Trump, CPAC, and the Future of the GOP


Michael Gallego, Contributor

Just six weeks after the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden, former President Donald Trump made his first public appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). In a 90-minute speech aimed at his die-hard supporters, Trump gave a scathing rebuke of the first weeks of the Biden administration, maintained that he had won the 2020 election, called for the removal of “RINOs” (Republicans In Name Only) from the party, and, most importantly, denied that he has designs on starting a party of his own. 

Trump explicitly stated that he had no interest in leaving the Republican Party. This comes in the wake of Trump’s mid-February acquittal in the Senate where several GOP senators voted for his conviction for inciting insurrection. Implicitly, this fracturing could indicate challenges to a Trump-centric Republican Party. With his speech, Trump contended that, at least in his eyes, the party is still firmly within his grasp for the foreseeable future. 

Political considerations were the key premise behind his argument. Trump reasoned that starting a new party would only serve to split the conservative vote, a boon for the Democrats and a disaster for Republicans. Uniformity, therefore, is seen as necessary for the GOP going forward, but what that uniformity will manifest itself as for the midterms and 2024 is anyone’s guess. For Donald Trump’s part, uniformity entails unwavering loyalty to him and him alone—having opinions that run contrary to his interests brands you as a RINO and an enemy of the “movement.” Without no one else in the GOP as popular as Trump and having a competing vision, Trump is probably correct when he asserts that the Republican party is his. 

While attacking allegedly disloyal members of his party like Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Trump advocated that they be voted out and replaced by people more in line with the Trumpian vision of the GOP. All this comes as many of the other speakers at CPAC maintained that Donald Trump was not going anywhere anytime soon and the convention itself largely revolved around Trump’s cult of personality. Critically then, Trump is the single most powerful figure in the GOP despite not currently holding an elected office. This influence comes not in his ability to advocate for specific policies or broker deals in Congress, but in his capacity to shape the direction of the Republican Party and its surrounding rhetoric. Decrying other important members of his party is just one example of how Trump plans on using his powers to their fullest extent. 

Moreover, Trump suggested that a 2024 run was still in the cards for him, “I may even decide to beat them for a third time.” For the most part, it seems that Republican voters agree with him. In a straw poll conducted at CPAC, “55 percent” of respondents said they would vote for him in a hypothetical 2024 primary. The only other person in the GOP to muster double digits was Florida Governor Ron DeSantis with 21 percent. 

That being said, Trump is not nearly as popular within the GOP as many would have expected, and it seems that many Republican voters are open to the prospect of a new face to lead the party. Yet, Trump’s central role in the party will undoubtedly result in a future GOP that is inescapably tethered to his rhetoric and preferences. As we have already seen, this centrality will exhibit itself in the value of a Trump endorsement and in the challenges to non-conformers. 

When asked if Trump was the best choice to lead the Republican ticket in 2024, a representative from the Vanderbilt College Republicans commented that “there are many among our membership that believe he presents the best and most energetic chance for a conservative agenda to be advanced federally, but there are probably an equal number of people who believe that he needs to be left behind due to the myriad of issues he presented over the past few years.” In this way, Trump still presents himself as the most reliable leader for the GOP going forward, but Republicans are open to other candidates. 

The main takeaway is this: Trump still holds a large sway over the GOP, is quick to disparage any dissent, and is still the most popular person within the party. In the absence of another viable candidate, the Republican Party is almost forced to hang onto Trump, allowing him to set the course for the future and decide who has a voice in the GOP and who does not. This comes with the knowledge that he is a deeply flawed candidate that has lost the popular vote twice. Ostensibly, the GOP is ready to ditch Trump, but only when they can find someone who can reconcile both wings of the party and provide a better alternative than the former president.