ORLANDO — As Republicans gathered in the “Free State of Florida” after the first year of the Joe Biden presidency, speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference hammered a message of an all-out fight for American culture, saying conservatives must “take our country back” from the “radical left,” which wants nothing less than to shut down their free speech and destroy their way of life.
Everything from pandemic restrictions to school lessons on race are all part of a “Marxist” agenda designed to lock people in their homes and “cancel” their ideas, Republican leaders including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Rick Scott told the cheering crowd in the hotel ballroom in recent days.
The messaging at CPAC largely echoed many of the red-meat issues championed by former President Donald Trump, who during his speech on Saturday evening harped on the contrast between his administration and Biden’s.
“Joe Biden has turned calm into chaos, competence into incompetence, stability into anarchy and security into catastrophe,” Trump said. “The socialists, globalists, Marxists and communists who are attacking our civilization have no idea of the sleeping giant they have awoken.
“I’m thrilled to report that our incredible movement ... is strong and growing stronger every single day.”
Many other speakers earlier in the conference also questioned the existence of transgender people, saying “gender confusion” is part of the broader “woke” culture to shut down the basic ideas that there are only two sexes and pronouns cannot be chosen.
The hot spots for this culture war exist online, in classrooms and even where rockets are exploding on the actual battlefields of Ukraine. Several speakers said the U.S. allowed the Russian invasion because Biden has been co-opted by a radical environmental agenda that’s made America dependent on Russian oil.
The four-day conference, the largest annual gathering of conservatives in the country, was held in Florida for the second year in a row after it moved from outside Washington, D.C., in 2021 to avoid pandemic restrictions for in-person gatherings. The location alone was yet another boost for DeSantis’ skyrocketing national profile, as he got shout-outs for his early strong stance against coronavirus mandates from prominent Republicans, even from abroad.
The CPAC straw poll results revealed Sunday confirmed his popularity is on the rise: DeSantis came in second in a survey of CPAC attendees regarding which candidate they would support for president in 2024. Trump came in first with 59 percent, while 28 percent said they would support the Florida governor. When removing Trump as an option, 61 percent said they would support DeSantis. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was a distant second in that poll with 6 percent of the vote. The straw poll had 2,574 participants.
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“Isn’t it appropriate that CPAC is being held in Florida, the one state in the USA that with Ron DeSantis as governor, maintained a sane and sensible policy while the rest of the world went mad,” said Nigel Farage, British politician and former leader of the Brexit party, on Friday.
And the stakes are high; some speakers suggested that allowing Democrats to have control of government and mainstream culture would end in the systematic targeting of conservatives. (Rubio, for example, compared Democratic policies to the Cuban Revolution.) The solution to this threat, Republican leaders said, is for conservatives to band together and stand up for traditional values against powerful companies, universities and traditional media outlets bent against them.
“The problem that we face as conservatives is that a lot of these major institutions in our country have been infected with this woke virus,” said DeSantis.
Big Tech, he said, is “working with the legacy media, they are working with the Biden regime to try to marginalize conservative voices. Anyone that dissents from their orthodoxy is a target.”
A call to action ... by opting out
To fix this, Republican leaders encouraged the attendees to opt out — read news from sources other than mainstream outlets, download alternative social media platforms, buy from different companies and visit different doctors than their less politically engaged neighbors, suggesting a further splintering of Americans as the political bases move farther apart even in aspects of regular life.
Alongside the bedazzled gun-shaped purses, Trump hammocks and “Trumpinator” shirts at CPAC kiosks this year were companies like Patriot Mobile, which promoted a “Freedom of Speech” special of $25 a month for unlimited cellular minutes and text messages. The company’s booth featured a cardboard cutout of a muscular Trump carrying a machine gun with the slogan: “Making Wireless Great Again.”
Audra Rogers, who does marketing for The Farm LLC, a platform that curates luxury estates for rent, said a vast majority of clients are conservatives.
“We are trying to work with like-minded people,” Rogers said, “give them the opportunity to do their planning, their events, their vacationing in a business where they know they’re supporting people that support their own agenda.”
The new options appeal to some attendees who said corporations, Hollywood, Broadway and public schools are “pandering to the woke left.”
“I don’t want to give a single penny to a company I do not respect. I do not want to support them,” said Jay Etzel, a life coach based in Fort Lauderdale.
Coke criticized for being ‘woke’?
Even Coca-Cola was not too sacred an American symbol to avoid vitriol. During the conference, a video on the hotel ballroom’s mega-LED screen mocked the company with a sing-a-long, calling it “Woke-a-Cola,” stemming from reports that the company urged employees to be “less white” as part of a diversity training.
“I think it is really important that we start building our own institutions and our own little networks that are friendly to the American way of life,” said Terry Schilling, president of American Principles Project, during a panel discussion titled “Silly Doctor! Sex Changes Aren’t for Kids.”
In recent years, Schilling’s group has been involved in the conservative push to ban transgender females from participating in women’s and girl’s scholastic sports. Florida enacted such a transgender athlete ban last year.
Schilling told attendees to keep pressure on the issue and said the “real bad guys” in the culture wars of transgender rights are pharmaceutical companies and medical professionals that participate in gender reassignment surgeries for children.
“When you find an organization or a clinician or a counselor that you trust, then share it,” said Kimberly Fletcher, the founder of Moms for America. “We need to start our own catalog.”
The conference was still heavy on more tried-and-true Republican policy planks like law-and-order, bashing taxes and inflation, and securing the border. “Build the wall” chants remained a crowd favorite. Attendees particularly erupted into applause after U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel, from Ohio, addressed the topic many other speakers had avoided, saying: “I believe this election was stolen from Donald J. Trump.”
But the issue that’s key to winning back the national majority in the midterms, CPAC Republicans repeatedly said, is parents’ control over their kids’ school curriculum and fighting against “critical race theory,” comparing the movement’s momentum to the energy of the Tea Party.
“This is our time to be on the march, do you feel it? The last few months you see parents rising up against school boards … you see the truckers in Canada standing up to these tyrannical mandates,” said Adam Laxalt, the former attorney general of Nevada and Senate candidate who was once DeSantis’ roommate in the Navy. “Let’s go save America.”