Trump and CPAC Had a Different War on Their Minds

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The specter of escalating war in Europe may have overshadowed this year’s CPAC, but it did not haunt it. The annual conservative confab was far more focused on the threats of wokeness and being canceled than those posed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The conflict was mostly a side note at an event that catered far more to culture warriors than cold warriors, and that dynamic was on full display during Donald Trump’s speech to the conference on Saturday night.

The former president has long professed a variety of complex feelings toward Russia and Ukraine. There is arguably no foreign leader for whom Trump has expressed more public admiration than Vladimir Putin, and his attempt to leverage U.S. military aid to Ukraine for political purposes prompted his first impeachment in 2019. Trump praised Putin again in an interview the day before the Russian president ordered his troops to take Ukraine, and there had been some suspense over whether Trump would celebrate Putin on Saturday night or condemn him, as the vast majority of politicians in both parties have. In true Solomonic fashion, Trump chose both options.

In his speech, the former president called Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky “brave” and said that “we are praying for the people of Ukraine.” He condemned the Russian invasion as “appalling” and “an atrocity.” Trump also called Putin “smart,” America’s NATO allies “not so smart,” and claimed Russian aggression “would not have happened if there wasn’t a rigged election.” He even attempted to paint himself as uniquely tough on Russia, telling the crowd: “Under Bush, Russia invaded Georgia. Under Obama, Russia took Crimea. Under Biden, Russia invaded Ukraine. I stand as the only president of the 21st century on whose watch Russia did not invade another country.”

It was a performance that left both his defenders and his detractors with talking points to wield afterward. But Trump’s attention to the crisis in Europe also felt like a mere formality, let alone one he used primarily to praise himself and attack his enemies. After briefly addressing the war in Ukraine early in the speech, he proceeded with gusto onto what were clearly more energizing topics for both the speaker and audience.

It became almost a de facto 2024 stump speech, served with thick slices of red meat to the CPAC crowd. The foreign government he derided as “fascist” and railed against with far more enthusiasm was Justin Trudeau’s in Canada. The presumptive 2024 GOP presidential nominee also ran through familiar right-wing talking points ranging from the need to crack down on big tech and critical race theory to preventing transgender athletes from participating in women’s sports. He also, as is his wont, repeatedly griped about his loss in the 2020 election and falsely claimed he actually won.

Overall, what Trump had to say differed little from what other CPAC speakers with presidential ambitions offered up across the multiday conference. Speaking on Thursday, Florida governor Ron DeSantis, who has been pegged as a likely front-runner in the event of a Trump-less field in 2024, stuck exclusively to similar themes. Even when the first-term governor described his state as a “citadel of freedom” for anyone “chafing under authoritarian rule around the world,” the regimes he condemned were Australia and Canada over their COVID policies. Throughout his speech, DeSantis emphasized his opposition to what he called “Faucism,” as well as wokeness, which he described as the “new religion of the left.”

Inside a Florida conference hall where paid admission started at $300, the CPAC lineup was filled with various anti-vaxxers and conservative celebrities who spoke about their experiences “being canceled.” Ukraine did pop up occasionally, and while most attendees stuck to conventional opinions on the topic, there were echoes of generational difference. On one panel, former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker compared Biden to Neville Chamberlain while first-term North Carolina congressman Madison Cawthorn insisted “the days of endless wars and sending our sons and daughters overseas to die across the sea for other nations, those days are gone.”

Two MAGA millennials, Ohio Senate hopeful J.D. Vance and Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, sounded the most dovish notes of any speakers. Gaetz jibed that his constituents “fear Dr. Fauci far more than a modern-day incarnation of Dr. Strangelove.” Most other speakers, from former national security adviser Robert O’Brien to bombastic talk-radio host Sebastian Gorka, condemned Putin’s aggression and expressed solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

The most eye-raising speech in Orlando over the weekend didn’t even happen at CPAC. On Friday night, Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at a nearby white-nationalist conference shortly after its audience had celebrated Putin by chanting his name. Greene gave another speech on Saturday at CPAC, where most other Republicans dodged direct questions about a sitting member of Congress appearing at an event hosted by white supremacists. In his speech on Saturday night, Trump included a shout-out to Greene and jocularly described her as “very shy.” Unlike his position on Ukraine, it was a situation where Trump definitely made a clear choice.

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Trump and CPAC Had a Different War on Their Minds