositions. They have a fear, loathing, and contempt for you.”
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