Donald Trump is still the undisputed leader of the Republican Party. But you probably already knew that. The mix of conservative voters, politicians, activists and political commentators who descended on Dallas last weekend for this year’s second Conservative Political Action Conference certainly did.
But some things are less clear. Namely, ahead of the midterm elections, GOP voters seem to be looking for the best way forward and wondering if their energy would be better spent in challenging the results of last year’s presidential race (again ) or moving forward into what should be a grueling mid-cycle.
This schism among Republicans was exposed throughout the weekend. Take, for example, a conversation I had with James Scott, a once reluctant Trump supporter who is now on top. After picking up a hot coffee on the second day of CPAC, he sheepishly confessed to me that in 2016 he “nosed” before voting for the former president. Standing in front of me in a ‘Come and See’ baseball cap, the bespectacled retiree described himself as a ‘Marco Rubio aficionado’ who only joined the Trump team after Trump announced a list. ultra-conservative Supreme Court ahead of the 2016 general election. And now Scott is so dedicated that he believes evaluating Trump’s baseless lies about widespread voter fraud is critical to the GOP’s future. “We have to have electoral integrity,” he told me. The truth, he added, “must be revealed because the future depends on it”.
Compare that, however, to Aaron Genus, 20, a student, Instagram personality, and restaurant worker who came to the Michigan conference. Genus has made it clear that he too thinks the 2020 election is “an absolute joke”; but unlike Scott, he’s ready to keep the party going. “In America, there is no such thing as an electoral reshuffle,” he said. “Once Trump got in that helicopter and said goodbye to him, it was over. There is no way to undo what happened. All we can do is fight for our electoral integrity over the next two cycles. ”
As CPAC approached, I was curious about where the voters were. How concerned would participants be about the 2020 overhaul compared to 2022? Over the past few years, CPAC has been a useful barometer for the base of the Republican Party and its most ardent activists, although it is not always indicative of the future of the party. This year was no exception, although the choice of whether or not to continue the previous elections is arguably new.
A host of speakers have spoken out against the allegations of a stolen election (although they are false), and at least two events have been devoted exclusively to how to spot and guard against voter fraud. Other panels focused on how to broaden the party’s base, and ahead of Trump’s climactic speech, a master of ceremonies said “2022 starts right here.” What I found, however, was that only a small handful of participants were actually ready to move on.
After losing the United States House in 2018 and the Senate and White House in 2020, Republicans are eager to identify candidates who can help them successfully reclaim Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024. But if This weekend’s CPAC conference is an indication of the party’s priorities, some of the more ardent Republicans are more concerned with contesting the last election than winning the next.
“I still feel like we’ve been so deceived in 2020 and I don’t think that has been resolved,” participant Pat DeLange, who turned 63 on Saturday, told me. “So when there is cheating, it has to be exposed. I think we have to put the rightful president back in power so that he can fix this problem and wake people up.”
Trump, for his part, also seemed more concerned about the past. At the very least, it’s a way for him to maintain his relevance as the de facto leader of the party as he develops his future plans. In an approximately 90-minute speech on Sunday, he mentioned – as in previous interviews and appearances – a “rigged election” and sarcastically quipped that he had “lost” last year’s race. . (The crowd went wild over those pieces, repeatedly booing the fraud allegations.) But perhaps most notably, he continued to tease supporters over whether he would run again. (“I will never stop fighting for you,” he told a large crowd, who chanted, “Another four years!”)
On the one hand, given Trump’s grip on the party – 53% of self-identified Republicans said in a Reuters / Ipsos opinion poll in May that they believe he is the ‘real president’ – it is not surprising that supporters overwhelmingly continue to draw inspiration from the former president. Recent polls on the winners of the 2020 election confirm that much of the party was not finished last year either. In November, about three in four Trump supporters said Biden’s victory was due to voter fraud, according to a Monmouth University poll. And those numbers have barely budged. According to this May Reuters / Ipsos survey, 56% of Republicans still believe the election was rigged.
Experts I spoke to before the convention said they had never seen a former president retain his post as leader of a political party like Trump, but they were also not shocked by the obsession. of the crowd for the past. “It’s not a real forward-looking crowd. I would say they are more interested in what they see as [a] fraudulent election and plead it all, ”said Robert Saldin, professor of political science at the University of Montana. “But it’s always been a backslid thing. “Make America Great Again” casts a wave back into the past, so I think, in a way, there has always been a focus back there that has been relatively rare in American politics. “
Indeed, loyalty to Trump (and, by virtue of his bogus fraud claims) was a key theme of the weekend. Not only did the attendees wear a sea of red, white and blue outfits and accessories bearing Trump’s face and name, they overwhelmingly picked Trump as their preferred candidate for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination in the CPAC poll. He collected 70 percent of the ballots in the anonymous survey – an increase from the 55 percent he won in a similar poll at the CPAC conference in Orlando in February. Also during the conference, attendees circulated a seven-point plot to re-establish Trump as president within days. (There is no constitutional mechanism to reinstate a former president.)
Of course, those who want to leave 2020 were also at the conference, but they were a minority. On CPAC’s last day, I found Grizzly Joe, a Trump supporter who gained national attention for telling CNN he believed Biden was the real winner in the November election. (Although he has media credentials for the event, he told me he was half there for the coverage and half there as a participant.) “Looking in the rearview mirror won’t help us move forward. He told me. When I asked him if there was too much attention at the moment on debunked fraud allegations, he replied that “some people are like a dog with a bone. If there is a fraud, let’s find it, destroy it and fix it. … But people who jump up and down thinking Trump is the real president will not bring Trump back to the White House.
A second conversation with Barbara Lewis, 65, who wore a Trump 2024 shirt and blue leggings with red and white stars, gave much the same feeling. “They fought the [last] enough elections, and the fight just has to end. I don’t think they can go any further in the fight.
It’s too early to say where the Republican Party will go from here, but at least for now, it’s clear that Trump and the 2020 election still resonate in the minds of voters. And that makes perfect sense given that Trump himself has a foot in both the past and the future.
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