Former President Donald Trump provided the headliner speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) over the weekend. He painted a gloomy picture of the United States with a Democrat, President Biden, in the White House, and portrayed himself as the only person who can save the Republican Party and the nation. Trump's former United Nations ambassador and current GOP rival, Nikki Haley, got chased into an elevator by Trump supporters after saying in her non-prime-time speech that the GOP needed a new generation of leaders, in a veiled criticism of the former president.
Other Republicans used their time at the podium to call for eradicating transgender rights and stripping Big Tech of the legal immunity social media companies have under Section 230, the protection from liability for what users post that is currently being challenged at the Supreme Court. Far-right Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) said in her speech that the liability shield is letting tech executives censor conservative voices, "acting like editors rather than publishers." But some of the GOP's heaviest hitters — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and likely presidential contenders former Vice President Mike Pence and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — didn't show up at the sparsely attended conference. Here are four lessons from this year's event:
1. Trump showed the GOP nomination is his to lose
Many Democrats, and even some Republicans, think Trump's 2024 presidential bid is doomed, said the Texarkana Gazette in an editorial. "His presidency was a fluke, they say. His time has passed." But this year's CPAC showed that "this nomination is still Donald Trump's to lose."
CPAC was "always a big GOP event in the past," but this year's version "was mostly a yawn fest." Nikki Haley "failed to excite the crowd. Presumed candidate and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis failed to show up." Trump was the only person who really "energized" the crowd, and all he had to do was hit some of "his usual familiar talking points," with "a lot of 'us against them'" mixed in. CPAC's straw poll wasn't even close, with Trump taking 62 percent support for the 2024 nomination, followed by DeSantis with 20 percent and Haley in single digits.
2. Low attendance and energy showed CPAC isn't what it used to be
The big takeaway was "how lame this year's CPAC really was," said Danielle Lee Tomson in Politico. Attendance was low. Energy was low. "Speakers like Donald Trump Jr. and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) addressed nearly empty rooms." Even the WiFi went out at times. The troubles started before the event when CPAC chair Matt Schlapp faced "sexual assault allegations from a male campaign staffer, a claim he denies," and it was downhill from there.
Former Trump strategist "insisted that despite the lackluster conference, the GOP and its right flank were still strong." He said you could see CPAC's importance in the attendance of "warriors" like failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake and James O'Keefe, a "media provocateur" recently ousted by his own board. With "warriors" like that, who needs enemies? "Vibes matter," and CPAC showed that "conservatives — both Trump and institutional Republicans alike — aren't vibing with each other."
3. CPAC represents what the GOP mainstream has become
This year's CPAC was "eminently mockable," said Joe Walsh in The Bulwark. "There was Steve Bannon accusing Fox News of stealing the election from Donald Trump. And Marjorie Taylor Greene lying that Ukraine President Zelensky demanded American 'sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine.'" The hits kept coming: Kari Lake proclaiming Steve Bannon a "modern-day George Washington," Lauren Boebert "strutting and yelling on stage." The hits kept coming.
But don't let the "richly deserved mockery" convince you these people aren't to be taken seriously. These are the forces that put Trump in the White House in 2016 and almost got him re-elected in 2020. The people at CPAC weren't the "some loony far-right fringe" of the Republican Party. "They are the party." The GOP mainstream has become "radicalized." Its base and activists "no longer believe in truth, they've given up on democracy, they want to destroy their political opponents, and they want an authoritarian to give them back the America they long for."
4. This spotlighted the growing GOP rift
CPAC "underscored the difficulty Republicans will have in keeping their increasingly fractured coalition together for 2024," said Josh Kraushaar in Axios. The GOP used to be defined by the "three core conservative principles" that were the "pillars" of the Reagan revolution: "free markets, a muscular foreign policy, and traditional social values." But Trump's Make America Great Again movement has shifted "the GOP's center of gravity toward a more protectionist, populist, and belligerent outlook."
Signs of the split were everywhere. Trump said the GOP was once "ruled by freaks, neocons, open-border zealots and fools," and promised the party was "never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush." Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) called for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to "leave your hands off of our sons and daughters," while "two of the highest-profile speakers — former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — are unapologetic Ukraine hawks." The fight for the party's 2024 nomination will come down to a duel between Trump, who "is prioritizing the 30 percent of Republicans who consider themselves 'Trump-first Republicans,'" and his rivals who will "compete for backing among those who support the party first."