ORLANDO, Florida – The same ritual followed the Republican election defeats for decades.
Moderate, establishment-minded party officials would argue that the candidates had strayed too far to the right on issues such as immigration and language, and would recommend a return to the political center. And conservatives would claim that the Republicans have given up the true faith and must return to the first principles in order to differentiate themselves from the Democrats and achieve victory.
One could forgive that this post-2020 debate was missed because it barely happens. Republicans have entered a sort of post-political moment where the most enlivening forces in the party are emotions, not problems.
That shift was evident last weekend at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where the trumpification of the annual meeting and the former president’s promise to take revenge on his internal party critics made the headlines.
Just as conspicuous, however, was what was not said at the event. There was little discussion about why Republicans had lost the presidency, the House of Representatives, and the Senate over the past four years, and there was no discussion about what agenda to pursue to rebuild the party.
The lack of soul searching is due in part to the Republicans’ surprise wins in the House of Representatives and the rejection of many activists that they lost the White House in the first place, a false claim that former President Donald J. Trump himself immortalized with trollic excitement on Sunday to the delight of the crowd.
However, the former president was hardly the only high-profile Republican to demonstrate that confronting Democrats and the news media, while taking advantage of the party’s complaint against both, is the best recipe for recognition within today’s G.O.P.
“We can sit around and have academic debates on conservative politics, we can,” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said to an ovation on his CPAC remarks. “But the question is when the klieg lights get hot when the left comes after you: will you stay strong or will you fold?”
This is the party that Mr Trump remade – and that’s why so many traditional Republicans are appalled, or at least alarmed, that Trumpism is replacing conservatism.
“The future of the Republican Party depends on the discussion and advancement of big ideas based on our belief in limited constitutionalism of the government,” said Texas representative Chip Roy, arguing that the party is committed to “the case of the Liberation of the American people from the “orientate mandates, deadlocks, regulations and taxes that are driven by a powerful government. “
Mr. Roy appeared on one of the few CPAC panels that dealt with government spending that was once a central right-wing issue and used his time to address the audience. “Right now there is nothing more important than this,” he said. “We’re allowing Washington, D.C. to take over our lives, but we’re paying the bill.”
If the audience felt the same sense of urgency, they didn’t show it.
In his remarks later that day, Mr. Trump attempted to explain “Trumpism” – “what it means is great deals,” he dared venture – but his potential heirs clearly recognize that the core of his calling has more sway than agenda.
Except for the former president, no two Republicans present reacted more violently than DeSantis and South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, two former House members who became first-term governors.
He neither outlined a new political agenda nor presented a new vision for a party that has won the national referendum only once in over 30 years. Rather, they repeatedly gave ovations for what they have in common: a shared sense of victimization to media criticism for dealing with the coronavirus crisis and a combative disdain for public health experts who have called for more aggressive restrictions in their states.
“I don’t know if you agree, but Dr. Fauci is very wrong,” Ms. Noem said in her remarks, referring to the best infectious disease expert in the country. The statement got attendees on their feet despite glossing over their state’s high death rate during the pandemic.
Since the beginning of the modern conservative movement in the mid-20th century, there has been an element of victim politics on the right – the feeling that powerful liberal forces are opposed to conservatives and that Republicans can send a message with their voice.
“Trouble the Media: Re-Elect Bush” was one of the most popular stickers in the George H.W. Bush, often remembered today as the gentleman antithesis of Mr. Trump. Within the Republican Party, however, there was always debate – intense, immense, and extremely consistent.
In the 1970s, conflicts arose between the party over the role of the United States in the world, the split over control of the Panama Canal, and whether the Soviet Union should be confronted with an open hand or a clenched fist. The abortion struggles raged in the 1980s and 1990s, and the opposition to Roe v. Wade became a litmus test for many on the right.
In the second Bush administration and in the years thereafter, Republicans were divided over immigration and again over America’s overseas footprint.
In particular, many of these clashes took place at the CPAC. In 2011, then Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels used a high-profile speech to warn of the growing danger of the “new red threat” – red ink, not the Red Army – which was directed at Conservatives angry at the high spending by George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Former Representative Ron Paul from Texas and his son, Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky, used the conclaves to challenge Bush-style interventionism, delight the youth audience, and cause them to flood the straw poll on their behalf.
It is no coincidence that the top three finishers in this year’s straw survey were the three who most clearly violated the restrictions of the coronavirus: Mr. Trump, Mr. DeSantis and Ms. Noem.
“They are perceived as trump-friendly, new, young underdogs,” said Amanda Carpenter, a former Senate G.O.P. Aide writing for now The Bulwark websiteSaid by Mr. DeSantis, 42, and Ms. Noem, 49.
Interviews with conference attendees indicated that many of them were drawn to the two governors largely because of their style.
Sany Dash, who was selling goods at a CPAC booth, stated that she liked Ms. Noem “because she is fighting back,” adding, “I feel like a female Trump other than not being blatant or rude.”
“He’s got just the right amount of trumpiness,” said Brad Franklin, a recent college graduate, of Mr. DeSantis.
Others pointed out that the Florida governor had been criticized by the news media for his handling of the coronavirus, even though the state has suffered fewer per capita deaths than a number of states with Democratic governors.
Ms. Noem singled out one of these governors, Andrew M. Cuomo of New York, in her remarks on Saturday and triggered a cascade of boos.
Something strikingly different happened, however, when Mrs. Noem touched politics just long enough to lament the rising national debt.
“We have forgotten principles that were once close to our hearts,” she said. Nobody applauded.
Elaina Plott Contribution to reporting.