The conference, though not representative of the broader conservative movement, reflects the base of the party as a wholly owned subsidiary of the former president’s Make America Great Again movement. Apostates are not welcome in this club. Donald Trump Jr. made that clear Friday when he attacked Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), who not only voted to impeach his father but said the former president should not play a role “in the future of the party or the country.”
Some Republicans claim that talk of a Republican civil war is the fabrication of a mainstream media determined to create fights among conservatives where none really exist. But the intraparty divisions are real. It’s just that there are few Republicans who, like Cheney or Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), are willing to risk the blowback by speaking out forcefully or publicly to contest Trump’s lies and to challenge his leadership.
At CPAC, there has been much talk about a “cancel culture” coming from the left and aimed at the right. Yet the fear of retribution for crossing the former president is leading to a climate of self-cancellation for some conservatives who might be expected to be welcome in Orlando this weekend.
Among the absentees at this year’s CPAC gathering is former vice president Mike Pence. He is a stalwart among party conservatives but likely would have faced a hostile reception in Orlando this weekend after defying Trump by refusing to block the ratification of President Biden’s electoral college victory when the House and Senate met on Jan. 6.
Also missing is one of the party’s stars, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, aggravated Trump supporters with comments critical of the former president’s role in fostering the insurrection by claiming the election had been stolen.
“He went down a path he shouldn’t have, and we shouldn’t have followed him, and we shouldn’t have listened to him,” Haley told Politico’s Tim Alberta. She has been doing penance ever since Alberta’s lengthy profile piece was published earlier this month.
The GOP once was long described as a coalition resembling a three-legged stool, composed of fiscal, social and foreign policy conservatives. Todd Harris, a GOP strategist, said a fourth leg has been added, but one that has nothing to do with ideology or policy. “It’s about owning the libs on Twitter,” he said. “It’s about dunking on the left. It’s about picking fights that get you on cable news.”
What Harris called this “bread and circuses” quality to politics has staying power in part because it connects almost seamlessly with today’s media culture — which Trump exploited in his first run for the presidency and helped to embed in the country’s politics, especially at the grass roots of the Republican Party.
Trump and Trumpism are strongest at the level of state and county Republican parties, as has been clear by the various efforts to censure national GOP lawmakers who went against Trump during the impeachment proceedings. Those who resist find themselves pilloried. The political pain from those rebukes appears minimal for most, but it has a chilling effect on dissent at a time the party needs an open debate about its future.
Some of these state and local party organizations have attracted ideological extremists for many years, causing some elected officials to keep their distance politically. Those past battles were mostly focused on conservative policies. Now they reflect a cult of personality around the former president. Loyalty approaching obeisance is now demanded of elected officials.
Democratic pollster Geoff Garin found recently that, among all those who identify as Republicans, Trump’s favorability is 78 percent positive, 16 percent negative. Among core Republicans, those who say they are strongly Republican or “very conservative” Republicans, his favorability jumps to 92 percent positive, 5 percent negative. Those core Republicans make up about 60 percent of the party.
The CPAC event reflects Trump in another important way — and highlights what the Republican Party has become under his tutelage. Grievance and attack have replaced anything resembling an affirmative vision as the central messages. A party that once prided itself on being a party of ideas has slipped into victimhood, which has long been part of Trump’s playbook.
Trump’s view of the world — whether it be his nationalistic, “America First” dogma or his lies about a stolen election — have taken hold among the base of the party. When Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) spoke to the conference and mentioned that he had come to the Capitol on Jan. 6 to object to the electoral college results, he was rewarded with huge applause.
For now, there is little likelihood that Trump’s hold on the party will weaken. Still, many Republicans — traditional conservatives, Never Trumpers, donors, policy wonks and the like — privately say (or hope) that his grip could weaken over time. Trump faces ongoing legal investigations that yet could damage him. His financial empire is in rocky shape. The attack on the Capitol hurt him among some of those who had voted for him in November.
Many Republicans are looking to move on from Trump and some already are trying to plant seeds that will gradually turn the party away from the former president and toward a future more akin to the party pre-Trump. “The rank and file of the Republican Party is in thrall with Trump today,” said one GOP strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to assess the party. “But the connection is weaker than the polls suggest. Time is going to march on.”
But making that happen, as Harris noted, is a delicate proposition. “The challenge that you have is, there are some hard truths that the Republican base needs to hear and to accept,” he said. “But they’re never going to listen to you if they hate you. So how do you walk this line between maintaining credibility with the base while at the same time attempting to lead them out of the wilderness?”
Republicans such as Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) seem intent on trying to echo the Trump message in hopes of inheriting his coalition should the former president decide not to run in 2024 or, because of events, begin to fade as the dominant force in the party. Those like Cheney have taken the opposite approach with outspoken opposition to a future GOP in which Trump is the major force.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is an example of someone trying to move the party from Trump and Trumpism while maintaining his standing within the party to be able to do so. The teeter-totter he has been riding since the election underscores the difficulty.
After hinting he was open to convicting Trump in the impeachment trial, he voted to acquit. After voting to acquit, he excoriated Trump in a floor speech that could have been given by one of the House Democratic impeachment managers. Then last week, asked whether he would vote for Trump in 2024, if Trump were to become the party’s presidential nominee, he replied, “Absolutely.”
Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the past eight presidential elections. During Trump’s four years in office, the party lost the House, the White House and then the Senate. Yet the Republican base — and therefore many of the party’s elected leaders — want no part of a debate about the impact of the former president. That’s the state of the GOP as the former president prepares to reemerge.