ORLANDO, Fla. — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has shocked and angered much of the world. President Biden has announced a new Supreme Court nomination that is unlikely to receive any significant Republican support.
But at the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of right-wing American politics, world-shaking news seemed oddly distant. Instead, the focus has been on cultural grievances, former President Donald J. Trump, and the widespread sense of victimhood that has replaced traditional conservative issues.
Like so many Republican officials who have remade themselves in his image, Mr. Trump, in a speech at the conference on Saturday night, sought to cast himself as a victim of assaults from Democrats and the media. He said they would leave him alone if he was not a threat to run for president again in 2024.
“If I said ‘I’m not going to show up,’ the persecution would stop immediately,” Trump said. “They would move on to the next victim.”
Mr. Trump enjoyed widespread support at the event: of those who responded, 85% said they would support him again for the Republican presidential nomination, and 97% said they approved his performance as president, according to a fictional survey of CPAC attendees. When asked who should be the GOP presidential nominee in 2024, 59% said Mr. Trump and 28% said Governor Ron DeSantis. from Florida – although Floridians made up 37% of CPAC attendees.
Eight months before the midterm elections, familiar Republican themes like lower taxes and tough foreign policy have given way to the idea that America is sliding back into a woke dystopia sparked by liberal elites. Even the GOP was more than a little suspicious.
Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, a grassroots pro-Trump group focused on millennial conservatives, denounced ‘the old Republican Party’ in his speech at the conference, known as CPAC and held in Orlando , in Florida, this year.
“Conservative leaders can learn something from our wonderful 45th President of the United States,” Kirk said. “I want our leaders to care more about you and our people than an abstract idea or an abstract number of GDP.”
Putting cultural harassment at the center of their midterm campaigns comes as Republicans find themselves divided on a host of issues that have generally united the party.
This week, as Russian President Vladimir V. Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine to near-universal condemnation from US allies, Mr. Trump on Saturday reiterated his assessment that Mr. Putin was “smart” to invade Ukraine. Ukraine at the cost of economic sanctions. , although he called the war a “catastrophic disaster”. His former adviser Steve Bannon praised Mr. Putin to be “anti-woke” – the very theme of the CPAC gathering.
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That put them at odds with elected Republicans, especially congressional leaders, who denounced Mr. Putin’s actions, as did Democrats and Mr. Biden.
On Capitol Hill, Republican senators are debating whether to release an official political platform before the midterms. The lack of urgency was summed up in a statement by Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, who dismissed a question about what Republicans would do if they resumed Congress in 2022. “That’s a very good question “said Mr. McConnell. . “And I’ll let you know when we get it back.”
Instead of united politics, Republicans are hoping a bag of grievances will motivate voters unhappy with Mr. Biden’s administration. At CPAC, Republicans argued they were the real victims of Mr. Biden’s America, citing rising inflation, undocumented immigration at the Mexican border and liberal institutions pushing racial diversity in the country. employment and education.
Each speaker emphasized personal ties to Mr. Trump, however fake, while others embraced both his aggrieved tone and his patent hand gestures.
Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina praised what he called China’s efforts to instill “great patriotic and masculine values” in its youth through social media. At a Mexican restaurant inside the conference hotel, Rep. Billy Long of Missouri claimed he coined the phrase “Trump Train” in 2015. He said he still uses it as wireless internet password. And Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, the son of a Stanford and Yale-educated banker, sought to bond with alienated blue-collar workers who he believed were getting a raw deal.
“Rednecks and thugs get a lot of bad press these days,” Mr Hawley said.
Meanwhile, the hallways of the massive Orlando hotel hosting the event were filled with an array of Trump paraphernalia. There were two separate kiosks posing as Trump malls, a store selling Trump hammocks and, for $35 a pound, a five-volume set of every tweet Mr. Trump posted as president before Twitter prohibits it.
Speakers largely dismissed the war in Ukraine beyond blaming Mr. Biden, and on Friday few people mentioned Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, Mr. Biden’s new pick for the Supreme Court.
John Schnatter, the pizza mogul who resigned as president of the Papa John’s franchise in 2018 after he used a racial slur in a comment about black people during a conference call, mingled with the crowd, saying he was one of those unfairly canceled. Senator Rick Scott of Florida warned against “all things woke, government-run.”
And former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who ran for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination but took right-wing positions and became a conservative media darling, called the government a “secular theocracy” in because of its efforts to combat misinformation.
Eight miles from CPAC, an even angrier right-wing rally, the America First Political Action Conference, was held at another Orlando hotel with Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia as the main attraction and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona appearing via video.
Commentator Nick Fuentes, leader of the group that hosted the conference, says Mr Putin had been compared to Hilter. He laughed and added, “They say it’s not a good thing.”
Mr. Fuentes, a white nationalist and Holocaust denier, leads what is known as the America First or “groyper” movement, which promotes a message that the nation is losing “its white core demographic.” Last month, Mr Fuentes was subpoenaed by congressional investigators looking into the attack on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
At CPAC and beyond, focusing on the negative can be both strategic and visceral. Polls show Republican voters have a more favorable opinion of Mr. Putin than from Mr. Biden, and a lesson from the backlash against the party holding the White House in the past four midterm elections is that intense distaste for an opposing party president is more than enough to propel landslide victories.
Just seven years ago, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, told the CPAC crowd that “it’s okay to stand up against the bad things, but we have to start being for the things”.
Just as Mr. Trump removed the conservative Bush-style politics of the Republican Party, it was also removed from the annual CPAC rally.
Playing on feelings of resentment and alienation is a much safer bet for Republicans than advancing a political agenda when the party remains divided on taxes, foreign policy and how much to indulge in Mr. Trump’s lies on the 2020 elections.
“You can always cut taxes, you can always roll back regulations, you can always elect better people,” said Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida. “But when freedom is lost and eroded, it’s so hard to get it back.”
At CPAC, there was no shortage of stories about the horrors of cultural and political cancellations — though speakers provided little evidence of actual suffering.
Rep. Jim Banks of Indiana, after saying he would “never, ever apologize for standing in the way” of Mr. Biden’s Jan. 6 victory, said he and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio had been victims when they were kicked out of the House committee investigating the attack that day. on the United States Capitol in 2021.
“We were both canceled and kicked off the committee by Nancy Pelosi,” Mr Banks said.
Like others at CPAC who have claimed to have suffered the wounds of cancel culture, Mr. Banks has seen his profile and political standing only rise since the time he claimed to have been cancelled.
Leila Centner, founder of a Miami private school who last year told her teachers and staff that they would not be allowed to interact with students if they received a coronavirus vaccine, said the backlash once his anti-vaccine views made headlines.
“The media was all over me, it got ballistic,” she said.
But Ms Centner said the hubbub turned out to be a positive thing for her and her school. She told the CPAC audience that her student enrollment had increased and there was now a waiting list. She became a sought-after figure on conservative news networks, and she said in an interview that she now had a cohesive school community that shared her views on the pandemic and the country’s racial history.
“What all of this has done is it has actually made our community more aligned,” she said.
As conservative political incentives increasingly reward figures caught up in controversies that can allow them to be portrayed as victims, leading to more airtime on conservative cable TV, some veteran Republicans lament that there is little to be gained by focusing on politics.
Former Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina, running for the Senate against a Trump-backed candidate, may not draw much attention, he said, when he touts his work record for alumni fighters during his three terms in Congress.
“Some of the new people who come into politics get 12 press officers and a politician,” Mr Walker said in an interview. “There’s a problem with that, right?”
Alain Feuer contributed report.