‘A trojan horse for the left’ and Fox News trash talk: At CPAC, Trump Republicans reveal their battle plan for DeSantis – will it work?
Just over two years after Donald Trump helicoptered away from the White House rather than greet Joe Biden and accompany him to his inauguration, one of the three Republicans who hope Mr Biden will greet them on the White House steps in January 2025 was making his case to a group of GOP activists in a hotel room not far from Washington.
The candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, made his way through the throngs of college-aged Conservative Political Action Conference attendees who’d been drawn to the 18th floor hotel suite with promises of free food and drink. After the crowd had been sufficiently quieted, the former biotechnology entrepreneur turned anti-woke pundit launched into a three-minute explanation of his theory of what the next year of the presidential campaign will be about.
“This year is about the what and the why, what do we stand for as a movement? Why do we stand for it?” he said.
Over the past week at CPAC, throughout panels and public speeches from Trumpworld dignitaries, it was clear the GOP still solidly stands for Donald J Trump. Mr Trump’s dominance was on display despite Florida Gov Ron DeSantis making the rounds to promote his new political memoir, often an early warning signal of an imminent campaign.
The 45th president’s status as both a frontrunner for the GOP nomination and a subject in multiple criminal probes at the federal and state level appeared not to faze most of the Maga faithful who flocked to suburban Washington DC to hear a who’s who of the extreme right opine on the evils of the left and the wonder of Mr Trump and the policies he favours.
Grievance carries themost weight in today’s GOP, and with few exceptions the CPAC main stage was a place to revel in it, not indulge any dissent from that worldview. Mr DeSantis was almost an afterthought, as the three-day conference celebrates the former president day after day. The mega-Maga crowd seemed to suggest that Mr DeSantis – despite his conservative bonafides earned from a duel with Disney – didn’t pose much of a threat to the former president.
That much was clear when the conference’s annual straw poll was released ahead of Mr Trump’s address. Predictably, the former president dominated – carrying 62 per cent of the vote, while Mr DeSantis attracted just 20 per cent. Some respondents were open to Mr DeSantis as Mr Trump’s running mate, however.
“Thank you for that beautiful straw poll. That was a big win,” Mr Trump said in appreciation Saturday evening.
The challengers to Mr Trump — actual and potential — only dared criticise him or his former administration in the most oblique terms. The assembled speakers shied away from as much as a passing mention of Mr Trump’s name except in praise, as when Mr Ramaswamy described the ex-president as “a friend”.
Mike Pompeo, who spent Mr Trump’s term as CIA director and secretary of state, came closest to attacking his former boss in personal terms, telling CPAC attendees that conservatives “can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics — those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality”.
“We can’t shift blame to others, but must accept the responsibility that comes to those of us who step forward and lead,” he added.
He also appeared to take aim at another potential challenger to Mr Trump, Mr DeSantis, when he said Republicans should not “hand that government more power under the guise of conservatism” or “look for larger-than-life personalities”.
Mr DeSantis, who spoke at CPAC last year when it was held in Orlando, was not on the roster of GOP leaders who took to the stage in Maryland this weekend. Instead, he has embarked on a book tour of early primary states to sell his memoir, The Courage to Be Free.
Most opinion polls of Republican primary voters show Mr Trump holding a solid lead over Mr DeSantis, and the ex-president still has a firm grip on the hearts and minds of a large swath of the GOP.
Yet at the same time, party elites have fixated on Mr DeSantis as someone who can advance the Trumpian grievance agenda against all things “woke”.
The Florida governor, along with Mr Pompeo, Mr Ramaswamy, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, South Carolina Senator Tim Scott and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununnu, spent part of the weekend at an exclusive confab held by the conservative Club for Growth. Pointedly, Mr Trump was not invited.
One of Mr Trump’s most fervent boosters, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, went on an unhinged rant about Mr DeSantis near his booth on the CPAC convention floor, accusing the Florida governor of being a “Trojan Horse” for the left.
“The media is covering up for Ron DeSantis — he is a Trojan Horse; he is the Trojan Horse. Do not believe anything you’re reading by the media about Ron DeSantis,” he said.
Yet Mr Lindell was an outlier in his enthusiasm for attacking the potential Trump challenger in such direct terms.
Other activists and pro-Trump figures who were at CPAC took a more conciliatory line, praising DeSantis but suggesting he wasn’t ready to step up to the presidency.
Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Mr Trump who now hosts a popular right-wing podcast, has said Mr DeSantis is a competent governor and has not attacked him openly, but at CPAC he said Mr Trump is the one Republicans should unite behind because he “gave Americans four years of peace and prosperity” and is ready to take the job of president once more.
“We don’t have time for on-the-job training,” he said.
He also used his own speaking slot at the conference to attack Fox News, which has given Mr DeSantis a prominent platform while largely ignoring the ex-president.
“Note to Fox News senior management: When Donald J Trump talks, it’s newsworthy,” he said. “The Murdochs immediately have to start covering President Trump. No special deals, just cover the man, ask the tough questions. But we need to hear the voice of Donald J. Trump.”
Mr DeSantis, for his part, has been on something of a media blitz with Mr Murdoch’s publications. The Florida governor was the subject of a feature in the Times of London as well as a prominent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Mr Trump in recent days has raged against Mr Murdoch in recent days, and reports have surfaced that Mr Trump faces a “soft ban” at Fox News. The conservative network still dominates among GOP voters, far beyond the echoes of CPAC, and any candidate seeking the secure the 2024 GOP nomination needs the network’s support.
Fox did air Mr Trump’s speech on Saturday.
Blake Marnell, another prominent booster of Mr Trump who frequently appears at his events wearing a suit meant to look like a brick wall, told The Independent Mr DeSantis’ decision not to speak at CPAC was a good tactical move because he would lose the CPAC straw poll and look weak.
“I think he made a calculated choice not to come because he didn’t see a beneficial outcome for him,” he said.
Mr Marnell added that Mr DeSantis is “a very capable governor” who is “running his state really well”.
“He’s been a very good example of what a conservative governor can do in a Republican state to advance the causes of his state. And I look at him as a model for what other Republican governors can become,” he said.
But Mr Marnell suggested that Mr DeSantis, who has operated with a loyal Republican legislature and without the glare of the national press, is untested and won’t be ready to deal with the sort of opposition that Mr Trump has already faced.
“The people who are opposed to conservative president, which includes Democrats, which includes Antifa, which includes George Soros, which includes BLM, they have seen that if they apply pressure, that they can stall a presidency by raising false allegations and just throwing stuff against the wall and making the president less effective in his agenda,” he said.
“I have no reassurance that Ron DeSantis will be able to stand that type of pressure is resilient, right. But Trump, they’ve thrown it all against him, and he’s still standing and he’s still the best choice. He’s proven himself in that regard”.