‘Trump was right’: Conservatives double down on ex-president

Orlando, Florida: Even before you step inside the Conservative Political Action Conference, America’s largest annual gathering of right-wing activists, it’s clear who commands the hearts and minds of today’s Republican Party base.

A cigarette-smoking man wearing a red “Bikers for Trump” hat is circling the conference venue on an oversized tricycle. His bike is emblazoned with a sign that reads: “Trump was right about everything.” A woman, wrapped in an American flag, waves a giant flag that says: “F— Biden and f— you for voting for him.”

Tommy Zegan with his golden Donald Trump statue at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando.Credit:Matthew Knott

Inside four-star Hyatt hotel that is hosting the conference, the adoration for the former president is even more intense. The must-see attraction at this year’s event is a giant, glistening gold statue of Trump wearing thongs on his feet and holding a wand.

On Monday (AEDT) the conference-goers will be able to see Trump himself, when the three-day event culminates in Trump’s first speech since leaving the White House.

The artist who made the statue, Tommy Zegan, explains that it is taking a jab at former president Barack Obama, who once said of Trump’s promise to bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States: “What magic wand do you have?”

This year’s conference is taking place just over a month since Trump left the White House and Democrats took control of the US Senate. But it is accompanied by none of the soul-searching and internecine debates you might expect following such significant defeats.

Then president Donald Trump hugs an American flag at the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference. Credit:Bloomberg

That’s because many of those attending the event do not believe Trump lost the election – despite there being no persuasive evidence of widespread voter fraud.

In order to return to political dominance, so the thinking goes, Republicans don’t need a new candidate or to adjust their policy agenda: they must simply find a way to stop their opponents from cheating next time.

A Trump supporter on a tricycle at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida. Credit:Matthew Knott

“It was rigged,” Zegan says of the November election. “There were too many anomalies.”

If Trump were to run again in 2024, Zegan says, he would definitely support him.

Anna Villalobos, who is running a stall at the conference selling MAGA (Make America Great Again) hammocks, says: “The numbers don’t add up. How could 80 million people vote for Biden but only 20 million follow him on Twitter? I 100 per cent believe they stole the election.”

Ronald Solomon, who runs the MAGA Mall, which sells pro-Trump paraphernalia, says he is already doing a roaring trade in “Trump 2024” flags and caps.

“If Trump wants the nomination, he gets it,” Solomon says.

It’s the same story on the main stage, where speaker after speaker offers the same formula for returning to power: doubling down on Trumpism.

“Let me tell you this right now: Donald J. Trump ain’t going anywhere,” Texas senator Ted Cruz tells the crowd to loud applause. “These deplorables are here to stay.”

Ronald Solomon, at the Maga Mall, says the Republican Party’s 2024 presidential nomination is Trump’s for the taking.Credit:Matthew Knott

Florida senator Rick Scott says abandoning Trump’s policies on trade, immigration and China would be like reverting to antiquated technology such as flip-phones or typewriters.

“We will not win the future by trying to go back to where the Republican Party used to be,” he says. “If we do, we will lose the working base that President Trump so animated. We’re going to lose elections across the county and, ultimately, we’re going to lose our nation.”

Democrats in Washington, Scott says, “are trying to turn this country into a communist ash heap”.

Florida congressman Matt Gaetz says: “We proudly represent the pro-Trump America First wing of the conservative movement. We’re not really a wing, we’re the whole body.”

Gaetz jokes that if Liz Cheney, the Wyoming congresswoman who voted to impeach Trump last month, had been at the conference she would have been booed off stage.

“What does that say?” he asks. “The leadership of our party is not found in Washington, D.C.”

As would be expected at such an event, there are panel sessions on abortion, gun ownership and foreign policy.

Big tech bias against conservatives is a major focus, with several speakers advocating breaking up social media giants such as Facebook and Google. It’s an interventionist position that until recently would have been well oustide the conservative mainstream.

But, by far, the dominant theme at this year’s conference is election integrity.

Seven panel sessions in total are dedicated to “protecting elections”, with speakers proposing a series of new measures to tighten voting rules.

“Democrats, not Republicans, installed ballot drop boxes on sidewalks, where nobody oversaw them,” conservative commentator Deroy Murdock says. “How many fraudulent ballots got deposited in these boxes unchecked and then got counted? Who knows.”

T.W Shannon, a former state legislator from Oklahoma, appears to justify the deadly January 6 assault on Congress by saying: “The reason that people stormed the Capitol was because they felt hopeless because of a rigged election.”

Donald Trump junior, himself seen as a possible future Republican presidential candidate, delights the crowd by using air quotes when referring to Joe Biden’s “80 million votes” and joking that the event should be renamed TPAC: the Trump Political Action Conference.

Offering a preview of his father’s upcoming address, he says: “I imagine it will not be what we call a ‘low-energy’ speech. And I assure you that it will solidify Donald Trump and all of your feelings about the MAGA movement as the future of the Republican Party.”

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