CPAC Highlighted The Republican Party’s True Identity
The Republican Party is in an existential crisis, as a battle rages on in public between the QAnon and the Conservative wings of the party, to decide which direction it will go in following the end of the Trump era. While there are those who would claim that the GOP could return to its traditional roots, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) exposed the party’s true, corrupted identity. While CPAC, hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU), has housed the most extreme of the GOP base, it was once attended by the likes of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Its 2021 line-up made the Tea Party look moderate.
Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT), who won the event’s presidential straw poll four times, was disinvited for voting to convict Donald Trump in both of the impeachment trials. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the highest-ranking Republican in Congress, was also not invited, and former Vice President Mike Pence, amongst others, turned down a speaking opportunity. It wasn’t an opportunity for conservative ideas to be sensibly discussed and debated. Instead, the three-day event had much more in common with a MAGA rally, with a focus on grievances and complaints about cancel culture.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (R), Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and ex-President Donald Trump gathered to speak to the assembled, maskless crowd, spreading the dangerous, damaging lies that saw the Republican Party lose the 2020 election just a few short months ago. What could have been an important event in the development of the GOP as it moves forward and reassesses itself, taking note of the resounding defeat it was handed at the ballot box, was instead used by the Trump-supporting wing as a gathering where the same lies were repeated, relitigating the overused and rejected issues that were played out over and over again during the 2020 election.
Take Senator Marsha Blackburn’s (R-TN) speech. She could have used her appearance to discuss any one of the important issues facing America, such as climate change, racial inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, she used her platform to rant against the mainstream media and social media sites for having the audacity to fact-check Trump, despite him making over 30,000 false or misleading statements during his presidency. While the right-wing of the Republican Party might cheer these attacks on the media, or praise Blackburn for claiming that the former president was unfairly scrutinized, the rest of America sees it as confirmation that the GOP is beyond repair and now stuck in an alternative reality filled with lies and falsehoods, where it believes it is above accountability.
Fresh off his controversial trip to Cancun in Mexico, where he holidayed whilst his home state was in crisis, Senator Ted Cruz took to the stage to unveil the next element of the GOP’s strategy: focusing on cultural grievances. He joked about shooting protestors, to show his opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, warning that, if they ever came to Texas, they would learn what the state “thinks about the 2nd amendment”. He ranted about people having to wear masks to protect themselves and others from the current pandemic, absurdly claiming that “we’re going to wear masks for the next 300 years”, instead of using his position to promote life-saving health guidance.
He even bizarrely claimed Democrats were attempting to convert 19-year-old skaters in Los Angeles into socialists, providing no evidence for such a weird allegation. It was a performance that sought to play into the grievance politics Republicans have seized upon in recent years. When there are genuine issues that need to be addressed and are being tackled by the Biden administration, the GOP is spending its time concocting issues that don’t exist, instead of working for the American people.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at CPAC: “Orlando is awesome. It’s not as nice as Cancun.” pic.twitter.com/TghkHUhOPy
— The Recount (@therecount) February 26, 2021
Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO), who has made no secret of his ambition to run for the presidency, gave a speech that was savaged by his home state newspaper, the Kansas City Star, for being filled with far-right, dangerous rhetoric that fostered division. His call for a “new nationalism” was likened to former Alabama Governor George Wallace’s “segregation now, segregation forever” line. Hawley also bragged about objecting to Biden electors, an act that cultivated the environment that led to the insurrection.
The reaction from the CPAC crowd when Hawley says he objected to the 2020 presidential election results – prolonged applause pic.twitter.com/Bg5HLRoBhq
— Elizabeth Landers (@ElizLanders) February 26, 2021
This approach reflected the desperate attempts many Republicans are making to try and seize control of the active base of MAGA supporters that helped give Trump victory in the 2016 election. It also showed the extent to which they are willing to go for political gain. Even after four years of politics from Trump that furthered divisions across America, these Republicans are so desperate to hold onto their existing positions of power or to try to secure higher office, that they will embrace the same politics that led to the attack on the US Capitol.
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Finally, to round out the conference, Trump returned to the public stage for the first time after avoiding President Joe Biden’s inauguration and slumping off to Mar-a-Lago. He didn’t skip a beat before launching, inevitably, into a speech that was packed with debunked lies, from the 2020 election result, to his record during his one-term presidency, to Biden’s first days in office.
The fact that Trump’s vitriol wasn’t covered live by cable news channels, other than Fox, should tell the GOP all it needs to know. Trump’s worn-out ramblings have run their course with the media and with the majority of voters, especially when it was delivered in the low-energy manner that was seen on Sunday. His hateful and divisive agenda might have been embraced by those who watched it in person, but the attacks on immigrants and transgender individuals left a sour taste in the mouths of decent Americans.
Even his false declaration that “there has never been a journey so successful” as his presidency or his warped mantra “You won. You won”, revealed an insight that should concern the GOP. They cannot accept reality. The Republican Party lost the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the White House under Trump’s failed leadership. Such a record can hardly be called ‘successful’. It’s part of one of the biggest fundamental flaws of the GOP: They will never be able to move past the last four years until they acknowledge that Trumpism is a failed agenda and recognize the hurt it has caused for so many Americans.
While former presidents have used their time post-White House to serve the country or the international community, Trump showed he plans to continue only serving himself. President Barack Obama set up a foundation to tackle the challenges facing African Americans and to mentor young people with education and job training. President Jimmy Carter set up the Carter Center and has led a campaign to eradicate Guinea worm from the world.
In stark contrast, Trump couldn’t wait to dive back into a sycophantic environment, as his vanity drives him to go in search of someone who might heap praise on him, as he continues to pursue the fantasy he has created for himself. After all, one of the first lines of his speech said it all: “Do you miss me yet? Do you miss me?”. These words revealed Trump’s one driving motivation: he needs to be loved and nothing else matters.
Looking back over the three days of CPAC, the tragic reality for the Republican Party is that it confirmed to many how the GOP is still the party of Trump and Trumpism. Politicians used their speeches to sycophantically lavish praise on him in order to try and curry favor, in the hope that they will have his backing when election time comes around. But given his support in the CPAC presidential straw poll was a low 55%, it’s not clear how much sway he will have with the wider electorate.
It also showed a deeper, more worrying trend for the Republican Party that has emerged in recent decades. They continue to ignore the key issues that Americans care about, choosing to focus on cultural issues, something that resulted in their 2020 defeats. This grievance politics approach might help the GOP secure money from fundraising or motivate their base voters, but it doesn’t appeal to the wider public and it certainly doesn’t do anything to resolve America’s current challenges.
The Republican Party can continue to live in denial and revel in the world it embraced during the Trump era or it can take heed of the defeat voters handed it, understand the legitimate concerns of those voters and adapt accordingly. The choice it makes over the next few months is likely to be a decisive one that will decide the future of the party, not just for the next election, but for the next 10 years and beyond. If CPAC is an indicator of the direction it’s going to take, the GOP is well and truly the party of Trump and Trumpism.