From Feb. 25 to Feb. 28, 2021, the American Conservative Union held its annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando. This year’s theme was “America Uncancelled;” its keynote speaker was former President Donald Trump.
For almost five decades, CPAC has been one of the Republican Party’s most notable events, setting the political tone of the American right-wing for the year. Usually held in Maryland, the conference was moved to Florida this year because of Maryland’s statewide COVID-19 restrictions.
Florida has few such restrictions. Governor Ron DeSantis has been adamant about keeping the state as open as possible since the beginning of the crisis. The full statewide stay-at-home order was effective for only one month, replaced by the first phase of a reopening plan in early-May 2020. The third and final phase of reopening was initiated by DeSantis on Sep. 25, 2020, which lifted all statewide COVID-19 restrictions and made the state an optimal choice for CPAC 2021.
This CPAC was destined to stand apart from its counterparts in previous years, and not only because of the location change. It took place just over a month after the Republican Party officially lost both the presidency and the Senate majority. Not even two months had passed since a pro-Trump mob attacked the Capitol in an attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, leaving five people dead and hundreds injured. Shortly after, on Feb. 13, Trump was acquitted of inciting the insurrection in his historic second impeachment trial.
Seven Republican senators delivered a ‘guilty’ vote; ten Republican representatives voted to impeach. Many major Republicans within Congress, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who spoke of his vote to acquit as based purely on the Constitution, said on the Senate floor that Trump indubitably incited the riot. None of those Republicans, nor many others such as former Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Lindsay Graham, R-NC, Representative Liz Cheney, R-WY, and many conservative governors, attended CPAC 2021.
Senator Mitt Romney, R-Utah, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, was specifically uninvited in a 2020 tweet by American Conservative Union chair, Matt Schlapp, for the offense of voting to impeach the president. The disinvitation carried forward another year when Romney voted to impeach a second time. Ironically, Romney has won the benchmark CPAC straw poll four times over the years.
This year’s straw poll, which surveys who should be the next presidential nominee, put Trump firmly in the lead with 55%, followed by DeSantis, who took 21% of the vote. Other Floridians barely made a splash: Senator Marco Rubio garnered about 1%, and Senator Rick Scott didn’t even break the list.
The poll has created something of a media storm around DeSantis, who won 43% in a poll without Trump, and who, of course, had the home-field advantage. Still, his star is undoubtedly rising within the Republican Party, as his handling of COVID-19 in Florida gained him much praise from the cheering CPAC crowd and the sect of the party they represent.
However, the real star is still Trump, whose appearance at CPAC was only announced a few days before the start of the convention, giving his first major speech since vacating the presidency. The speech was over an hour-long, filled with unsubstantiated claims about the 2020 election, and mainly a vessel for Trump to unleash his fury at both the Biden administration and the very Republicans not in attendance, framed as disloyal betrayers of the party.
Notably, Trump dismissed the idea of a third party and heavily hinted at a 2024 presidential bid: “But who knows. I may even decide to beat them for a third time.”
Most recordings of the speech, including one posted by Reuters, considered one of the most reputable news sources in the English language, have been removed by video streaming platforms like YouTube for violating community guidelines. C-SPAN has kept the speech segmented but viewable on its website.
Above all else, Trump’s popularity confirmed it’s among the most conservative of conservatives.
Feb. 25 unveiled a larger-than-life golden statue of the former president holding a magic wand; attendees posed for pictures with a gleaming idolization of the man who blasted through to political power in 2016 and fell from it just as dramatically.
At past conferences, conservatives would gather to discuss policy and determine the Republican Party’s path forward. CPAC 2021 was different: not a fiercely divided Republican Party, but a fiercely devoted base and a swath of politicians for whom his trademark personality politics were the name of the game. The word on the Orlando crowd’s lips was “Trump!” and if there were whispers of dissent, the sound of cheering drowned them out.
Featured image: Donald Trump speaks at CPAC 2017. Unmodified photo by Michael Vandon used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/30YcPAP)
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