[T]his year's CPAC in Orlando, Florida, offered a window into a GOP primary dominated by a new Republican Party built around the grievances that animated Trump's campaigns and his presidency.
Speakers embraced Trump's lies about the 2020 election being rigged. Organizers built this year's event in Trump's adopted home state around the theme of liberal "cancel culture" in the wake of Trump being banned from social media platforms. The crowd booed reminders to wear masks, much like Trump eschewed his own health experts' recommendations.
Red "Make America Great Again" hats and pro-Trump paraphernalia have been ubiquitous, and every CPAC attendee who spoke to CNN said they would support Trump if he decides to run in three years. The unofficial, organized efforts to generate buzz for GOP presidential candidates that were a hallmark of CPACs during the Obama years were nowhere to be found this year.
The weekend in Orlando demonstrated that Trump is poised to be at the center of Republicans' 2024 nominating contest, whether he decides to run again as the clear favorite or instead chooses to play a kingmaker role, setting the terms of the race and determining which candidates are persona non grata in a GOP built in his image.
The clearest illustration of a conservative base that remains fiercely loyal to Trump came from Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who had objected to certifying Electoral College votes from key swing states, effectively attempting to disenfranchise those states' voters and overturn the results of the 2020 election. He bragged about his efforts at CPAC, claiming he was standing up for "election integrity."
In Washington, Hawley has faced backlash over his efforts on January 6, the day a pro-Trump mob emboldened by the former President's speech stormed the Capitol. But in Orlando, he was treated as a hero.
"I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying right here. I'm gonna stand up for you," Hawley said, to the loudest cheers of the day Friday.
Republicans who have broken with Trump -- such as Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse -- and those on ambiguous terms with the former President -- including former Vice President Mike Pence, who rejected Trump's pressure to try to overturn the election results, and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who has offered tempered criticism -- were not on hand.
I have attended three CPAC conferences in my life and I have regretted every damn one of them. All of them preceded the rise of El Caudillo del Mar-a-Lago, but all of them gave me a good inside look at the braindead and bullying politics that made him not possible, but inevitable. The first one was in Washington, and there was an Occupy presence on the sidewalk outside, and Andrew Breitbart, sockless drunk and waving a wineglass, jumped in the middle of them and started screaming, "STOP RAPING PEOPLE!" over and over again. For all the current attempts by Respectable Republicans to distance themselves from this carnival of souls, this has been the conservative mainstream for decades. It was impossible for a Republican politician with plans for the future to skip it.
As Raw Story notes, even a former chairman of CPAC now believe the gathering has lost all touch with objective reality and become little more than a cult:
A former chair for the American Conservative Union has denounced the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering sponsored by his erstwhile group, claiming that it has become cult-like and tethered to an "alternate reality," reported the Huffington Post.
Former Rep. Mickey Edwards (R-OK) made the comments during an interview on CNN Friday night with anchor Erin Burnett.
"The Republican party really no longer stands for any kind of principles, conservative or otherwise," said Edwards. "The party seems now to be completely following the lead of one man wherever he goes, which is the definition of a cult. Now all that matters is 'Trump is for this, we're for this.' And that includes denying truth, denying fact, denying reality. It's such a disconnect from what's really happened in the world."
The speakers at CPAC, said Edwards, "are living in an alternate reality in which facts don't matter, the Constitution doesn't matter ... You know, they're no different than the people who flock to other totalitarian leaders in other countries. They're no different than they are in Hungary, they're no different than they used to be Germany. Whatever their great leader says, they do, and there's no underpinning of fact, there's no underpinning or concern about the norms of free democracy."
This year, CPAC's guest list has drawn controversy. One speaker is a member of a Japanese cult whose leader believes he is a reincarnated alien from Venus. Another planned speaker, Young Pharoah, was disinvited after it emerged he has promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, called Judaism a "complete lie," and said that pedophilia and bestality are the "intellectual property" of white people.
Such is the face of conservatism in today's America. It is down right scary.