James Johnson: CPAC showed just how enthusiastic Trump’s supporters are

James Johnson is co-founder of JL Partners. He was the Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Theresa May as Prime Minister, 2016-2019. 

Imagine Conservative Party Conference but with more red hats, less drinking, and people actually attending the main speeches (unless Liz Truss is on stage).

This sums up CPAC, the ‘Conservative Political Action Conference’ based in Washington, DC, where I spent last week.

The event has become an annual fixture for Donald Trump’s wing of the Republican Party. Rather than a focus group-tested slogan as we are used to with the Conservatives, the conference’s subtitle emblazoned across the stage was “Where globalism goes to die”.

It is always tempting to fall into the trap of most CPAC reportage: treating it like a freak show, finding the craziest people possible. When faced with a January 6th pinball machine, Hillary Clinton toilet roll, and a pre-dinner song titled “Trump won”, it is an easy path. But it is a lazy one. Here is my attempt at documenting what the conference told me about the state of the American Right.

1) The Border is now the main issue to activists – and the country

Most of the conversation in the main hall centred on the border, rather than election integrity, abortion, gun control, or other issues typical to the conservative movement.

CPAC attendees saw border crossings as an invasion, and speakers talked of “foreign armies” moving in from Mexico. Trump spoke of a new development that has taken place on the border and is borne out in the numbers: people are increasingly from further afield than the traditional origin countries of Central and South America. “They’re coming from Asia, they’re coming from the Middle East, coming from all over the world, coming from Africa, and we’re not going to stand for it… They’re destroying our country”. An attendee shouted “Send them back” at this point.

Foreign representatives said much the same, including the leader of Spain’s Vox Party. All expect a significant deportation scheme should Trump win re-election. This will be 2016’s travel ban on steroids. As I’ve written elsewhere on ConHome, it also carries the support of much of the American populace. And in a strange intersection, the top priority of the usually more niche attendees of CPAC is now the top issue for the American public too.

2) The race for VP is heating up – with Kristi Noem and Elise Stefanik edging up the rankings

With the Republican nomination essentially settled, the conference became a catwalk for those vying for Trump’s vice-presidential slot. This position takes on more importance than before: whoever it is might end up Trump’s chosen heir in 2028.

Kari Lake, an Arizona Senate candidate, Elise Stefanik, a Congresswoman, Kristi Noem, the South Dakota Governor, and JD Vance, an Ohio Senator, all spoke on stage. Former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy had the Reagan dinner slot. All are contenders for VP, and all knew it, flashing their pro-Trump credentials. Stefanik even mirrored the former president telling Joe Biden “You’re fired”.

Trump knows it too. He name-checked several of them at the start of his speech and was listening out for the applause in the room. For a man who used to try different forms of tweet and monitored the number of likes they received, that is no accident.

The CPAC straw poll of attendees found Noem and Ramaswamy leading. I find it unlikely Ramaswamy will get the pick: he is too likely to upstage Donald Trump. But the reality is no one knows who will get chosen. Even a shock Nikki Haley or – breathe in – Trump’s primary nemesis Ron DeSantis pick is possible.

3) Liz Truss was the biggest loser

Much of the UK attention was on Liz Truss’s appearance at the conference, namely a panel with former Trump advisor Steve Bannon. She spoke of “deep state” interference leading to her demise as PM and did not shoot back when Bannon referred to the extremist Tommy Robinson as a “hero”.

Most alarming to me watching on was how much of a performance it was from Truss. The sign of a weak politician is simply saying what an interviewer wants you to say. She followed Bannon’s lead throughout. Even Bannon looked surprised when she waved The Financial Times, declaring they were complicit in a conspiracy to remove her from office.

Maybe this all might have rhyme and reason to it: selling books in the US, or getting onto the DC speaking circuit. But Truss spoke to a mainly empty room during her speech.

On both sides of the pond, she was the biggest loser of CPAC.

4) On the fringes, dark theories thrive

Few aspects of the public speeches or the talk in the conference corridors were chilling. A New Republic article proclaiming the event “was full of Nazis” was absurd.

But one – albeit sparsely attended – fringe event I attended gave me the chills.

An expose into the supposed injustices of those who stormed the Capitol on January 6th had it all. The video shown said the events of that day were just a false flag operation, directly compared to 9/11. Transgender activism, Covid-19, Satanic ritual, and even Katy Perry were thrown into the mix to make the case the country was in the claws of a left-wing conspiracy and now teetered on the edge of oblivion. Heavily implied was the idea that Covid boosters had been used to wipe out political dissidents. The speaker said that the “modern-day slavery” America now faced was worse than the 1860s “because then you could see the chains”.

He ended by saying there were two mistakes on January 6th.

First, there should have been 20 million marchers, not 1 million (fact check: it was closer to 10,000).

Second, that they should never have left the building.

I left feeling a little nauseous – and with a half-serious suspicion that I might now be listed on a domestic terror list for going along.

5) Trump’s position on Ukraine is not pre-ordained

Back in the main hall, a quick but important one: the only mention of Ukraine in Trump’s speech was a boast that he provided Kiev with “thousands of Javelins”.

A man hell-bent on the surrender of Zelensky and a Putin ascendancy, this was not.

6) The Republican Party is the ‘fun’ party, and that matters

Despite the darkness of that fringe room, the predominant noise at CPAC was laughter. The whole event is a self-aware joke: the merchandise, the Trump pictures, the music. Most of the products are tongue-in-cheek rather than in earnest.

Even Trump’s speech was mostly stand-up comedy. He spoke of the “handsome devil” that piloted Air Force One into Iraq, an officer he met called Raisin’ Cane, the “beautiful” voice of the in-flight guidance tool. He managed genuinely funny impressions of Biden lost on stage and an impression of a Mexican negotiator. Self-deprecation and Trump are not ideas that often come together, but he ribbed himself frequently too.

He said how the press would jump on his rambling style as a sign of mental incompetence, then leant into the mic and said – to a laughing crowd – that his speech was “total genius”. The crowd were in on the joke throughout, chuckling along both at the face of it and the irony of much of Trump’s performance.

Laughter matters. It fosters enthusiasm and loyalty for a party. It means merchandise and ground signs get sold. It means activists are more likely to turn out and knock on doors on the morning of November 5th. The Democrats have nothing like it: they run a painstakingly clean operation with little room for humour. Biden’s longstanding ability to add humour has waned with his age. Enthusiasm for Biden is cratering amongst activists and voters alike.

With comprehensive defeats of Nikki Haley in South Carolina and Michigan, Donald Trump will almost certainly be the Republican nominee. In November, fervour could make all the difference.

CPAC had traces of drama, darkness, and political tricks. But above all it had enthusiasm: and that matters.

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