1: Roger Stone’s strike

When Roger Stone arrived at Strikes, a South Florida lounge situated in one of Boca Raton’s many downtown parking lots, he stood out like a hanging chad. The political consultant and former Trump adviser had been scheduled to speak before a group of several dozen men. Most came in T-shirts, and most of those read: “ROGER STONE DID NOTHING WRONG.” But Stone strolled in wearing a gray three-piece suit with widely pleated pant legs and even wider lapels. For anyone playing I Spy, Stone offered an easy cheat; he was the guy with an actual pocket watch. 

The guests had paid $75 to see Stone, who showed up several hours late to his own party. But there wasn’t much question that he’d come. For the past three years, Stone has been on a fundraising campaign to bankroll his legal expenses, after a grand jury indicted him for, among other things, making false statements to Congress. Following his arrest, Stone solicited contributions via crowdsourced legal funds, several live events and even Cameo, until former President Donald Trump pardoned him in late 2020. For a time, it seemed Stone’s financial woes were waning. But a combination of civil suits, medical expenses and a deposition before the Jan. 6 committee, in which he pleaded the Fifth to every question, put him back on the hunt. In December, Stone auctioned off an non-fungible token of a Trump-autographed cover of Real Estate New York. 

I was in Florida to write this dispatch from the state which, as Vanity Fair’s Joe Hagan argued recently, has “reshaped the conservative vision of America in the age of Trump.” During his presidency, Trump openly elevated South Florida to a second capital: entertaining diplomats at Mar-a-Lago and occupying Palm Beach with armies of Secret Service. Florida already housed much of his informal Cabinet — Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Lou Dobbs, Chris Ruddy, Matt Gaetz, Mark Levin, Brad Parscale, Dan Bongino, Laura Loomer and two Koch brothers all have homes here — and some of his actual advisers, like Wilbur Ross and Rudy Giuliani. Since then, several more supporters have joined: Sean Hannity bought a $5.3 million Palm Beach mansion; Jared and Ivanka Trump spent five times that on a waterfront estate; Ben Shapiro relocated from Los Angeles; Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe fled New York mid-pandemic; her colleague Karol Markowitz followed, penning a “Goodbye to All That”-style explainer in the pages of the New York Post. 

The rationales vary: Florida’s lockdown rules are lax and, more importantly, income tax is nonexistent. Right-wing figures aren’t the only ones to notice this; as a stern representative for Carlson and Hannity told me by phone: “Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezinski also moved their studio there.” And tech workers have flocked south in droves, thanks in part to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, who publicly wooed a Peter Thiel-backed venture capital firm to town in late 2020. But it’s inarguable that, among certain characters in the Trump extended universe, a South Florida ZIP code has become a kind of status symbol. 

What Utah Gov. Spencer Cox says in response to Tucker Carlson’s rant
Perspective: Inside the fight for the GOP’s soul

The right’s Florida transplants are hardly pioneers. Conservative pundits Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Matt Drudge and Ann Coulter all blogged or broadcast from the Sunshine State when Trump was still a local punchline. But the recent concentration of MAGA acolytes, paired with the state’s present national influence, represents a significant break with the country club conservatism of former Gov. Jeb Bush; his successor, Charlie Crist, who left the party in 2010; and many current members of the GOP’s establishment wing. The newer crop of Florida right-wingers are less hawkish neocon than populist “NatCon” — nationalist conservatives whose interventionist impulses lie mostly in the culture war. Just last November hundreds of them descended on Orlando for the second NatCon conference, an offshoot of a 3-year-old think tank dedicated to “revitaliz(ing) conservatism for the age of nationalism already upon us.” 

Stone has been here for much of the shakeup. His local maneuvering goes back to the “Brooks Brothers riot” during the presidential recount in 2000, so-called for its composition of mainly, as The Wall Street Journal put it, “50-year-old white lawyers with cellphones and Hermès ties.” Stone spent decades as the consummate party insider — advising campaigns for Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush — but he styled himself as a wily outsider for much of the last two decades, flirting with third parties throughout the 2000s and defecting for the Libertarians in 2012, before returning to the voter registry as, in his words, a “Rand Paul Republican.” In the midterms, the GOP will confront both Democrats and the schisms within their own ranks — and Stone, the so-called creator of Trump’s success, has been egging on a coup.

Roger Stone arrives for the Conservative Political Action Conference held in the Hyatt Regency on Feb. 27, 2021, in Orlando, Florida. | Joe Raedle / Getty

At Strikes that night, Stone offered his own vision of the country. The speech was aimed at liberals, but corporate conservatives were not exempt. “There is a dichotomy,” Stone later explained to a circle of men, “between the party leaders, who are just interested in lining their pockets” and “the grassroots.” If this had once been Jeb Bush’s state party, he argued, it became Trump’s when he beat both Bush and Marco Rubio in the 2016 primaries, and in 2020, when he converted more Hispanic voters in Florida than any Republican before him. “The Florida party is a middle-class, working-class party. It’s been transformed,” Stone claimed. “The weak-kneed, feckless, lily-livered, white wine-swilling, country club-belonging Republicans — they’re a tiny minority.” 

Hence his prediction: “A lot of their candidates are going to get beat.”

“There is a dichotomy,” Stone said, “between the party leaders, who are just interested in lining their pockets” and “the grassroots.”

2: RINO hunting

A close cousin of the “weak-kneed, feckless, lily-livered, white wine-swilling, country club-belonging Republican” Stone described — and a term yelled several times during his speech — is the RINO, or “Republican In Name Only.” The acronym goes back to the Teddy Roosevelt administration, but it didn’t enter the political mainstream until the early 1990s, when a New Hampshire political reporter used it to describe Republicans cooperating with Bill Clinton. By the “Republican Revolution’’ of 1994, when the GOP regained control of Congress for the first time in decades, it had become a common dig for the party’s most traitorous members — as had “RINO hunting,” for the process of kicking them out. 

The problem with RINO hunting is that its targets can be tricky to spot; no one identifies as a RINO. The label is, as PBS put it back in 2004, “in the eye of the beholder,” and the beholders do not always agree on what they’re seeing. In the ’90s, RINOs were Republicans who defied Grover Norquist’s tax pledge. But as the party evolved, so did the RINOs. In recent years, the label has been stamped on anyone who failed to adopt the carnival-barker effect of Trump-era conservatism. A running list would have to include Paul Ryan, Liz Cheney and Mitt Romney, but also stalwarts like Lindsey Graham, Greg Abbott, Mitch McConnell, and Florida’s own Rick Scott and Marco Rubio. To some degree, the modern RINO is anyone who clashes with Trump. But even he is not immune. “I voted for Trump in 2020,” read The Hill headline in October. “He proved to be the ultimate RINO in 2021.”

Do Democrats or Republicans control the West?
The enemy within: How bad citizens threaten the future of our democracy

Stone isn’t the only observer to suggest RINOs are at risk. On Telegram, the messaging app where Republicans banned from Twitter often find refuge, Trump himself recently warned that RINOs were approaching extinction “as we elect strong Patriots who love America.” Far-right influencer Laura Loomer echoed the sentiment. “2022,” she wrote, “is going to be a bloodbath for RINO incumbents.” But the Florida GOP seems split on who, exactly, should be watching their back. Longtime Floridian Ann Coulter has a theory, though when I emailed her, she declined to discuss it. Actually, she used different words: 

“HELLO! I salute you for a story idea that requires you to visit Florida! Everybody’s moving to Florida. Here are some more Florida based stories for you: ‘tech moving to Florida;’ ‘billionaires moving to Florida;’ ‘middle class moving to Florida;’ ‘Greenwich moving to Florida;’ ‘hedge funds moving to Florida;’ ‘Chicagoans moving to Florida;’ ‘young people moving to Florida;’ ‘Stallone moving to Florida;’ etc. 

The only people not moving to Florida are the ones who ‘BELIEVE IN SCIENCE!™’  Please warn readers: Gov. DEATH-Santis does not believe in science!’ No masks in schools — and he’s BRAINWASHING school children to love America, the sicko.”

But suffice to say, the right-wing author agrees with the spirit of The Hill headline. Coulter soured on Trump when the border wall fell through, and in a January blog post titled “The Message in the Polls: Trump’s Done,” she argued that most Americans had, too. She prefers his would-be successor DeSantis — one of many mini-Trumps angling for a national profile by channeling the former president’s style. “For months now,” Coulter wrote, “Trump’s been playing the aging silent film star Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’ to DeSantis’ younger, prettier Betty Schaefer.”

Gov. Ron Desantis, a hard person to place in the RINO taxonomy, is rumored to be running for president in 2024. | SOPA Images / Getty

DeSantis, an uneasy speaker with a stiff smile, is a hard person to place in the RINO taxonomy. The 43-year-old has neocon credentials: after graduating Yale and Harvard Law School, he joined the Navy, worked at Guantanamo and deployed to Iraq with a SEAL team as the commander’s legal adviser. But he rode tea party momentum into the House of Representatives in 2012 and quickly joined the more radical wing of the party. DeSantis helped found the Freedom Caucus in 2015 and tea party groups backed him when he mulled a Senate run that year. On paper, DeSantis leans deep red, but if RINOs include anyone disloyal to Trump, his track record is rocky. In the 2016 primaries, DeSantis refused to endorse him over Rubio; he came around only to support “the Republican nominee.” 

“The problem with RINO hunting is that its targets can be tricky to spot; no one identifies as a RINO. The label is “in the eye of the beholder,” and the beholders do not always agree on what they’re seeing.”

Stone disagrees with Coulter’s analysis. “Ann is a very good friend of mine,” he told me. “I don’t know that she’s a great political strategist.” A few weeks earlier, Stone had taken to Telegram to call DeSantis a “Yale Harvard fat boy (who) can’t get out of his own way.” That wasn’t new; Stone has publicly criticized DeSantis many times; he believes the governor owes his office to Trump. In 2018, only Trump endorsed DeSantis over establishment favorite Adam Putnam, despite his low poll numbers. “Ron DeSantis was an unknown, undistinguished congressman with a bad haircut and an ill-fitting suit who’s not exactly a warm and fuzzy campaigner,” Stone explained. “That’s why Trump had to come back here in the last two weeks and drag him over the finish line.” 

Over the past year in particular, DeSantis has become a polarizing figure among the Florida GOP, largely for his own success. The governor’s opposition to pandemic lockdown regulations won him COVID-19-skeptic fans across the state and country; he is now a clear contender for the 2024 presidential primary. But while many possible candidates have said they would drop out if Trump ran, DeSantis has not. Trump has noticed. In January, Axios reported that the former president had been trashing DeSantis in private, claiming he has “no personal charisma and a dull personality.” Trump typically gave DeSantis a “pop in the nose,” one source said, “in the context of the 2024 election.” In public, these tensions emerge only as subtext. Trump, who is vaccinated, recently grouched over “gutless” politicians who won’t say if they’ve gotten a booster — a subtle swipe at DeSantis, who avoided confirming whether he’d received a third shot. The governor denied animosity but dealt it back; he told the “Ruthless” podcast he should have been “much louder” about Trump’s lockdowns in the early pandemic.

Donald Trump has reportedly criticized Desantis in private. | Mandel Ngan / Getty

Few besides Coulter are ready to dispense with Trump, at least publicly. Her distaste for the former president has put her on the outs with her media peers; last year, she skipped town with fellow skeptic Matt Drudge. (“Drudge and I are both leaving Florida,” Coulter told Vanity Fair, “and we’re not telling anyone where we’re going this time.”) But even Stone does not entirely discount the governor. Did DeSantis represent the country club RINOs, I asked, or the Florida grassroots? “I think he is very shrewd,” Stone said. “He sees where the party is headed, and so therefore, he’s headed that way himself.”

3: Where the boys are

On a Sunday in January, I went to one place the party was headed. In this case, it was the Fort Lauderdale beach at the intersection of A1A, a scenic highway along Florida’s eastern coast, and Las Olas Boulevard, a commercial strip that once housed both Lucille Ball and Dan Quayle. This intersection is best known for the Elbo Room, a two-story art deco bar where anyone can hear electronic dance music at lunchtime. It’s been a spring break hot spot since the 1960 comedy “Where the Boys Are” was filmed on-site but has occasionally made news for other reasons. And last April, it hosted the “Million Maskless March” —  a “celebration of freedom” where lockdown skeptics burned masks in an aluminum baking pan.

The march had been organized by a bar mitzvah DJ named Chris Nelson, and now, he’d planned a sequel — a “Defeat the Mandates” rally, modeled on the larger protest in D.C. that day. The Million Maskless March was more like a hundred maskless march, and this one was even smaller. Unlike the capital, masks are somewhat irrelevant in Florida, outside of certain schools and public facilities. The only time I was told to wear one was on my flight, and even that seemed optional (“I’m not wearing a mask and I’ll tell you why,” the pilot said over the loudspeaker. “It’s because I’m Irish and you’ll never understand me”). Vaccinations, however, are required for many jobs. And for the crowd assembled along the sand, this amounted to “tyranny becom(ing) law,” as one sign put it, an authoritarian plot orchestrated by, per another sign, “genocidal satanic sociopaths.” The latter appeared beside twin portraits of Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates. 

The politics of the protest were spelled out on posters (“Masks make us sick”), flags (“Let’s Go, Brandon”), and graphic tees (“Florida First, like America First but with attitude”) — and several congressional candidates showed up for precisely that reason. Rubin Young, a diminutive ex-union leader running against Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, scurried around in a black fedora and Spider-Man backpack. Darlene Swaffar, a Stone-endorsed insurance agent vying for the seat that will be vacated by Rep. Ted Deutch, advertised her “America First” platform with a hat that spelled it in rhinestones. Her primary opponent, Dr. Steven Chess, was also there, though not in the crowd. Chess spent the afternoon driving down the strip in a trailer covered in text. The one legible line read: “Had Enough Crazy?” 

But few politicians featured as prominently as Trump and DeSantis. And if the two were at odds, none of the activists seemed to know. “I haven’t heard anything about it,” said Saritza Varela, a field organizer with the Republican Party of Florida. Varela had campaigned for Trump in 2020; she was there organizing for the governor’s reelection bid. “I love them both,” she said, “because they love America.” A real estate appraiser named John Rodemeyer, who’d biked from his condo for the protest, agreed. “I think that’s probably promoted by others,” he scoffed. “I don’t think they really are.” 

It’s possible they’d missed the news; few attendees read or trusted any media. Rodemeyer only browsed outlets “that affirm (his) beliefs,” which included just three websites (the Drudge Report-knockoff, Citizens Free Press; the anarcho-capitalist site, Lew Rockwell; and Gary North — a blog by the “radical libertarian” and Christian reconstructionist.”) An older couple named Tony and Gina, who’d come wearing flags as capes, said they “can’t watch anything” — not local news, not even Fox. “They all lie,” Gina said. Instead, they follow several social media accounts. “We’ll make up our own minds,” Tony added, “about what we want to believe and what we don’t.”

Boaters show their support for President Donald Trump during a parade down the intracoastal waterway near Trump’s home at Mar-a-Lago on Sept. 7, 2020. | Joe Raedle / Getty

But perhaps the reports simply did not stick. Trump’s ability to brush off bad press is unrivaled, but DeSantis comes close. That may explain how both are so popular here, in spite of their stances on vaccines. Trump has spent the past year championing the jabs these protesters refused to take. In January, he released an ad that celebrated his role in producing a “vaccine in record time, saving millions of lives.” And DeSantis, while cagey about his own booster, is fully vaccinated. He even released a statement promising the “necessary” doses for Floridians. “While the manner of distribution may change,” he wrote, “the necessity of the booster shot will not.” 

DeSantis didn’t upset the protesters. He had opposed mandates; he was “here to guide us,” said Ashton Beaudry, an activist with Moms for America who’d quit her job at Longhorn Steakhouse over its mask requirement. DeSantis is “100% leader,” she yelled into a megaphone, a true “alpha male.” Her husband, Joseph Cyr, a guy with a deep baritone, was “deeply bothered” by Trump’s booster. He wasn’t sure he would vote for him again. But Cyr was an outlier. When I asked Stone about Trump’s stance on vaccines, he smirked. “What’s interesting is, based on an enormous amount of polling, Republicans know that Trump is full-vaccination, but it doesn’t hurt his standing,” he said, “They’re still for him.”

4: Dog racing

Cyr’s Trump-skepticism was only partly about the booster. Mostly, he had lost faith in the electoral system. “Basically the Chinese stole my vote and turned it into a Biden vote,” he told me. How did China do that? “They sent signals, which was caught by the United States military,” Cyr explained. “Everybody knows they cheated. You should look it up.” He took down my email and promised to send proof; I haven’t heard from him. 

There is no proof of Chinese vote tampering, because it didn’t happen. DeSantis himself has maintained that Florida had a secure election (“It was transparent. It was fair,” he said in February). And yet the specter of voter fraud has become doctrine to some in the GOP. When Rep. Gaetz voted to challenge the 2020 election results, he claimed “fraud was systemic” and “repeated”; Sen. Scott informed Congress that Democrats were attempting a “hostile federal takeover of American elections”; Stone told me that Florida alone had “1.6 million phantom voters on the rolls” (it does not). Even DeSantis, despite defending his state count, has spent six months touting a proposal to form an “election crimes and security” force. If passed, the $5.7 million bill would station 52 cops across Florida to watch for “ballot harvesting.” 

Perspective: Heaven help the peacemakers who threaten culture war profiteers
Perspective: A totally factual, unbiased fact-checking of Tucker Carlson’s rant about Utah, Spencer Cox and Mitt Romney

But even those on the right who believe the system is rigged have not been acting like it. When I sat in on a strategy meeting for an “America First” candidate vying for a long-held Democrat seat, she told her team to encourage mail-in ballots. “While the Republican Party pushes negatively on vote by mail, the Democrats capitalize on it,” she told the group assembled in the lobby of her insurance clinic. “If we do not take a page from the Democrats’ book, we will not win.” 

But they were sending anyone ballots, a man called from the back. They weren’t even checking ID! Other voices chimed in: Vote by mail was rigged! Could they even trust it? “Stop it,” the candidate said. “Regardless of what you think, you’ve got to stop it.” The goal was to win this year, she said. Then they could go back, and “figure out how to fix 2020 and all the fraud.” 

This double-thinking — voting is rigged, but we must vote — is their mantra ahead of the midterms. A few days later, I drove to the Palm Beach Kennel Club, an old-school venue that, until recently, was one of Florida’s last dog race tracks. After a voter referendum banned the sport by 2021, it stopped running greyhounds on New Year’s Eve. With its old business outlawed, the club is in transition. Now, it hosts card games, simulcasts other parimutuels and holds live events in the track-side dining room — which is where, that morning, members of the Republican Party of Palm Beach County were nibbling lemon chicken and plotting a transition of their own. 

The party was “operating at full speed, registering votes,” Chairman Michael Barnett told the members, looking out at the defunct track. Voter registration was “nonstop.” They were preparing a “Get Out the Vote” elections operating system. They would “pump out robocalls, text messages, emails, mailers every which way.” Republicans had to vote by whatever means necessary — even, if it came to it, “vote by mail.” So far the strategy seemed to be working. In November, DeSantis announced that Florida now had more registered Republicans than Democrats for the first time in history. But they needed to go further. “We are looking for candidates to run in every race,” Barnett said, “even races that some might see as unwinnable.” 

The Palm Beach party, Barnett explained, was taking a leaf from Newt Gingrich’s book. In the late 1980s, when then-Rep. Gingrich took over the political action committee, GOPAC, he set about forming a “farm team” of local candidates who could graduate to higher offices and challenge Democratic incumbents. He transformed the PAC from a glorified campaign ATM to a kind of political bootcamp, recruiting thousands of new leaders and training them with mailed tapes. One infamous tape, titled “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control,” laid out a list of 133 useful terms — “Optimistic Positive Governing Words” for Republicans (“freedom,” “courage” and “strength”) and “Contrasting Words” for Democrats (“radical,” pathetic” and “traitors”). “It was like subscribing to a motivational course,” reporters recalled in a history of the Republican revival, “with Gingrich a cross between Norman Vincent Peale and a Marine drill sergeant.”

Barnett, whose tiny, oval glasses accentuated his nearly circular face, called this the “many candidate strategy.” And he wanted to bring it to Florida, by pushing dozens of down-ballot candidates — state representatives, county commissioners, mayors, city councilmen and school board officials. So far, every seat in the county had at least one Republican running. But they would train even more. More candidates, he reasoned, brought more voters — which would boost the bigger races. If Barnett worried about RINOs, he didn’t mention it. Rubio would likely win reelection and the party was “150% behind Ron DeSantis” (Barnett dismissed the “rumbling on social media”’ of tension with Trump). The House map had yet to be determined, but Republicans would hold more seats either way.

“The recent concentration of MAGA acolytes, paired with the state’s present national influence, represents a significant break with the country club conservatism of former Gov. Jeb Bush.”

I was sitting by one such recruit — Chess, the hopeful House representative from the rally. This campaign was his first, and one he’d likely lose, not least because his district trends Democrat. Chess’ experience is minimal (he’s a chiropractor). His platform is filled with conspiracies; it reads like a word salad of Gingrich’s “governing words,” with a few Trump-flavored additions. But that’s fairly standard for Florida these days. As I was listening, Chess slipped me a piece of paper. It was a fake $100 bill, but his face was on the front, beside the motto “In Chess We Trust.” The note was signed by “Biden Crime Family LLC;” its secretary of treasury was Hunter Biden. “I call these ‘Biden Bucks,’” Chess whispered, “because they’re worthless.”

5: America First

When I sat with Stone, I asked which country clubbers were “going to get beat.” He had talked about a grand ideological transition between the old guard and new. But when pressed, Stone could only name two emissaries of the latter — Martin Hyde, a RINO hunter who’s challenging incumbent Vern Buchanan in Florida’s 16th Congressional District; and Luna Lopez, “a former model in the Jacksonville area,” opposing Rep. John Rutherford in the 4th. The first is already floundering; Hyde took a hit when a viral video showed him shrieking at a cop (“DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?”), prompting an apology and a brief withdrawal, before Hyde doubled back to the race. Maybe he’ll win. But it sounds less coup than conversion; a shift in the Overton window, pulling the RINO further right. 

A more obvious division became clear a month later when I returned to Florida to cover the Conservative Political Action Conference — or CPAC. Once a gathering of the party’s more radical members, it has since entered the mainstream. The event’s organizer, the American Conservative Union, is headquartered in D.C., but for two years, it has held it in Orlando, so guests can roam vax- and mask-free (The entire group might follow: “We should probably just go to Florida,” Chairman Matt Schlapp told reporter Dave Weigel. “We’re considering it seriously”). It was four days of full Florida conservatism. Guests could binge speeches from Rep. Gaetz, Sens. Scott and Rubio, and Trump himself; swing by media booths with Kayleigh McEnany or Sebastian Gorka; or pop into the vendor hall to catch Mike Lindell promoting his book.

Internal tensions were noticeable; some speakers exchanged subtle digs. But the real divide lay outside the resort. White nationalist Nick Fuentes, who’s been banned from CPAC for storming a Dallas conference last year, organized a rival conference called the America First Political Action Conference, or AFPAC. It was a one-day ordeal, pitched as a space for the diehard patriots even conservatives canceled — former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, the livestreamer Baked Alaska and Loomer, who’s running against “RINO” Dan Webster in Florida’s 11th Congressional District. 

AFPAC may have aimed to protest CPAC, but the lines weren’t that clear in practice. After Arpaio headlined at AFPAC, for example, he coasted into the other conference to push his new book. Many of AFPAC’s speakers — Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin and Arizona state Sen. Wendy Rogers, among them — were elected Republican officials. And Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke at both events. She was scheduled for a CPAC panel called “They Can’t Shut Us Up!” on Saturday morning; the night before, she surprised AFPAC with a late appearance onstage. As Greene looked out from the livestream, she greeted the crowd as she would any other: “Hello, canceled Americans!”

U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., scream “build the wall” as U.S. President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union Address during a joint session of congress in the U.S. Capitol House Chamber on March 1, 2022, in Washington, D.C. | Evelyn Hockstein-Pool / Getty

The blurriness of the dueling PACs was most obvious when it came to Trump. The counterconference, as Fuentes admitted on its website, had been “inspired” by him; they were hardcore supporters. But Trump himself was speaking at CPAC, the event that had supposedly censored them. This was the basic contradiction in the premise of AFPAC: Trump’s fingerprints were everywhere, at both events, in every rant about cancel culture or immigration, in gripes on critical race theory or inflation. The AFPAC crowd had promised a more renegade kind of conservatism, but they wound up merely toeing the new party line. When Fuentes took the podium that day, he sounded a lot like Stone: “The deep state has taken complete unregulated control of the U.S. government,” Fuentes said. And like Barnett, he promised his group would be “deploying hundreds of political operatives across the country” in advance of the midterms. They would support candidates, he said, who are truly “America First.” 

By the time Trump spoke at CPAC on Saturday night, the crowd had already heard him impersonated by several dozen speakers. This was perhaps the week’s greatest surprise: in a sea of his imitators, Trump hardly stood out. The quiet joke of the Trumpian revolution is that it’s almost exclusively talk — by which I mean literally rhetorical. The Trump administration did accomplish some of its legislative priorities: slashing tax rates for corporations and the ultra-wealthy, appointing more conservatives to the Supreme Court and the federal judiciary, and partnering with the private sector to fast-track vaccine development, among others. But they had little to do with the promises Trump yelled from his rally podiums, which had the pie-in-the-sky ambition of a student council candidate pledging to put Kool-Aid in the water fountains. That’s not to downplay Trump’s impact or ideological influence, but his accomplishments functioned outside conventional governance.

Trump’s protégés in Congress have mimicked both his bombastic phrasing and legislative laziness. Gaetz, who has spent the past year decrying the allegations of statutory rape and sex trafficking against him as a massive conspiracy to extort his father, parrots Trumpian talking points on a range of topics, but he has few policy wins to back them up. Since taking office in 2017, Gaetz has introduced 22 bills and 13 resolutions, of which just one passed the House (an obscure land conveyance bill about a Florida monument that never left committee in the Senate). Greene, arguably the Trumpiest of the proto-Trumps, was removed from all of her congressional committees after she was censured for — please guess — violent rhetoric against her colleagues. And Rep. Madison Cawthorn, the Trump fanboy and driving enthusiast from North Carolina, appropriated his mentor’s obsession with voter fraud once his participation in the Jan. 6 riot threatened to disqualify him from reelection. But he, too, seems disinterested in drafting actual policy. In early 2021, Cawthorn said as much to his Republican colleagues. In an email later obtained by Time, he wrote: “I have built my staff around comms rather than legislation.” 

View Comments

One reason it’s hard to locate the Republican divide is because it’s not happening between congressional candidates so much as in warring styles of articulation. Trump’s Floridian semantics have become the lingua franca, and in a sense, that’s an easier battle to fight. Anyone can pick it up, not that everyone has. If one needed more evidence that policy was no longer the Republican priority, Mitch McConnell makes a tidy Exhibit A. The Kentucky senator has whipped more Republican votes than anyone in recent memory, but he has resisted the Trumpish pidgin on election fraud, impeachment and endorsing candidates preferred by the former president. Now, he’s enemy No. 1. “Mitch McConnell does not speak for the Republican Party,” Trump wrote on Telegram in February. “He bails out the Radical Left and the RINOs.”

Sen. Mitch Mcconnell, who has failed to adopt the carnival barker affect of Trump-era conservatism, is now persona non grata with the former president. | Drew Angerer, Getty

That could change, of course. McConnell has time to adjust his approach before his next election in 2026. Former Vice President Mike Pence, on the other hand, has shifted his position since last year, when he criticized Trump for trying to overturn the election results. In a late-February speech, the possible presidential candidate defended a recent resolution from the Republican National Committee about the Jan. 6 riot. The resolution censured Republican Reps. Liz Cheney, of Wyoming, and Adam Kinzinger, of Illinois, for their role on the Jan. 6 select committee. But like so much within the party itself, it also operated in a largely rhetorical realm: it dubbed the insurrection “legitimate political discourse.” They had a point; by contemporary standards, it is. 

Last year, when Vanity Fair asked Loomer about Florida’s draw for conservatives, she pointed to Trump. “All roads,’’ she said, “lead to Mar-a-Lago.” But in a certain sense, the roads don’t have to. Who needs Mar-a-Lago, when the party can talk its way there?  

This story appears in the May issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.