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What CPAC means for the future of the Republican Party

| Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a golden calf. And they exclaimed, ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” (Exodus 32:3-4). 

The scene of the golden calf in the Book of Exodus echoed in my mind as I watched a golden statue of former President Donald Trump be unveiled at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) two weeks ago. Now, idolizing politicians is nothing new. The creation of a heroic narrative is commonly used by American politicians to energize their base, and that’s exactly what we saw at CPAC. Endless booths of Trump merchandise, thousands donning Make America Great Again hats and speakers praising the former president all point to the larger-than-life personality Trump has built since his 2015 campaign. What’s interesting, though, is that despite its pro-Trump atmosphere, CPAC revealed how the Trump mythos can be dismantled, much like the fate of the golden calf.

The looming question since Trump left office has been whether he will run in 2024. Looking at polls, 79% of Republicans approved of Trump at the end of his presidential term, and 46% of Republicans said they would leave the GOP if Trump formed a new party. This would suggest Trump still holds a firm grip on the Republican Party, but CPAC tells a different story. According to the conference’s straw poll, only 55% of attendees said they would vote for Trump in 2024. At an event with the most loyal and active members of the Republican Party, you’d expect much more support for the former president. Beyond that, 95% of attendees want the GOP to support Trump’s agenda instead of seeing him run in 2024. The emerging narrative out of CPAC is that while Trump still has considerable control over the GOP, its members want a new face to champion Trumpism. One question, then, is what is Trumpism?

CPAC confirms Trump’s reshaping of the Republican Party. Just a few years ago, the GOP defined itself as the champion of small government and the free market. Yet, CPAC featured a new conservatism in complete opposition to the traditional Republican mold. Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida proclaimed that the GOP will not “go back to the days of the failed Republican establishment of yesteryear.” Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called for breaking up technology companies and tightening borders.

But this change in policy platform does not define Trump’s conservatism. In fact, there are steep policy divisions among Trump supporters. At CPAC, policy discussion was rare. Even support for Trump himself isn’t dependent on his platform. Despite breaking over half of his campaign promises, Trump garnered 73 million votes in the general election. While young Republicans differ with Trump on foreign policy, 31% of voters ages 18 to 24 voted for him. For the 2020 Republican National Convention, the official party platform was simply to support Trump. The common theme is that policy does not matter. Trumpian conservatism is defined by Trump, and since his supporters want someone to take Trump’s place, that new standard-bearer must embrace the Trump personality.

Trump’s personality is the reason behind his support. American politics has misdiagnosed why Trump supporters continue to follow him. We know it’s not because of policy. The left might suggest it’s because the average Trump supporter is a white supremacist (they’re not), but that’s not it either. Rather, Trump appealed to a politics of grievance and anger that Democrats and Republicans had a hand in creating.

Let’s consider the Democrats. Liberalism’s endorsement of globalization to create a “level playing field” by which all could prosper ignored the inequalities their economic policies created. Globalization has led to deeper wealth gaps, as the rich become richer and the working class sees little to no gains. When blue-collar workers were told they would be rewarded for hard work and received nothing, the result is antagonism towards the system and individuals that failed them. This anger and feeling of being left behind is what Trump tapped into.

Republicans had a hand in this too, and their complicity shows the fault on both parties. Also, Trump is the latest iteration in the battle between the establishment and anti-establishment wings of the GOP. Over the past four years, we’ve witnessed Trump reshape the party according to his liking. Republican officeholders supporting his agenda through every controversy only reinforced his influence among the base. This alienated moderate Republicans, whose departure only reflects the consensus that the GOP is Trump’s party, not the Republican Party. Moreover, the demonizing and division between both sides only aided Trump, as his supporters saw further aggression towards them, fueling their support. The GOP’s mishandling of Trump resulted in our current problem.

Now, there’s potential for the GOP (and America) to move past Trump. He was a manifestation of people’s grievances that only exacerbated our problems. While Trump may depart, the problem remains. Any attempt to counteract Trumpism must understand its supporters’ grievances and address them, rather than downplay their concerns or vilify them. That only worsens our situation.

Since 2016, we’ve seen a conservatism made in Trump’s image. A GOP that seeks to reject this divisive, anti-democratic ideology must embrace a new conservatism, different from the pre-Trump Republican Party, that embraces the principles of liberalism in the modern world.

Blake Ziegler is a sophomore at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He loves anything politics, especially things he doesn’t agree with. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter if you want to see more of his opinions.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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