MAGALand in Orlando
Orlando, a hub of fantasy theme parks, was the perfect setting for last weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The event showed that Republicans remain stuck in a looking-glass world of upside-down values.
The coronavirus pandemic has killed more Americans than World War II. But not a word of reproach was directed to the ex-president who presided over the nation’s COVID-19 debacle. Instead, conservatives gave South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem a standing ovation when she jeered at Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Presidents who fail to win reelection usually have the decency to drop from public view and let their successor take the wheel. But in his closing speech to CPAC, Donald Trump pretended that the 2020 campaign never ended. He repeated the “rigged vote” lie that inspired the Jan. 6 assault on Congress and slurred President Biden with a farrago of false claims.
Even as conservatives boisterously cheered the man who actually did try to defraud U.S. voters, CPAC devoted no fewer than seven panels to “ballot security,” by which Republicans mean making it harder for the “wrong” Americans to vote.
But the grandest illusion on display in Orlando was the idea that only Trump can lead Republicans back to political power. In fact, Trump is a proven loser — a “one and done” president who has yoked his party to a futile electoral strategy.
Trump naively assumed that his fluky 2016 election offered the template for winning again in 2020. Rather than trying to enlarge his coalition, he stuck to the formula of stoking white working-class grievances. He thought that by cranking up the volume on nativism and “America First” chauvinism, he could once again rally the non-college-educated whites who put him over the top the first time.
In fact, he did rally them in 2020, but it wasn’t enough. Over four years in office, Trump’s approval rating hovered with amazing consistency around 46-48 percent. Last November, he won a hair under 47 percent in losing to Biden by more than seven million votes. What Trump has done is confirm the Republican Party’s minority status in national politics, not point the way toward a realignment around his toxic brand of illiberal populism.
By lying incessantly, trampling democratic norms and treating the White House as just another arm of the Trump Organization, he drove away millions of moderate Republicans and independents, especially college-educated suburbanites. That’s why Democrats won back the House in 2018, the White House in 2020 and the Senate in 2021.
Despite this string of electoral defeats, Trump clearly retains a firm grip on the GOP rank and file. In polls, anywhere from 60-80 percent of Republicans say they believe his bogus legend of a stolen election. Jonathan Chait captures the peculiar dynamic behind what he calls Trump’s “cult of losing”:
“Support for Trump has ceased to be a strategy for acquiring power. It has become an act of rebellion. The powers that be wish to control your mind by making you believe Joe Biden legitimately won the 2020 presidential election. In this context, denying the election outcome and clinging to Trump, feels like an act of power.”
That spirit of rebellion – against Democrats; “woke” progressives, Big Tech and the “cancel culture”; assertive minorities; the condescending liberal media; treacherous bureaucrats embedded in the “deep state”; – was the prevailing ethos at CPAC.
Back in Ronald Reagan’s day, Republicans were fond of saying that “ideas move nations” and saw themselves as besting Democrats in intellectual competition. Ideas, however, weren’t on the menu in Orlando. In the Trump party, the human organ that gets the most exercise isn’t the brain, it’s the spleen.
If CPAC is any indication, conservatives have no positive vision for the country. They are animated by their hatreds, a whining sense of victimhood and the dopamine rush of a collective persecution complex. For now, Trump adroitly presses all these buttons.
But that mastery probably won’t last. It’s true that at CPAC Trump far outdistanced other GOP candidates in a straw poll for the party’s 2024 nomination, winning 55 percent. But only 68 percent said they actually wanted him to run again in 2024. Given that CPAC was largely an elaborately staged Adoration of Trump, that’s a bad sign.
Deep down, plenty of Republicans probably don’t relish the prospect of a vengeful, vindictive Trump spending the next two years noisily campaigning against dissidents like Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and senators who voted to convict him in his impeachment trial. And how many GOP candidates in closely contested swing states and districts will want to contest the midterm elections in the shadow of a twice-impeached, one-term president?
No cult survives repeated jarring collisions with reality. Trump’s won’t either – despite the MAGA Magical Kingdom CPAC staged in Orlando.
Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).