Though there have been questions about the direction the Republican Party will take following its loss of both the executive and legislative branches of government, at CPAC 2021 it was abundantly clear that few were ready to abandon Trump or Trumpism.
From February 25 to February 28, some of the biggest names in American conservatism once again gathered for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The theme of this year’s conference, held in Orlando, Florida, was officially “America Uncanceled,” but the true focus of the four-day event was the return of former President Donald Trump.
Less than two months after leaving office, Trump gave his first in-person speech since President Joe Biden took office. Though there have been questions about the direction the Republican Party will take following its loss of both the executive and legislative branches of government, at CPAC 2021 it was abundantly clear that few were ready to abandon Trump or Trumpism.
While Trump’s keynote speech on Sunday was clearly the highlight of CPAC 2021 for attendees and political watchers, there were plenty of other touches that caught people’s attention, including a golden statue of Trump and apparent Nazi-associated symbols. Here are the main take-aways from CPAC 2021.
Trump at CPAC 2021
Arriving an hour after his originally scheduled appearance time, Trump took the stage on the last day of the conference to cheers and chants of “USA! USA!” Trump opened by saying, “We’re gathered this afternoon to talk about the future of our movement, the future of our party, and the future of our beloved country.”
Much of the 90-minute speech that followed, though, focused on the past, including listing his accomplishments as president and contesting the 2020 election results. Trump also spent considerable time criticizing the current administration.
“Joe Biden has had the most disastrous first month of any president in modern history,” Trump claimed early on. “Already the Biden administration has proven that they are anti-jobs, anti-family, anti-borders, anti-energy, anti-women, and anti-science. In just one short month, we have gone from ‘America First’ to America last.”
The first 20 minutes of Trump’s speech focused on immigration. The former president mixed criticism of the Biden administration’s immigration policies with self-congratulations for his own alleged successes on curbing “illegal immigration” into the country, including the misleading claim that 500 miles of wall along the United States/Mexico border were built during his administration.
From there, Trump transitioned into criticizing Biden and the Democrats’ handling of COVID-19 and the relief package, as well as attacks on Biden’s green energy policies. Trump also attacked transgender athletes in an apparent reference to the Biden administration dropping out of a Connecticut lawsuit, formerly supported by the Trump administration, that sought to bar transgender women from participating in girls’ sports.
Trump also spent considerable time critiquing the new administration’s foreign policy, including on matters related to trade with China (“They really are puppets for China.”) and Iran (“Had we had a fair election, the results would have been much different, and we would have had a deal with Iran within the first week.”)
Recurrent throughout the speech was the false assertion that Trump had in actuality won the election and Biden had stolen it from him. The final third of the speech focused on this alleged election fraud. There has been no conclusive evidence for such claims and Republican officials in states where the election results have been contested have denied there was any systemic voter fraud.
Trump left open the possibility of running in 2024: “Actually, as you know, they just lost the White House. But it’s one of those things. But who knows, who knows? I may even decide to beat them for a third time. OK? For a third time.”
Trump was also clear that he had no intention of splitting the conservative vote by starting a new political party: “I am not starting a new party. That was fake news, fake news.”
CPAC straw poll
Another data point from CPAC reinforcing Trump’s hold on the party was the annual straw poll that gauges the attendees’ preference for the Republican Party’s future presidential candidate. It’s essentially a preliminary primary for 2024. Unsurprisingly, Trump won the poll, receiving 55% of the vote, with 68% saying they wanted him to run again.
Furthermore, 95% of respondents agreed with the statement, “Republicans should continue Donald Trump’s issue agenda and policies.” If Trump were not to run again in 2024, the candidate getting the most support was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who received 43%.
For 62% of those polled, “Election Integrity” was given as the most important issue facing the country.
The CPAC speakers
CPAC is an annual opportunity for conservative politicians, media figures and celebrities to bolster their visibility in the movement and grow their sphere of influence. The list of speakers throughout the event tend to be a who’s who of well-established politicians and newcomers hoping to make a big splash, including state governors, members of Congress and former members of Trump’s administration.
This year, that included DeSantis, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and current South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, whose refusal to shut down her state in the face of the pandemic has earned her accolades from the right and condemnation from the left.
Noem used some of her speech on Saturday night to attack Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has led the US’ response to the pandemic. Noem claimed Fauci, who clashed with Trump at times and has been the target of conspiracy theories, has been “wrong a lot.”
South Dakota, one of the least populated states in the US, is second only to North Dakota for having had the most cases of COVID-19 per one million people.
On Friday, Texas Senator Ted Cruz received online backlash to his speech after jokingly referring to his recent trip to Cancun while much of Texas was without power due to Winter Storm Uri.
Many people in Texas and across the Southern US have died due to the power outages amid freezing temperatures. Some Republican leaders have baselessly blamed the problems on failing wind turbines even though most of Texas’ power comes from natural gas.
The imagery of CPAC
As with most other political gatherings, CPAC is an event that overflows with symbols and merchandise. CPAC 2021 was awash in bumper stickers, T-shirts, hats and more, much of it praising Trump or attacking Biden and the Democrats.
A few images from the event amused or shocked outsiders. That included footage uploaded by Bloomberg News reporter William Turton that showed a golden statue of Trump being wheeled through the convention hall.
As some commentators pointed out, a golden statue is especially ironic imagery for a movement so closely affiliated with Christianity. A Biblical story in the book of Exodus involves God punishing the Jewish people for worshipping a golden calf.
Other commentators were outraged by the design of the stage on which Trump delivered his speech. It appeared to resemble the “odal rune,” a symbol used by some members of the Nazi Party in place of the more common swastika. The Hyatt Hotels Corporation, at whose hotel the event was held, called the imagery “abhorrent and unequivocally counter to our values as a company.”
Organizers of the event dismissed claims that the stage was meant to resemble Nazi symbolism as “outrageous and slanderous.”
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