This weekend, as Republicans gathered in Orlando, Florida, for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, the agenda wasn’t free markets or a strong foreign policy. Instead, their focus was on solidifying former President Donald Trump’s control of the party. What united the speakers, including Trump and the party’s top 2024 presidential prospects, was their contempt for public health measures and their embrace of lies about election fraud. To any Republican who dissents from this madness, the conference sent an unambiguous message: Get out.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis kicked off the event by denouncing “lockdown states”—those that restricted business activity during the pandemic—and boasting that he travels only to “free states.” Another speaker, COVID demagogue Alex Berenson, blamed lockdowns on Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which “profit from keeping you in your house.” A third speaker, conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, denounced Facebook for censoring lies about COVID vaccines. Others derided Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s chief medical officer.
Several members of Congress, including Rep. Jim Banks, the chair of the 159-member House Republican Study Committee, bragged onstage and in interviews about not wearing masks. Sen. Ted Cruz, addressing the audience on Friday, ridiculed the idea that people should have to cover their faces after standing up from meals at restaurants. South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, whose state leads the nation in recent COVID deaths per capita, denounced mask mandates and noted with pride that South Dakota was the only state that had never ordered any businesses to close. “No governor should ever dictate to their people which activities are officially approved or not approved,” she declared.
Lawmakers and former Trump officials also peddled fantasies about election fraud. They alleged or suggested that the election was “rigged” and “stolen,” through “mysterious late-night ballot dumps” and cars “unloading piles of ballots … in the wee small hours.” They lauded Mike Lindell, Sidney Powell, Rudy Giuliani, and other conspiracy theorists. Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosted the conference, claimed that Trump had been victimized by “widespread voter fraud” in “cities run by the Democrat machine.” Tom Fitton, the president of Judicial Watch, another right-wing organization, told the crowd that Trump “had the votes to win,” but the “vote totals were changed because of unprecedented and extraordinary counting after Election Day.” Sen. Marsha Blackburn expressed dismay that the media had dared “to fact-check [Trump], the leader of the free world.”
The speakers dismissed court rulings that failed to confirm their bogus allegations. Schlapp claimed to have “firsthand” knowledge that “evidence of illegal voting” had never been “really scrutinized.” He falsely asserted that judges “in almost every case” had refused to intervene because (according to his misrepresentation of their written opinions) the whole topic of election fraud was “just too hot politically.” Trump gave the same excuse in a speech to the conference on Sunday, arguing that courts had failed to step in because they lacked the “guts” to confront the fraud.
Rather than confront right-wing extremists like those who had attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, the CPAC speakers targeted Muslims. Trump defended his ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries. His former secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, added a religious dig as he celebrated the assassination of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, “Allah rest his soul.” And a self-promotional video aired by the ACU affirmed that “it’s not appropriate to build a mosque” near the site of the 9/11 attack in New York.
Many people who identify themselves as Republicans don’t share these views. They support security measures and public health guidance. They don’t believe lies about a stolen election, and they don’t countenance religious discrimination. If you’re one of these people, the signal from the party leaders at CPAC is that you don’t belong. Banks, whose caucus represents more than three-quarters of the House GOP, scorned anti-Trump Republicans. Fitton dismissed election-fraud skeptics as “loser Republicans.” “We’ve got a hell of a lot of RINOS out there,” bellowed Dan Bongino, a right-wing radio host, as the crowd cheered. “Primary season starts now. … Get ’em out! Go! We’re not gonna miss you! Please, get lost!”
The speakers named their targets, accusing them of imposing COVID restrictions or failing to stand resolutely with Trump. Friday’s headliner, Donald Trump Jr., uncorked a diatribe against Rep. Liz Cheney, the third-ranking House Republican, and her father, former Vice President Dick Cheney. Rep. Matt Gaetz said the younger Cheney should be primaried and purged. Jason Chaffetz, the former chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, opened his speech with an attack on Sen. Mitt Romney. Schlapp and Josh Mandel, Ohio’s former state treasurer, took swipes at Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, the two Republican governors best known for taking the pandemic seriously.* Rep. Jody Hice blasted Brad Raffensperger, Georgia’s “horrible secretary of state,” who had defied Trump’s attempts to overturn the election.
Trump finished off the conference with a tirade against “RINOs” who would “destroy our country.” He recited a hit list of 10 Republican House members who had voted to impeach him, including Cheney, Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (“That’s another beauty”), and Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who had produced incriminating evidence against him in his second Senate trial. He also read off a list of Republican senators who had voted to convict him, including Bill Cassidy, Susan Collins, and “Little Ben Sasse.” “Get rid of ’em all,” Trump told the crowd.
When Trump ran for president in 2016, many Republicans thought he wouldn’t get the nomination. When he won the nomination, they thought he would lose the election. When he won the election, they thought the party would rein him in. And when that failed—when Trump took over the GOP and reduced it to a cult of rage and narcissism—they told themselves that the party would recover once he left office. But he’s out of office now, and the party is still in his grip. It’s in his image, too. And the message from CPAC is that the old party isn’t coming back.
Correction, March 3, 2021: This piece originally misidentified Josh Mandel as a former Ohio secretary of state. He served as Ohio’s state treasurer.