Any lingering belief that Donald Trump would fade from the political scene like other past presidents evaporated fully Sunday as he spoke for more than 90 minutes in a grievance-filled and self-promoting address that sought to polish up his presidential legacy, take aim at his enemies and tease his political future.
Here are six takeaways from the first major Republican gathering of the post-Trump era, the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida.
Trump has (almost) total dominance.
“I am not starting a new party,” Trump declared, nixing rumors and making news in the first moments of the first speech of his post-presidency.
And why would he? Trump remains the most influential Republican politician in the nation. The three-day CPAC gathering in Orlando showed how fully the Republican Party has been remade in his image in the five years since he boycotted the conference in 2016 en route to capturing the party’s nomination.
In a meandering speech guided by a teleprompter and interrupted with cheering that at times read more obligatory than enthusiastic, Trump lashed out at President Joe Biden and outlined his vision of a culture- and immigration-focused Republican Party while relitigating his specific grievances from 2020.
Trump named every Republican who voted for his impeachment. “Get rid of them all,” he said. And he predicted a Republican would win the White House in 2024. “Who, who, who will that be, I wonder?” he mused.
The speech came right after Trump won a CPAC 2024 presidential straw poll, finishing with 55% of the vote — more than double the percentage of his closest runner-up. But that victory was dampened by the fact that only 68% of the attendees at the conference said they wanted him to run again.
A second straw poll, without Trump, was carried by Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, who received 43% on his home turf, followed by Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota with 11%.
Those results showcased the challenge that senators face in edging ahead of governors in the 2024 pack of potential presidential candidates. Both DeSantis and Noem highlighted their efforts to keep the economy open during the coronavirus pandemic, which proved a more popular resume point than the legislative fights that senators in Washington have been engaged in.
‘Cancel culture’ is the new ‘fake news.’
In his first presidential bid, Trump adopted “fake news” as a rallying cry against the traditional news media and then effectively and relentlessly deployed it to position himself as the sole arbiter of truth for his supporters.
The lineup of CPAC speakers over the weekend showed how thoroughly a new pair of catchphrases — “cancel culture” and the “woke mob” — are animating a Republican Party that, beyond supporting Trump, appears increasingly centered on defining itself in opposition to the left.
“Didn’t anybody tell you?” Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri began his CPAC speech. “You’re supposed to be canceled.”
The crowd cheered as “cancel culture” served throughout the weekend as shorthand for bashing the news media, railing against the tech industry (in particular, Twitter’s and Facebook’s decisions to bar Trump from their platforms), and spreading fear about the decline of conservative and religious values in American popular culture.
Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, one of his party’s most adroit culture warriors, summarized the annoyance and alienation felt by attendees at the right-wing gathering because of the continuing pandemic.
“You can French kiss the guy next to you yelling ‘Abolish the police’ and no one will get infected,” he mocked. “But if you go to church and say ‘Amazing grace,’ everyone is going to die.”
A ‘rigged’ 2020 is now a GOP article of faith.
T.W. Shannon, a Republican from Oklahoma, was the first to say it. Speaking Friday morning on a panel called “Tolerance Reimagined: The Angry Mob and Violence in Our Streets,” Shannon said the reason pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 was that “they felt hopeless.”
And that, he said, was “because of a rigged election.”
The election was not rigged, of course, but by the end of CPAC it was clear that the lie Trump had promoted vigorously had become canon among the base of the Republican Party. On Sunday, the conference’s straw poll results revealed that 62% of attendees ranked “election integrity” as the most important issue facing the country.
For those who tuned into Hawley’s speech, this was probably unsurprising: Hawley, who was the first Senate Republican to announce his plans to object to the Electoral College certification, electrified the CPAC audience when he reminded them of his defiance.
“On Jan. 6, I objected to the Electoral College certification — maybe you heard about it,” Hawley said with a wry grin. People erupted in applause.
In interviews, multiple CPAC attendees were adamant that widespread voter fraud had led to the election of Biden — and some inadvertently suggested the long-term consequences this could pose for the party.
Pamela Roehl, 55, who traveled to the conference from Illinois, said some of her pro-Trump friends had written off civic engagement for good. “They voted for Trump, and they said they’re not going to vote again, because they just feel like it’s so tainted,” she said. “And that is just so sad.”
There was little interest in policy — whether Biden’s or the Republican Party’s.
As the conference began, House Democrats were preparing to approve a coronavirus relief package worth nearly $2 trillion that was opposed by every House Republican. But inside the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, it was hard to find many conservatives who cared.
CPAC in past years has served, at minimum, as a forum for conservatives to unite in opposition to a Democratic policy agenda. But most speakers over the weekend won applause by channeling the preoccupation with personality over policy that animated the party during Trump’s presidency. The result was an event in which conservatives signaled their lack of interest not just in mobilizing against Biden’s policies, but also in debating the finer points of their own.
DeSantis suggested that the current threat posed by the left was too dangerous for conservatives to prioritize policy discussions.
“We can sit around and have academic debates about conservative policy — we can do that,” he said. “But the question is, when the Klieg lights get hot, when the left comes after you: Will you stay strong, or will you fold?”
In an illustration of how Trump has transformed the party, there was strikingly little mention of curbing spending at a moment when congressional Democrats are moving to restore earmarks. And while CPAC attendees ranked immigration as the third most important issue facing the country, few speakers discussed specific policy proposals to shape the party’s stance on the issue beyond continuing to support Trump’s border wall.
Kristi Noem is hailed as ‘a female Trump.’
Noem, who came in second to DeSantis in the CPAC straw poll without Trump, was one of the standout speakers of the weekend, delivering a staunchly pro-Trump message and highlighting the anti-lockdown and anti-mask policies that in the past year have made her a darling of the base of the Republican Party.
She jolted to stardom in Republican circles last year when she refused to issue a lockdown order for South Dakota or enforce a mask mandate. Instead, she advocated “washing your hands and making good decisions.”
South Dakota now has the country’s eighth-highest death rate from COVID-19.
Noem received a standing ovation at CPAC when she boasted that she had never ordered a “single business or church to close,” and another one when she attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
In the hours leading up to her speech Saturday, many attendees praised Noem as their favorite Republican — apart from Trump, of course.
“I like Kristi Noem because she fights back,” said Sany Dash, who sold pro-Trump merchandise at the conference. “I feel like she’s a female Trump, except not crass or rude. ”
The Republican ‘civil war’ remains very much uncanceled.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who runs the Republican political committee trying to win back the Senate in 2022, tried to downplay any intraparty disagreements and urged activists to focus on opposing the Democratic agenda.
The problem is that some of his party’s biggest names — including and especially Trump — are focused first on exacting revenge for those who strayed from the Trump party line on impeachment.
Donald Trump Jr. excoriated Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the top-ranking Republican to vote to impeach his father, as aggressively as he did any Democrat in his speech. Trump on Friday announced that one of his first 2022 endorsements would be for the primary opponent of Rep. Anthony Gonzalez of Ohio, another Republican who voted for impeachment. The mere mention of Sen. Mitt Romney’s name drew derision.
In his own speech, Trump named every Republican who voted for his impeachment in the House and for conviction in the Senate, focusing special attention on Cheney, whom he called a “warmonger.”
But even if there are critical parts of the Republican apparatus at war, the activist flank of the party remains firmly behind Trump. Or, as he put it, “The only division is between a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks and everybody else.”
There were no more surefire applause lines than those that heaped praise on the former president.
When Donald Trump Jr. jokingly called the gathering “TPAC” instead of CPAC — “It’s what it feels like, guys!” he said — it felt less like an awkward joke and more a statement of 2021 reality.