By the time he’d left office, former President Donald Trump had successfully sold his “big lie” that the 2020 election was illegitimate to 65 percent of all Republicans. As Republicans head into their annual and influential CPAC conference this weekend, the country will hear an array of speakers and panels sell the bigger lie to young conservatives: that despite what they may have heard or seen with their own eyes, the big lie is still the truth, with plenty of examples of what happens to those who do not believe or defend it. Panels like “The Left Pulled the Strings, Covered It Up, and Even Admits It” and “The Voter Files: The Truth Is Out There: Ask Your Questions to the Election Lawyers” will culminate in Trump’s own speech to MAGA faithful.
This moment will be the latest test and testimony of Donald J. Trump’s success at asserting his imprimatur on everything GOP.
This Sunday, Trump will rally conservatives to himself — not to the Republican Party, to their movement or even to the country — lacing every sentence with political arsenic which will slowly extinguish the life of a once proud party. To hear the true message of his speech, substitute the words “party” and “conservative” with his name. This moment will be the latest test and testimony of Donald J. Trump’s success at asserting his imprimatur on everything GOP.
The stage was set weeks ago. CPAC’s conference website described the twice-impeached president as “the very definition of the American success story, setting the standards of excellence in his business endeavors, and now, for the United States of America.” The man setting CPAC’s standards of excellence is also facing numerous criminal investigations and civil lawsuits ranging from campaign finance violations; federal tax evasion, and New York state tax evasion to defamation and sexual assault.
To help sell the bigger lie, CPAC leadership, some of whom worked with the Trump campaign on its fake post-election protests, stacked the roster of conference speakers with Trump apologists and those 2024 presidential candidates who have already proven their fealty. Sen. Ted Cruz set the tone on Friday with a speech that mocked Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, called Covid-19 mask guidelines “dumb” and predicted Trump “ain’t going anywhere.”
Notably absent will be former Vice President Mike Pence, who was threatened with hanging by Trump’s insurrectionists, House Republican Conference Chair Rep. Lynn Cheney, R-Wyo. who made it clear — one more time — where she stood on Trump, and former United Nations ambassador Nikki Hailey, who publicly condemned Trump for the events of Jan. 6, but later attempted to bend the knee only to be rebuffed by Trump.
With the bit players in place, CPAC’s program schedule frames the ongoing narrative. Under the laughable guise of “protecting elections” will be seven stunningly ironic panel discussions on election fraud and irregularities. This massive lie supporting yet larger lies is being regurgitated despite Trump’s own homeland security officials telling him and the nation that the November election was “the most secure in American history.”
With CPAC having literally set the stage, why is there any question about what Trump will say when he commands attention Sunday afternoon? As Shakespeare noted, what’s past is prologue and Trump’s prologue with CPAC is a veritable roadmap to his 2021 appearance.
In 2011, Trump tried his best to kiss CPAC’s ring while presenting the idea that he was a viable GOP presidential candidate. Let’s call 2011 “The Idea.” In his 2015 speech, he declared himself the only one who could successfully fight terrorism, regulation and abortion and support military readiness. This year could be dubbed “The Promise.” With a massive walkout planned if he appeared, Trump pulled out of attending CPAC in 2016 because he rightfully thought its young audience would roundly reject him. Welcome to “The Save.” Once president, Trump’s 2017 speech delivered a one-two punch. First, he unleashed a full-on assault against the media, immigrants, globalism and the Washington establishment (“The Attack”), but as the New York Times would describe it, Trump made clear this was a “not-entirely friendly takeover of CPAC.” The “Payback.”
Slated to address “the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” we can assume the only thing Trump will address are his grievances.
His 2018 speech centered on what Trump does best, so let’s call it “The Brag”: “Do you remember I started running and people would say, ‘Are you sure he’s a conservative?’ I think now we’ve proved that I’m a conservative, right?” In 2020 he asserted the “The Deadly Lie” by downplaying the threat of Covid-19 and insisting that his administration had everything under control. Two weeks later, the death toll underscored the truth caught on tape in his conversation with writer Bob Woodward.
Slated to address “the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” we can assume the only thing Trump will address Sunday are his grievances. This is his opportunity to continue remaking the Republican Party and the conservative movement in his image. To cement his hold on the party and the movement, he merely requires his audience to continue parroting his Big Lie; to reject those who rejected him; and to support only those who support him. He will emphasize what his acolytes have foretold: “there is no GOP without Trump.” CPAC 2021 will be “The Demand.”
But with Trump there is always a coup de gras. As Trump reemerges from his pouty self-imposed exile at Mar-a-Lago, Sunday’s speech begins the salting of the political earth so nothing outside his influence can take root. His outsized thirst for revenge will demand the defeat of every Republican who refuses loyalty to him and to his lies.
I joined the Republican Party 46 years ago. This year’s CPAC cements how far it has fallen in its efforts to cater to the comically vast but nonetheless dangerous ego of Donald Trump. Perhaps President Dwight Eisenhower put it better, “If a political party does not have its foundation in the determination to advance a cause that is right and that is moral, then it is not a political party; it is merely a conspiracy to seize power.”