Diminished but Loyal Trump Maga Crowd at CPAC: ‘There’s One Choice’

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It fell to Steve Bannon, the far-right podcaster and political pugilist, to rouse the crowd with a jolt.

“Don’t fall for the primal things,” he urged in a fiery speech. “It’s not relevant. We don’t have time for training at the workplace [instead of] a man who gave us four years of peace and prosperity.”

Related: Trump’s war with DeSantis heats up with details of 2024 battle plan

What had been a low-energy Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) erupted into cheers. It did it again when Bannon – who is risk four months in prison for contempt of Congress – assured them that “Donald J Trump” would win both the Republican nomination and the US presidency in 2024. Finally, here was someone who spoke the language of CPAC.

But a glance at the convention center’s ballroom revealed row upon row of empty seats. The “Make America Great Again” (Maga) movement, while vociferous as ever, seemed diminished in size. There was no doubt that former President Trump remained the big fish at National Harbor in Maryland – but in a smaller pond.

CPAC, which bills itself as the largest and most influential gathering of conservatives in the world, has been around for nearly half a century. After a pandemic-forced move to Florida and Texas, it returned to the Washington area this week. But proximity to the capital was no guarantee of relevance. The list of Republicans who decided to stay away was as striking as those who showed up.

CPAC impresario Matt Schlapp, who is fighting a lawsuit a charge of sexual assaultacknowledged Thursday: “There is a lot of talk in the media about who is here and who is not here.”

Those absent included potential 2024 candidates such as Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, former Vice Pres. Mike Pence and Senator Tim Scott. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel were also missing.

Even Fox News, once Trump’s loudest cheerleader, seemed to have gave up the ghost and been supplanted by the more extreme and fringe Newsmax. Bannon raged against Fox News owned by Rupert Murdochvowing: “Murdoch, you’ve judged that Trump wouldn’t be president. Well, we’ve judged that you don’t want a network. Because we’re going to fight you every step of the way.”

Related: Fox News Reportedly Imposing a ‘Soft Ban’ on Donald Trump

It was a far cry from the days when CPAC commanded national headlines as a rehearsal dinner for Republican primary candidates. In 2015the year before the last competitive Republican primary, the marquee event heard from nearly all the major candidates, including Jeb Bush.

Nevertheless, Nikki Haley, who launched her campaign last month, did venture into the lion’s den on Friday. Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations diplomatically avoided direct criticism of her old boss, although she offered coded jabs.

Noting that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, Haley said, “Our cause is right, but we have failed to win a majority of the American people’s trust. It ends now. If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.”

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki R Haley speaks at CPAC on Thursday.

Former US Ambassador to the United Nations and 2024 Republican presidential candidate Nikki R Haley speaks at CPAC on Thursday. Photo: REX/Shutterstock

Although she received polite applause throughout her speech, there were several empty seats in the ballroom. And later, several attendees chanted “Trump! Trump! Trump!” as she walked through the room.

Mike Pompeo, a former secretary of state who is also expected to launch a White House bid, was similarly oblique and subdued in his take on Trump. He said: “We cannot become left wing and follow celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”

Both appearances underscored how no Republican has yet shown a willingness to do so step into the ring and go toe to toe with Trump for fear of alienating his voter base. DeSantis has so far refused to get involved, while Scott admitted in a recent interview that he couldn’t think of any policy differences with the former president.

Meanwhile, Trump, whom no one has ever accused of being plagued by self-doubt, has continued with campaign events, policy announcements and a site visit of a poisonous railway disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, showing that his populist touch has not entirely left him. Last month’s polls showed him building momentum.

Related: ‘You are not forgotten’: how the right racialized the Ohio train disaster

CPAC, effectively a four-day Trump rally, is likely to provide an additional sugar rush. He cruised to victory in his unscientific straw measurement of more than 2,000 in attendance with 62% of the vote, well clear of DeSantis at 20%. His speech attracted by far the largest audience of the conference.

A walk through the corridors revealed a plethora of “Make America great again” caps, “Bikers for Trump” vests and “Trump 45” sweatshirts rallying around Maga podcasters like Bannon, Sebastian Gorka and Mike Lindell. Trump’s son Don Jr spent hours posting against a White House photo.

Downstairs, at the CPAC show, there was no escaping the pro-Trump bobbleheads, caps, coins, dollar bills, dresses, flags, jewelry, sparkly purses, T-shirts and other products. A “DeSantis” cap with the Stars and Stripes sat next to a “Trump Won” cap. A mock-up of the Oval Office featured a Trump photo, Maga cap and “Trump was right” sign sitting on a determined desk, ready for photo ops.

Interviews with more than a dozen participants appeared to confirm the notion that while Trump may have lost some ground in the Republican Party, his core support is holding firm. Several expressed doubts about the validity of the 2020 election and nobody said that January 6, 2021 rebellion was a deal breaker. Some spoke of nostalgia for the Trump economy.

Make America Great Again hats for sale at CPAC.

Make America Great Again hats for sale at CPAC. Photo: REX/Shutterstock

Theresa McManus, 67, a horse trainer and organic farmer from rural Virginia, said: “I liked my grocery bill. I’ve had to cut my herd of cows. I have a lot of friends who are upset because I can’t feed them more. My $30 bag of feed is now $75 a bag. This is ridiculous. My grocery bill: two small bags that were $10 or $20 are now $50 to $100.

“Let’s just look at the economy. Look at the gas prices. Look at food prices. He knew how to run this country. People didn’t like him because he was rough, because he was loud. You know what? I identify with that. I also speak my mind and it’s like, get out of the way.”

Others continue to support the former president with an almost religious fervor that will be difficult for primary opponents to penetrate. Asked why he likes Trump, Jason Jisa of Dallas, Texas, corrected: “I love Trump. He puts America first. He puts the people of America first. He is not selling us out to the globalists. He takes on the big dogs and he wins.”

Jisa, 41, who sold Trump merchandise, dismissed the potential threat from DeSantis. “Stay in Florida, stay in your lane. You can do it later. He’s not the man for the job. He’s not ready for it. I wouldn’t vote for him. If it’s not Trump, I’m not voting. There is no other choice. There is a choice and that’s it. You can look at it as a spiritual thing: Years ago this situation we’re in now was foretold. We’re living out a prophecy and he’s the guy.”

He was not alone in passing a harsh judgment on DeSantis that could portend an ugly and divisive primary election.

Antwon Williams, 40, another commodities trader from Columbia, South Carolina, said: “He’s being bought off. He was a Trumper and now he clearly has his own agenda. It’s like he used President Trump to get his name out there , where he was supposed to be, and now he’s suddenly on his own agenda now, and that’s not cool.

“Put it this way, DeSantis is to me what Pence is to me: a traitor. You’re either with us or you’re against us. Pence clearly didn’t know the difference between that line and DeSantis doesn’t understand the difference between that line right now. I have nothing positive to say about him as long as he tries to run at us.”

But others were more forgiving. A 40-year-old truck driver from Nashville, Tennessee, who gave his name only as James, said: “I love what DeSantis stands for. He’s doing great for the state of Florida. If there wasn’t a Donald Trump, I’d be for Ron DeSantis as number one. Donald Trump is the man, the myth, the legend, the bomb. He’s great. I’d love to see Trump-DeSantis on the ’24 ticket.”

But even in this Trump stronghold there were dissenting voices. Some argued that while they admire his record as president, his countless legal problems, poor performance in the midterm elections and surly behavior makes him an electoral liability.

Hylton Phillips-Page, 67, a retired investment manager from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, wants DeSantis to be the nominee. “He’s Trump without the circus,” he said. “I like Trump’s policies. I respect everything he’s done for us, but there are too many people who won’t vote for him.”

Phillips-Page, who protested outside the US Capitol on January 6added: “I’m involved in the Republican Party in a big way, and I can tell you when I’m campaigning, I meet a lot of Republicans who tell me, ‘I’m not voting for Trump.’

“It’s just a problem, and I feel like we really can’t afford to take that risk, frankly. I don’t have a problem with Trump being president, but when he gets through the primary, DeSantis will have a very better chance of winning the general.”

Kathleen Smero, 62, a supply chain analyst, prefers Haley and Pompeo. “Nikki Haley has gubernatorial experience now as well as international experience being an ambassador. Mike Pompeo, of course, is secretary of state — the international defense capabilities are really important to being president.”

But the 62-year-old from Baltimore, Maryland, added: “If Trump gets the nomination, I would vote for him. I believe in his policies. The rhetoric has been tiresome, but I always support my candidate and I will always support President Trump, if he gets the nomination.”

Others are still undecided about their choice of Republican standard bearer. Wes Gregory, 34, a US Marine veteran who is African-American, said: “It’s going to have to be a cross between DeSantis and Trump. They both care more about the people than themselves. They’re all about making America a better place.

“Trump did it at the national level. DeSantis did it at the state level. Everybody moves down to Florida — everybody likes it. Trump did a lot of good things for the black community, far more than any other president I can think of in my lifetime.”

But if he had to choose between Trump and DeSantis? “Honestly, it had to be a coin flip,” said Gregory, of Brunswick, Maryland. “They both have a proven track record for excellence.”

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