‘Red meat,’ J6 and Trump regalia: The GOP base rallies outside Washington

Written by on February 24, 2024

Win McNamee/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — Laura McGarraugh, an emergency room nurse from Austin, Texas, is confident Democrats will replace President Joe Biden atop their ticket this year. She’s just not sure with whom.

Speaking to ABC News at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, a longtime Republican cattle call that in recent years has morphed into a far-right watering hole, McGarraugh simply said Biden would be replaced with “anybody that’s not dead.”

When pressed on if she actually thinks Biden is dead, she simply replied, “don’t you?”

“You don’t have to be a doctor or nurse,” added McGarraugh, sporting an American flag tank top. “You just have to have eyes.”

Such sentiments were common here, where attendees were decked out in clothing supporting former President Donald Trump’s comeback bid and listening to a steady stream of red meat.

The conference, whose motto this year is “where globalism goes to die,” featured panels titled, “Would Moses Go To Harvard?” and “Cat Fight? Michelle vs. Kamala,” which showcased speakers who were adamant that Biden would be replaced as Democrats’ presidential nominee at the party’s convention this year.

“It does us no good to live in wishful thinking fantasyland to think that Democrats don’t have a plan,” said podcaster Monica Crowley, who warned the crowd that former first lady Michelle Obama would supplant him on the ticket this November, even though, “I don’t know how realistic any of this is.”

Larry O’Connor, a radio host on the same panel, instead predicted that Vice President Kamala Harris would ascend as president once he resigns at the convention, winking at the conspiracy that Obama would not fall under the category of a “female president.”

Conversations with over a dozen attendees reflected similar discussions: debate over who would replace Biden but near consensus that the president will appear on their ballots later this year.

“I know they have a plan because they always do, and I’m sure it’s been in place for a long time. I don’t see how he could possibly win. So, I guess I’m leaning towards they will replace him,” said Vanessa Alban, a homemaker from Ocean City, Md.

Theories about Trump’s presidency and the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol Hill riot also abounded.

Democrats and many Republicans in Washington have said Trump lost the 2020 election and that the mob amounted to an insurrection — statements that were batted away or mocked within the halls of the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center.

“Welcome to the end of democracy!” declared right-wing personality Jack Posobiec. “We’re here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on Jan. 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here.”

Even now, CPAC attendees and organizers painted a dour picture of a “deep state” intent on not only kneecapping Trump’s campaign but also holding down his supporters.

“Well, look at all the J6 prisoners that haven’t had a fair trial. I mean, they’re rotting in jail. And they’ve been there for how many years? Let’s get serious,” said Thomas Siens, an economist from Fort Worth, Texas. “They’re just picking and choosing who they want to go after.”

“It was a Trump rally that people went there to support the president,” added Jon Linowes, who designed a digital pinball game based on the riot on display at the conference’s vendor hall which boasted in-game alerts like, “it’s a setup,” “stop the steal,” “Babbitt Murder,” and “peaceful protest,” among others.

“In any large event, there may be some troublemakers. Whether they were in this case planted by government agencies, or actually right wing troublemakers and things happen, but that was certainly not Trump’s intent.”

The fuel behind the rhetoric is Trump himself, said Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami specializing in conspiracy theories.

The former president had a stranglehold over the crowd here, with speaker after speaker invoking his name to standing ovations from attendees enthralled with his anti-establishment message.

“He continued playing that anti-establishment card throughout the general election in 2016 through now. So, he’s not just trying to attract people who don’t like Democrats or are Republicans or are conservatives, but he’s trying to attract people who have antagonisms towards the establishment as a whole,” said Uscinski. “He talks about how everything is rigged. He’s attracting people who already have these ideas.”

“So, now that he’s built this audience of people who are already predisposed to such sentiment, he and his confidantes and other Republicans who just have to fall in line with what the former president says are engaging in that rhetoric, too … there’s been a sea change in the rhetoric coming from the Republican Party largely due to this.”

To be certain, the ideas espoused at CPAC are not the sole perspective of the GOP writ large — but they surely resound loudly, as they represent some of Trump’s most unflinching, unwavering “warriors.”

Even still, the ballroom that hosted the conference’s main speakers was pockmarked with empty seats. The popular “media row,” where radio and television personalities and others line up for broadcasts, was noticeably shorter — a sign, some strategists said, of the conference’s shifting priorities.

“CPAC is the Stak Trek convention of politics, with just as much merchandising and cosplay,” said Doug Heye, a former top Republican National Committee staffer.

“CPAC was always a great place for conservatives to gather, debate and exchange ideas from all over the country,” added Chip Saltsman, who worked on former Vice President Mike Pence’s now-shuttered 2024 bid. “The last year seems more like a one-way street for conservatives to come for affirmation rather than challenge one another on the issues of the day so that we can unite the party and the movement to win in November.”

But CPAC’s current strategy appeared to be by design.

The conference where Ronald Reagan once debuted his “city on a hill” vision, CPAC bragged in recent years about not sending invitations to lawmakers like Sen. Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican and Capitol Hill dealmaker. This year, the conference denied media credentials to “left-wing” outlets.

“If you call yourself a journalist where you spend all your time trying to destroy America and trying to destroy Americans who love America and trying to destroy conservatives and patriots and people from MAGA, and yes, J6, if that’s what you do, we don’t want you here,” CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp said.

That strategy serves a dual purpose, per Uscinski: convincing loyal Republican voters that those theories are true while keeping people already in the GOP’s right flank in the fold.

“I’m not shocked if there are non-conspiratorial Republicans who might buy into some of the things that Trump says that are conspiratorial, simply for the fact that it’s the leader of the Republican Party saying it. So, they’re not believing it because they’re conspiracy theorists, they’re believing it because these are the party cues coming down from up on high,” Uscinski said.

“But I think a lot of what explains what’s going on is the coalition is different, the audience is different, they like different tunes, and the people who are going to play the tunes for them are going to have to play the right ones.”

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