At CPAC, Ukraine and policy take a back seat to cultural grievances
By Reid J. Epstein and Astead W. Herndon
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has much of the world transfixed and on edge. President Joe Biden announced a new Supreme Court appointment who is unlikely to get any significant Republican support.
But at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of the right wing of U.S. politics, the news convulsing the world seemed oddly distant. Instead, the focus was on cultural grievances, former President Donald Trump and the widespread sense of victimization that have replaced traditional conservative issues.
Like so many of the Republican officials who have remade themselves in his image, Trump, in a speech to the conference Saturday night, sought to portray himself as a victim of assaults from Democrats and the news media. He said they would leave him alone if he were not a threat to seek the presidency again in 2024.
“If I said ‘I’m not going to run,’ the persecution would stop immediately,” Trump said. “They’d go on to the next victim.”
Trump had broad support at the event: Of those who responded, 85% said they would back him for the Republican nomination for president again, and 97% said they approved of his performance as president, according to a straw poll of CPAC attendees. Asked who should be the GOP presidential nominee in 2024, 59% said Trump and 28% said Gov. Ron DeSantis. of Florida — though Floridians made up 37% of CPAC attendees.
Eight months before the midterm elections, familiar Republican themes like lower taxes and a muscular foreign policy took a back seat to the idea that America is backsliding into a woke dystopia unleashed by liberal elites. Even the GOP was more than a bit suspect.
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump grassroots group focusing on millennial conservatives, denounced “the Republican Party of old” in his speech to the conference, known as CPAC and held this year in Orlando.
“Conservative leaders can learn something from our wonderful 45th president of the United States,” Kirk said, referring to Trump. “I want our leaders to care more about you and our fellow countrymen than some abstract idea or abstract GDP number.”
Placing cultural aggrievement at the centerpiece of their midterm campaigns comes as Republicans find themselves split on a host of issues that have typically united the party.
This past week, as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine to the near-universal condemnation of U.S. allies, Trump on Saturday reiterated his assessment that Putin was “smart” to invade Ukraine for the price of economic sanctions, though he did call the war “a catastrophic disaster.” His former adviser Steve Bannon praised Putin for being “anti-woke” — the very theme of the CPAC gathering.
That put them at odds with Republican elected officials, particularly congressional leaders, who have denounced Putin’s actions, as have Democrats and Biden.
On Capitol Hill, Republican senators are debating whether to release an official policy agenda at all before the midterms. The lack of urgency was encapsulated in a statement by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the minority leader, who dismissed a question about what Republicans would do if they took back Congress this year. “That is a very good question,” McConnell said. “And I’ll let you know when we take it back.”
In lieu of a united policy, Republicans are hoping that a grab bag of grievances will motivate voters who are dissatisfied with Biden’s administration. At CPAC, Republicans argued that they were the real victims of Biden’s America, citing rising inflation, illegal immigration at the Mexican border and liberal institutions pushing racial diversity in hiring and education.
Every speaker emphasized personal connections to Trump, no matter how spurious, while others adopted his aggrieved tone and patented hand gestures.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., praised what he called China’s effort to instill “great patriotic and masculine values” in its youth through social media. At a Mexican restaurant inside the conference hotel, Rep. Billy Long, R-Mo., argued that he coined the phrase “Trump Train” in 2015. He said he still used it as his wireless internet password. And Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a banker’s son who was educated at Stanford and Yale universities, sought to tie himself to alienated blue-collar workers he said were getting a raw deal.
“Rednecks and roughnecks get a lot of bad press these days,” Hawley said.
At the same time, the hallways of the massive Orlando hotel hosting the event were filled with an array of Trump paraphernalia. There were two separate kiosks marketing themselves as Trump malls, a shop selling Trump hammocks and, for $35 a book, a five-volume set of every tweet Trump published as president before Twitter banned him.
Speakers largely brushed off the war in Ukraine, beyond blaming Biden, and Friday few people mentioned Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Biden’s choice for the Supreme Court.
Eight miles from CPAC, an even angrier right-wing gathering, the America First Political Action Conference, took place at another Orlando hotel with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., as the main attraction and Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Ariz., appearing by video.
Commentator Nick Fuentes, head of the group that hosted the conference, said Putin had been compared to Adolf Hitler. He laughed and added, “They say it’s not a good thing.”
Fuentes, a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, runs what is known as the America First or “groyper” movement, which promotes a message that the nation is losing “its white demographic core.” Last month, Fuentes was subpoenaed by congressional investigators examining the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
It was only seven years ago that Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, told the CPAC crowd that “it’s good to oppose the bad things, but we need to start being for things.”
Just as Trump excised Bush-style conservative politics from the Republican Party, so has it been removed from the annual CPAC gathering.
Playing to feelings of resentment and alienation is a far safer bet for Republicans than advancing a policy agenda when the party remains split on taxes, foreign policy and how much to indulge Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.
“You can always cut taxes. You can always roll back regulations. You can always elect better people,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “But when freedom is lost and it’s eroded, it is so hard to reclaim.”
At CPAC, there was no shortage of stories about the horrors of cultural and political cancellations — although the speakers offered scant evidence of actual suffering.
Leila Centner, a founder of a Miami private school, who last year told her teachers and staff that they would not be allowed to interact with students if they received a coronavirus vaccine, recounted the backlash once her anti-vaccine views made news.
“The media was all over me; they went ballistic,” she said.
But Centner said the brouhaha turned out to be a positive thing for her and her school. She told the CPAC audience that her student enrollment went up and there was now a waiting list. She has become a personality in demand from conservative news networks, and she said that she now had a homogeneous school community that shared her views on the pandemic and the country’s racial history.
“What this whole thing has done is it’s actually made our community more aligned,” Centner said.
As the incentives in conservative politics increasingly reward figures caught up in controversies that can allow them to be portrayed as victims, leading to more face time on conservative cable television, some veteran Republicans are lamenting that there is little to be gained by a focus on policy.
Former Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C., who is running for the Senate against a Trump-endorsed candidate, can’t get much attention, he said, when he touts his record working for veterans during his three terms in Congress.
“Some of the new people entering the political world, they get 12 press secretaries and one policy person,” Walker said. “There’s a problem with that, right?”