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I went to CPAC as an anthropologist to understand Trump’s base − they believe, more than ever, he is a savior

Alexander Hinton, Rutgers University - Newark, The Conversation on

Published in Political News

What is happening in the hearts of former President Donald Trump’s supporters?

As an anthropologist who studies peace and conflict, I went to the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, to find out. I wanted to better understand the Make America Great Again faithful – and their die-hard support for Trump.

The event began on Feb. 21, 2024, in National Harbor, Maryland, with Steve Bannon’s routine, untrue banter about how President Joe Biden stole the 2020 election, and it peaked with an angry speech from Trump three days later. In between, I sat among the MAGA masses listening to speaker after speaker express outrage about American decline – and their hope for Trump’s reelection.

Everywhere I turned, people wore MAGA regalia – hats, pins, logos and patches, many with Trump’s likeness. I spent breaks in the exhibition hall, which featured a Jan. 6 insurrection-themed pinball machine featuring “Stop the Steal,” “Political Prisoners” and “Babbitt Murder” rally modes and a bus emblazoned with Trump’s face. Admirers scribbled messages on the bus such as, “We have your back” and “You are anointed and appointed by God to be the President.”

Those on the left who dismiss the CPAC as a gathering of MAGA crazies and racists who support a wannabe dictator do not understand that, from this far-right perspective, there are compelling and even urgent reasons to support Trump. Indeed, they believe, as conservative politician Tulsi Gabbard stated in her CPAC speech on Feb. 22, that the left’s claims about Trump’s authoritarianism are “laughable.” This is because CPAC attendees falsely perceive President Joe Biden as the one who is attacking democracy.

Here are my top three takeaways from CPAC about Trump supporters’ current priorities and thinking.

 

Former President Ronald Reagan runs in CPAC’s DNA. Reagan spoke at the inaugural CPAC in 1974 and went on to speak there a dozen more times.

In 2019, the conservative advocacy group the American Political Union, which hosts CPAC, published a book of Reagan’s speeches with commentary by conservative luminaries. In the preface, Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Political Union, says he often asks himself, “What would Reagan do?”

CPAC’s pomp gala, held Friday, is still called the “Ronald Reagan Dinner.” But Reagan is otherwise hardly mentioned at the conference.

Reagan’s ideas of American exceptionalism have been supplanted by Trump’s populist story of apocalyptic decline. Reagan’s folksy tone, relative moderation and clear quips are long gone, replaced by fury, grievance and mean-spirited barbs.

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