Monday, March 06, 2023

Should we be worried by CPAC's continued endorsement of Trump?

One reads more and more articles  along the lines of "Trump is a bust for Republicans", "Why some Republicans are finally speaking out against Trumps future in the party", "Cut the loser loose", etc, etc. You get the distinct impression that Republicans have moved on from Donald Trump (presumably in the direction of Ron DeSantis, if you consider that "moving on"), and that both lawmakers and regular citizens alike see the Trump years as a failed experiment. Here is another such article, but there are many, many more.

And yet...

At the recent CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), a straw poll on the 2024 Republican presidential nomination gave Trump a resounding 69% vote, with DeSantis a distant second with 24%. The same conference gave Trump a 99% approval rating.

Should we be worried? Well, we should be worried about either Trump or DeSantis gaining more power than they already have. But is CPAC actually a reliable indicator of Republican thinking? Is it influential?

CPAC was founded by the American Conservative Union (ACU) back in 1974, to act as a barometer of the general conservative movement in America, to discuss matters of right-wing ideology, and to attempt to pull together various strains of conservative thought. California Governor Ronald Reagan gave the keynote speech that first year; CPAC helped get him elected as President just a few years later. It calls itself "the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in he world".

CPAC used to be a relatively mainstream conservative mouthpiece and think tank. Its sponsors used to include the likes of Google, Washington Post, the Heritage Foundation, etc. This year's sponsors, by contrast, include America's Frontline Doctors and the Walk Away Foundation (both fronted by zealots who have been convicted after the January 6th riots), as well as the New Federal State of China, a lobby group co-founded by Steve Bannon, and Real America's Voice, another Bannon vehicle. 

Donald Trump, of course, made a speech at this year's CPAC, replete with the usual complement of wild lies, half-truths and myths. Far right Congress members Matt Gaetz, Lauren Broebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene were also listed speakers this year, as were high-profile failed nominee and conspiracy theorist Kari Lake and former governor Nikki Haley. You get the idea. On the other hand, Kevin McCarthy refused an invitation to this year's event, as did Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence and a few other less extreme 2024 hopefuls.

CPAC, which is often credited with facilitating the rise of Donald Trump to national icon status some 12 years ago, is now very much a Trump support group. It has moved a long way from its old ACU days. Al Cardenas, ACU's ex-leader and one-time CPAC organizer, holds nothing back: "It has transformed itself into a Donald Trump-supporting group fully engaged with election deniers, culture wars and indicted guests". Prominent GOP strategist Dennis Lennox calls the modern-day CPAC "a carnival" with "a bunch of carnies grifting".

So, reliable? Not so much. Representative? Probably not. Influential? Ah, that's where we have to be careful. CPAC was instrumental in initially building the Trump political brand. It could do so again.

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