‘The base is solidly behind him’: Trumpism expected to thrive at CPAC

Lineup at annual gathering features former president’s allies – and Trump himself – suggesting his dominance is undiminished by his election loss

Ronald Solomon spent five days making the 2,300-mile drive from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Orlando, Florida, where he will sell about 75 different hat designs, 15 types of flag, 10 T-shirt designs and a range of eight face masks.

Solomon is the president of the Maga Mall, a retailer of Donald Trump and “Make America great again” merchandise. Undeterred by the former president’s 2020 election defeat and disgrace, he expects to do brisk business when the biggest annual gathering of grassroots conservatives opens on Thursday.

“I speak to state and county Republican party leaders all over the United States and the base is solidly behind Trump,” the 61-year-old said by phone while driving through Louisiana. “As a matter of fact, there’s a movement afoot to get rid of what people call a Rino – a Republican in name only.”

Solomon, whose range of masks includes “God, guns and Trump” and “Trump 2024”, will set up his booth at the four-day Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. The event has always been an effective way of taking the pulse of the Republican party and broader conservative movement.

In 2016 Trump, who was assailing the Republican establishment in a nasty US presidential primary campaign, cancelled a planned appearance amid fears of boos and protests. But a year later, having vanquished Hillary Clinton, he was greeted as a conquering hero. CPAC became an annual Maga jamboree, less conservative policy shop than Trumpian cult of personality in action.

The lineup at CPAC 2021 – switched to Florida from Maryland because of coronavirus safety constraints – suggest that Trump’s dominance is entirely undiminished by his loss of the White House and Republican setbacks in Congress.

Speakers include his allies such as Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state; Ben Carson, the ex-housing secretary; Sarah Sanders, a former White House press secretary; Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota; Pete Hegseth, a Fox News host; Jon Voight, an ardently pro-Trump actor; and Donald Trump Jr, the 45th president’s son.

There are also slots for Senate Republicans including Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Cynthia Lummis and Rick Scott, and House Republicans such as Kevin McCarthy, Mo Brooks, Madison Cawthorn, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan, all of whom voted to challenge Joe Biden’s victory. The “big lie” of a stolen election is expected to thrive at CPAC.

That is not least because the conference will culminate on Sunday with Trump himself. In his first post-presidential speech, he is expected to promise to back Maga candidates in next year’s midterm elections, condemn Biden’s reversal of his immigration policies and reserve particular venom for his foes within the Republican party.

A person takes a photo as Donald Trump speaks during CPAC in Maryland on 29 February 2020.
A person takes a photo as Donald Trump speaks during CPAC in Maryland on 29 February 2020. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, told the Reuters news agency: “Donald Trump is going to stay in the game and will be involved in primaries and he’s going to opine and he’s going to give speeches, and for establishment Republicans it puts shivers down their spine. They’re very concerned he’s going to continue to have an impact. My advice to them is to get used to it.”

Among the talking points will be a straw poll of attendees on their preferences for the Republican nomination in 2024. Given the section of the party that now rules CPAC, there is little doubt that Trump will emerge the winner.

Tim Miller, former political director of Republican Voters Against Trump, said: “He’s gonna speak right after the 2024 straw poll, which presumably will show him with a landslide victory, and so I think it’s set up for him speak in a way that will signal that he sees himself as the leader of the party, as the frontrunner for 2024. He will attack those who have questioned him in that regard.

“I’m sure he’ll be received overwhelmingly positively by the crowd in those appeals. The Republicans are doing this to themselves. They had an opportunity to put a stake in his heart [at this month’s impeachment trial]; they didn’t take it and he’s in charge of the party right now. He has the support of a plurality, if not a majority of the voters within the party. There is no real organized wing for challenging him.”

Just as revealing as who is at CPAC is who is not.

The former vice-president Mike Pence, apparently abandoned by Trump on 6 January even as a violent mob closed in at the US Capitol, declined an invitation. Nikki Haley, an ex-ambassador to the UN who was sharply critical of the president’s role in the insurrection but then reportedly tried and failed to heal the rift, will also not be present.

Another absentee will be Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, who voted to acquit Trump on a technicality at the impeachment trial but then eviscerated him for inciting the deadly riot. If McConnell’s intention was to the light the party’s path to a post-Trump future, however, few analysts believe he will succeed.

Miller, writer-at-large at the Bulwark website and former communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign, commented: “In the actual battlefield of the campaigns, there’s no McConnell wing, there are no candidates saying that Trump shouldn’t have advanced the big lie. There are going to be no candidates for Senate besides Lisa Murkowski [of Alaska] saying that we should move on from Donald Trump and that he’s complicit in the coup and there’s a shameful moment in our history. The Republican candidates are all for Trump.”

Republicans who voted to impeach or convict Trump have been censured and vilified by their home state parties. Solomon, the Trump merchandise seller, attended a recent rally in Wyoming that called on the local congresswoman Liz Cheney to resign.

He said: “McConnell just got re-elected. If McConnell was up in 22, there’s no way he would have said what he said because there’s no way he would win. Right now in Kentucky, a cat would win a primary against McConnell.”

A CNN poll last month found that three in four Republicans believe that Biden did not legitimately win the presidential election, even though state officials and courts found no significant evidence to back Trump’s claims of voter fraud. The conspiracy theorists are expected to be out in force at CPAC.

Tamara Leigh, a past CPAC attendee who protested in Washington on 6 January but was a was a block or two away from the US Capitol when it was stormed, said she feels “100%” certain that the election was stolen. She cited conversations with Patrick Byrne, a former Overstock.com chief executive, and a film produced by Mike Lindell, the chief executive of MyPillow (both men’s claims have been widely debunked).

Leigh, who is in her 50s and works in communications, added: “If Trump runs in 2024, I absolutely would support him and I think his base will follow. His base is the Republican party. The 78 million Trump voters [the true figure was 74 million] are still standing with our president and I believe the majority are resolved to continue to fight even harder. The support will be with him, not with the GOP.”

Last year’s CPAC at the National Harbor in Maryland had the slogan “America vs socialism”, a message that fell flat against the moderate Democrat Biden. The event suffered a scare when it emerged that an attendee had been infected with the coronavirus.

People listen as Mike Pence speaks at CPAC on 27 February 2020.
People listen as Mike Pence speaks at CPAC on 27 February 2020. Photograph: Joshua Roberts/Reuters

This year’s organizers are insisting that masks be worn, although many of the speakers were notably reluctant to do so for months. Brandon Morris, a nurse in Orlando who attended CPAC two years ago, said: “This is Florida. I don’t know if you saw the Super Bowl? When I was in New York, everyone wore masks but in Florida, it’s just a cultural difference. Some people will wear masks, some people probably won’t wear masks.”

This year’s theme is “America Uncanceled”, a reference to the current conservative sport of accusing liberals of applying “cancel culture” to those whose views they do not share. But it is a slogan that the Maga crowd might themselves apply to McConnell, Cheney and other dissidents who will be nowhere near Orlando.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington, said: “What there’s going to be over the next year or so is a question as to how people who would prefer President Trump not be the leading voice for the Republican party position themselves. There’ll be many different views on that and many different attempts.

“Clearly McConnell is somebody who will defend all sitting senators and who’s made his views about Trump’s action on January 6 clear. But McConnell is not somebody who plays from out front. He likes to play from behind, so I will not expect it to be a McConnell versus Trump show. It may be to Trump’s advantage to try and make it that but it’s not in McConnell’s interest to accept the bait.”


David Smith in Washington

The GuardianTramp

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