Conservative leaders and die-hard activists gathered at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference rallied around the idea that the federal government, mainstream media and Big Tech companies have been “weaponized” against them as part of a far-reaching scheme to silence their voices and gut their values.
Featured speakers at the confab just outside Washington, which this year was themed “Protecting America Now,” said President Biden, his Democratic allies and turncoat Republicans are stripping away freedoms, brainwashing Americans and poisoning the minds of children with Marxist, socialist and woke ideas that threaten to steer the U.S. down a path of no return.
The messages of doom and gloom were buffeted by the hope that Republicans can rescue the country if they take control of the White House and Senate in the 2024 elections.
“Look, America is not perfect, but we are good, and I cannot imagine what the world would be like without our country,” Sen. John Kennedy, Louisiana Republican, told the crowd. “The truth is that common sense is illegal in Washington, D.C. I know I have seen it firsthand. I wonder sometimes how some people in Washington, D.C., actually made it through the birth canal.”
“The truth is, what we accomplished when Republicans were in charge, we made our country better and made your lives better,” Mr. Kennedy said.
The annual conference provides a glimpse into the mood of the conservative movement and serves as a showcase for current and potential presidential contenders.
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Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner in the race, is slated to close out the conference on Saturday. Mr. Trump’s top rival for the Republican Party nomination, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, passed up the chance to address the pro-Trump crowd. He is expected to launch a presidential campaign later this year.
Former Vice President Mike Pence also will not attend.
Voters are expected to hear from Nikki Haley, the only other high-profile candidate in the race, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another possible 2024 presidential contender.
Attendees on Thursday took in panels with titles such as “No Chinese Ballons Above Tennessee,” “Don Lemon Is Past His Primetime,” “Sacking the Woke Playbook,” “Parents With Pitchforks,” “Dr. Strangelove Isn’t Just a Movie” and “Big Tech: Break ’Em Up, Bust ’Em Up, Put ’Em in Jail.”
Activists cheered the prospect of impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas over the administration’s approach to border security and immigration. They celebrated criticism targeting Attorney General Merrick Garland and booed the mention of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
“What the hell does this guy got to do to get fired?” Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said of Mr. Buttigieg.
Some of the loudest jeers came in response to video footage of now-retired Dr. Anthony Fauci in his role as top White House medical adviser. The video showed Dr. Fauci downplaying the theory that COVID-19 leaked from a lab in Wuhan, China, and favored the natural-spillover theory.
FBI Director Christopher A. Wray recently said the bureau believes COVID-19 most likely originated in a Chinese-government-controlled lab. That came on the heels of reports that the Department of Energy assessed with “low confidence” that the coronavirus began its spread from a lab leak, according to recent reports.
At the height of the pandemic, the political left dismissed as disinformation any speculation about the virus originating in the Wuhan lab, which specialized in coronavirus research. The theory was also blamed for spurring anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S.
“The failure to be honest about this virus with the American people ruined a lot of lives,” Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio said from the stage.
Mr. Kennedy said: “The truth is that we are going to have to get some new conspiracy theories because all of the old ones came true.”
Speakers said Mr. Biden’s actions toward China smack of weakness and his disastrous border policies pave the way for unchecked human trafficking and drug smuggling, including the deadly scourge of fentanyl.
“Our children are being poisoned,” said Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
Mr. Trump’s fingerprints were all over the CPAC.
Speakers and activists credited him with shaking up the Washington establishment, transforming the Republican Party and notching a long list of conservative victories.
In the sprawling exhibit hall at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center at Maryland’s National Harbor, various vendors sold Trump gear that included bejeweled high heels, purses with the Trump insignia, “TRUMPINATOR ILL BE BACK” T-shirts and oil paintings of the former president.
Back on stage, speakers blasted Republican establishment figures, all of whom as usual skipped CPAC.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida called Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky a member of the “tired old” Republican establishment who has made a habit of caving to the demands of Mr. Biden and congressional Democrats.
“It’s not just the Democrats in Washington who are destroying our country,” Mr. Scott said. “You have heard the famous quote: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’”
Mr. Scott led the National Republican Senate Committee in the 2022 election cycle when Republicans fell short of expectations and Trump-backed candidates lost marquee races. He also tried and failed to oust Mr. McConnell as Republican leader.