Audrey Riesbeck is in line to hear former president Donald Trump speak, sandwiched between women in t-shirts declaring “Fake media is the virus” and men chanting “Meatball Ron”—a dig at Trump’s would-be challenger, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
An 18-year-old high school valedictorian from near Dayton, Ohio, sporting a pink power suit, Riesbeck looks around to make sure no one is listening before leaning in and whispering to me: “I like Nikki Haley.”
Riesbeck was one of thousands who showed up to the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, last weekend. Some, like her, hoped to discuss the future of the Republican Party only to find that most attendees had already made up their minds: Trump or bust.
Although DeSantis has not officially declared his candidacy for president, donors are already flocking to him. This past weekend, a group of fiscal conservatives with deep pockets hosted the governor and other 2024 hopefuls at a Palm Beach retreat meant to assess the party’s torchbearer. Trump did not get an invite there but made up for it at CPAC, where an adoring crowd silenced anyone who tried to raise the question: Is it time we moved on?
The crowd’s overwhelming answer to that was no—the audience heckled Nikki Haley, Trump’s former U.N. ambassador and one of two Republicans who’ve so far announced a bid against Trump. (The other, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, also spoke and received cheers for his pledge to shut down the FBI and the Department of Education.)
There’s a reason why one CPAC attendee I spoke with accidentally referred to the conference as a “Trump rally.” This was a crowd in which even Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Georgia congresswoman who once supported QAnon, was not considered conservative enough.
“ ’Bye, you little turncoat,” one woman hissed as Greene walked by, still bitter about her support of Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s bid for House Speaker.
Fox Nation, Fox News’ streaming service, is usually a main sponsor of the event, but was absent this year, replaced by its even more right-wing competitor, Newsmax. There were panels on “The New Axis of Evil,” referring to billionaire philanthropist George Soros and World Economic Forum Chairman Klaus Schwab, and nightly mass services. One of the best-attended events appears to have been a forum with January 6 defendants, who claimed they’ve been abandoned by the Republican establishment.
As one person put it to me: “They’re scaring away the normal people.”
A half dozen other prominent leaders are expected to announce campaigns this spring, including DeSantis, former vice president Mike Pence, and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo. With 80-year-old Democratic President Joe Biden poised to be the oldest person ever to run for reelection and his disapproval ratings at almost 52 percent, many members of the GOP think they have a real shot at the White House with a fresh candidate—one without all the baggage of two impeachments, multiple legal troubles, and reports that he egged on the Capitol riot on January 6, 2021.
But Ross Ward, a South Carolina law student, says when he tried to discuss a future beyond Trump with a woman wearing a Trump hat at the hotel bar, she said he “wasn’t a patriot.” (Ward told me he hopes Senator Tim Scott, the only black Republican in the Senate, joins the 2024 race for president.)
“She just basically said that everything he did was perfect,” Ward recalls the woman saying about Trump. “I’m just like, come on—this is exactly what the left says . . . we’re all brain-dead.”
Ward, a 32-year-old former candidate for the state house in South Carolina, voted for Trump twice but finds it “frustrating” some attendees are unwilling to consider a new candidate to advance their agenda. He said he showed up wanting to discuss “the right guy or girl who can beat the Democrats, and that’s not what I had.” He continued, “There was no healthy debate. And I didn’t expect that from this group of people.”
The founding mission of CPAC was to bring different factions of Republicans together under one roof, where conservative activists could hear from their party leaders—and their challengers. When Ronald Reagan, then governor of California, delivered the conference’s inaugural speech in 1974, he described a nation with “blood lines from every corner of the world” that relished a shared commitment to the Constitution.
But tides began turning in the aughts. Attendees became more vocal, interrupting speeches with boos. By 2013, the conference’s hosts started withholding invitations from those who did not adhere to strict party lines.
This year, former vice president Mike Pence declined the invitation to speak at CPAC as its head organizer, Matt Schlapp, deals with a lawsuit over allegations of sexual assault.
Trump has won the conference’s straw poll every year since taking the White House in 2016, and his victory this year—62 percent of the vote—is a slight improvement from 2022 (59 percent). Of the dozen and a half attendees I randomly surveyed, 40 percent told me they were dead set on Trump, while 60 percent told me they were open to seeing who else got in the race. One huge ballroom was filled with retailers hawking Trump merchandise—bobbleheads, MAGA hats, bumper stickers—but some attendees whispered to me they’re no longer buying what the ex-president’s selling.
“It’s the silent majority,” says Jack Holden, a 26-year-old who attends law school with Ward, of people like them who favor a new path for the GOP. “There needs to be an open discourse to figure out what could actually be accomplished instead of going hardwire toward one direction.”
Most of this “silent majority” at CPAC was under or around 30. It could be that their numbers are larger and broader than polling suggests. Once upon a time, back in 2016, polls underestimated Trump’s support because respondents felt wary about telling the truth, knowing that backing the billionaire from Queens was considered socially unacceptable. Today, it has become socially unacceptable for rank and file members to say they’ll support anyone but him.
Henry Clarke, a 25-year-old Army cadet at The Citadel, says some CPAC attendees “have built echo chambers around themselves.”
“I agree with a lot of their frustration,” he said. “There is a very corrupt, powerful establishment that does not want the citizens of this country to be free. It’s really frustrating. But you can’t adopt strategies and tactics that will lead to your defeat.”
Many attendees told me they liked Trump but worried he could not win in a general election, pointing to his poor performance in last year’s midterm elections. Some of his highest profile endorsees—including reality TV doctor Mehmet Oz, who ran for senator of Pennsylvania, and former news anchor Kari Lake, who ran for governor of Arizona—lost their races. (Lake still got a speaking slot at CPAC.) Most recent polls show the former president beating DeSantis, although last fall the primary race looked tighter. Still, some said they worried about Trump’s recent losing record, both in the midterms and in 2020 against Biden.
“President Trump did a lot of great things. But you can’t do great things as president if you don’t win reelection, and he didn’t win,” Clarke says. “I wish he would have, but his rhetoric was too harmful and divisive. You know, it doesn’t matter how much love you have from the right if you don’t have the center. And he didn’t have the center.”
In his CPAC address, which The Atlantic called one of his “darkest speeches” and CNN dubbed “wildly dishonest,” Trump hurled his usual invective against establishment candidates, many of whom no longer hold public office, like Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.
“We will expose and appropriately deal with the RINOs,” Trump said to applause, using the acronym that means “Republican In Name Only.” “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, globalists, open borders zealots, and fools.”
But he spoke to a sparsely attended ballroom with about fifteen rows of empty seats in the back.
Once Trump’s speech ended, crews began packing up risers. Attendees started asking each other where the after-parties were. Young women unwound on couches, slumped over their phones to see everyone’s posts from the day. Meanwhile, Theresa Menz leaned against a balcony, surveying the scene.
Menz, who is in her 70s and lives in Woodbridge, Virginia, said she came here to spend time with “people who love America,” but is “disappointed” in those supporting a candidate other than Trump.
“As far as I’m concerned, the only one who really has the backbone and the experience and the knowledge is President Trump—the others, they will sell us out in a heartbeat,” said Menz, who’s retired from the military. She went on to attack Mitch McConnell, the minority leader of the Senate, adopting some of the language from Trump’s address.
“The RINOs have betrayed America,” she said. “Senator McConnell is one of your biggest RINOs. China owns him because his wife is Chinese, [her] father’s involved with the shipping industry, so tell me his loyalty isn’t to China. No one’s done anything about saving America except President Trump.”
Meanwhile, Riesbeck, the valedictorian, is on her way back to her hotel room, where her parents are waiting for her. She says she wishes the insults would stop. The crowds had shouted one nickname she found particularly offensive: “Ron DeSoros,” intended to link DeSantis, without evidence, to left-wing megadonor George Soros.
“I’ve heard that like five times today,” she says about the insult. “I think that’s a load of crap.”
She says seeing Trump speak didn’t change much for her. She still wants the former president to pass the baton, and says it’s “frustrating” the base won’t let him.
Riesbeck says some Trump supporters want him to win the primary even if he can’t win the general election, just to avoid seeing DeSantis inherit the party—even though she says DeSantis would “100 percent win in the general.”
“It’s kind of disheartening,” Riesbeck says. “These people are willing to look away from another good candidate just because they’re so dead set on this one.”
Olivia Reingold covers culture and politics for The Free Press. Read her piece on the rise of the DeSantis Democrats here.
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