With Trump starring and no sign of DeSantis, Republican annual meeting shows party fracturing

Prominent conservative politicians and ideologues meet at a convention tarnished by the disunity of the GOP

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Trump supporters at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland this Friday.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI (AFP)
Iker Seisdedos

In the MAGAverse there are men dressed in tailor-made suits with the drawing of a wall ― the US-Mexico border, that is understood―; 11-year-old commentators versed in the latest trends in reactionary thought; mothers “in favor of freedom” and against “gender indoctrination in schools”; and a group of five “proud Texans” with sequined jackets and letters printed on their T-shirts that, arranged in order, read T-R-U-M-P, the guy around whom all of the above revolves.

There are caps, lots of red caps, and one slogan stands above the rest: Make America Great Again. There are also Republican politicians, activists, cultural warriors, headline-grabbing congressmen like Marjorie Taylor Greene, and powerful senators like Ted Cruz. Also, rising stars from the fringes of the buoyant right-wing media ecosystem, a pillow mogul named Mike Lindell – embarking on a crusade against “electoral crime” – and a guy named Steve Bannon, delighted to be taken for an ideologue on the issue.

But after years of unstoppable expansion, that MAGAverse, encapsulated these days in a gigantic hotel with a convention center, is shrinking. At least, that is the impression left by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), celebrated between Thursday and Saturday of this week, in National Harbor (Maryland), south of the US capital. The event returned after an absence of two years due to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic. On Saturday – the last day – the highlights will be the speeches given by Trump, who closes the event, and by another former president resistant to defeat, the Brazilian Jair Bolsonaro, who has been living in Orlando, Florida, since the end of the year.

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CPAC participants dressed as former President George Washington and 'MAGA King', at the hotel where the convention was held.Al Drago (Bloomberg)

Founded in 1974 with an optimistic inaugural speech by Ronald Reagan, the CPAC claims to be “the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world.” It used to also be a place for the debate of ideas from different factions of the American right. Trump’s burst onto the scene in 2016, however, blew that out of the water, and the event has been getting swallowed up by the MAGA movement. Consulted by EL PAÍS, a dozen guests who have attended the CPAC for several years agreed that attendance had fallen this year with respect to previous editions (held in Dallas and Miami), and that the spirits are somewhat low due to the obvious fracture within the party.

Some absences were more noticeable than others. Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy, speaker of the House of Representatives, has not been seen in the corridors of the convention center, but some of his peers further to the right have, such as Matt Gaetz or Lauren Boebert, who put him through a historic embarrassment in January by forcing up to 15 votes until he could get elected as head of the chamber.

Former vice president Mike Pence, who was Trump’s ally until January 6, 2021, when the Capitol mob called for him to be hanged for not opposing the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral triumph, also did not attend the conference. As if that were not enough, there is also no trace of the party’s rising stars, such as the governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin, nor, above all, the governor of Florida Ron DeSantis, whose candidacy for the presidency seems certain, making him Trump’s greatest rival for the party’s nomination.

The DeSantis meteorite – which this week published a 256-page memoir that can almost be read like an applicant’s résumé and cover letter – took off in 2018 thanks to the support of former president Donald Trump, but the two orbits have long since separated. The old protégé has become for Trump and his movement a certain DeSanctimonious, an outsider, who is not welcomed in this town.

“We are here while others are raising money from Chinese billionaires, enemies of the United States,” Donald Trump Jr. said on Friday afternoon, referring to a fundraising event the Florida governor was hosting as an alternative to the CPAC.

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A woman this Thursday at the CPAC wears a cap that alludes to the idea of China as another State of the American federation.CHIP SOMODEVILLA (Getty Images via AFP)

Perhaps because it is a land that DeSantis has given up for lost, the supporters of the former president won by a landslide in the corridors of the CPAC. Supporters like Bannon, who was his adviser in the White House. “Trump will win the primaries,” and he will also win against the Democratic Party nominee, said the right-wing populist on Thursday in a conversation with this newspaper that quickly turned into a small rally, surrounded by dozens of fans of his podcast, War Room, which he has been broadcasting from the CPAC.

In his spiel, Bannon elaborated on theories – which have been dismissed time and time again in court – that the 2020 presidential election was a robbery. “Biden is an illegitimate regime is not a duly elected president. And let me tell you who knows that: the Chinese Communist Party, the KGB in Moscow, and the Ayatollah in Iran,” which is why they treat him with disrespect, Bannon said. “They understand he stole this election, and they understand that the American people understand it,” he added. He went on to say that the US must urgently fix its voting system, saying that it is “destroying the country”.

A couple of floors below, in the exhibitors’ area, more entertainment awaits. There, one can take a photo in a setting of Trump’s Oval Office or play to guess which figure of the American left said which phrase taken out of context. “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.” Nancy Pelosi? Correct!

The conference program is made up of short speeches, between 10 and 25 minutes (except for the one that closes the event: an hour-long speech by Trump). These interventions are reminiscent of a TED talk or take the form of conversations between two, three or four people, bearing titles such as Biden, criminal family, True Stories of January 6, the persecuted take the floor or No Chinese balloons over Tennessee.

“We’re going to say no to open borders, to chaos, to defunding the police, to attacks on US energy independence, to surrendering to climate alarmists, to reckless spending, to turning our schools into far-left indoctrination centers, to lockdowns, to lawlessness, to far-left lunacy censoring viewpoints,” TV star Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Trump adviser, proclaimed during her speech. “Did I miss anything?” she asked her audience, who purchased tickets starting at $295 ($50 for students) to hear her speak. She did not even come close to filling the huge auditorium.

Steve Bannon, former advisor to former President Donald Trump and media executive, poses for selfies with supporters.
Steve Bannon, former advisor to former President Donald Trump and media executive, poses for selfies with supporters.CHIP SOMODEVILLA (Getty Images via AFP)

Admittedly, Guilfoyle’s list of the topics that would be covered at the event was quite complete. Other speakers touched on subjects such as woke culture, a term employed by the conservatives when referencing issues related to social justice, as well as how they believe that traditional media is a threat to democracy. There was also much talk about the origin of the coronavirus, a melon that the FBI reopened this week by dusting off the Wuhan lab theory. The most cited enemies to the party were, in addition to Biden, Dr. Anthony Fauci and Attorney General Merrick Garland.

The event started on Thursday with a speech from the CPAC’s seven-year chairman, Mat Schlapp, who was recently accused of sexual abuse by a campaign worker for Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschell Walker. This scandal, as the US media have pointed out these days, has also contributed to the event’s lesser success.

The list of speakers included Brexiter Nigel Farage and J.D. Vance, Senator from Ohio and author of the best-selling A Hillbilly Elegy, as well as two Republican candidates for the White House, Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy, who during his speech drew from his personal history as an anti-woke billionaire to try to sound like a compelling 2024 option. National unity, he argued, will only come by embracing extremism and radicalism, which he said were the foundation of the ideals that launched this nation 250 years ago: “merit, freedom of expression, open debate, and self-rule above the aristocracy.”

Haley, a former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador, showed that she is not afraid to step foot in enemy territory and reminded attendees that Republicans have lost the popular vote in the past seven of eight presidential elections. “If you are tired of losing, place your trust in a new generation of leaders,” she said. Haley, who received a few jeers, repeated her proposal to require mental competency tests for politicians over 75 years of age.

The king of the MAGAverse, who is expected by his supporters this Saturday at the National Harbor Convention Center, is already 76 years old.

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