“Are you going to call Trump a domestic terrorist?” the woman asked. It was Saturday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Dallas, and I had just identified myself as a reporter to two attendees eating lunch in the food court. The woman, who looked to be in her fifties, told me she had traveled to the influential political convention from out of state. She declined to give her name or occupation. “We’re just so sick of the media telling lies about us,” she said.
The man sitting across from her, an eighty-year-old Vietnam veteran named Frank Dirnbauer, was more forthcoming. Dirnbauer, who works as a retail electricity broker, had driven to the conference from his home in Wylie, a half hour’s drive northeast of Dallas. This was his first CPAC. “I said to my wife that we have to go,” Dirnbauer told me while snacking on pretzels. “We picked today because President Trump is going to be speaking.” He had seen countless Trump speeches on TV but had never attended one.
The woman interrupted our conversation to repeat her question. “So are you going to call him a domestic terrorist?” I handed her my business card and said I would quote Trump accurately and fairly. This did not seem to comfort her. And perhaps for good reason—after all, one of CPAC’s afternoon panels was titled “We Are All Domestic Terrorists.” One of its participants, Texas state board of education candidate Julie Pickren of Houston, began by claiming the title was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. “Nobody in this room is a domestic terrorist,” she assured the thousand or so right-wing activists in the Hilton Anatole’s Trinity Ballroom. The panelists spent most of their time criticizing public schools for supposedly indoctrinating children. Ian Prior, a senior adviser at America First Legal, claimed he was put on a “hit list” for speaking up at too many school board meetings.
What Pickren said about that room might have been technically true. After all, the two uniformed Proud Boys in attendance at CPAC had last been spotted in the exhibition hall, just outside the ballroom. But given the number of January 6 plotters or participants who were granted speaking slots at the conference, I had my doubts. There was Brandon Straka, a “Stop the Steal” activist who filmed himself from the steps of the U.S. Capitol building during the insurrection and later pleaded guilty to a count of disorderly conduct. There was Steve Bannon, who helped plan the Stop the Steal rally and was recently convicted of contempt of Congress. And there were congressmen Matt Gaetz of Florida and Andy Biggs of Arizona, who reportedly asked Trump for pardons for their roles in organizing the insurrection. (I reached out to CPAC to ask if they had allowed the Proud Boys to attend. The organization did not respond.)
Then, of course, there was Trump himself, who won the CPAC presidential straw poll with 69 percent of the vote. (Florida governor Ron DeSantis, despite having skipped the convention, came in second with 24 percent.) During his nearly two-hour keynote address on Saturday evening, Trump defended the January 6 insurrectionists and continued to insist that he had won the 2020 presidential election. “Look at all the people who are in prison or whose lives have been destroyed on January 6,” he lamented, describing the attack on the Capitol as “a protest over a rigged and stolen election that nobody wants to look at.” Indeed, “election integrity” was the number one issue for most CPAC attendees, according to the straw poll.
The main lesson Trump and his allies appear to have taken from January 6, based on their CPAC speeches, is that they need to be less squeamish next time. “We have to seize this opportunity to deal with the radical left socialist lunatic fascists,” Trump declared to rapturous applause. “We have to hit them very, very hard. It has to be a crippling defeat.” Kari Lake, the Republican gubernatorial nominee in Arizona, told the crowd that they “need to fight like hell to take this country back.”
Ted Cruz—who received just 2 percent of the votes in the CPAC presidential straw poll—described his Senate duties in the following terms: “It’s like the old Roman Colosseum, where you slam on a breastplate, you grab a battle-ax, and you go fight the barbarians.”
Earlier in the day, Nigel Farage, the far-right Brexit leader, called CPAC attendees “the foot soldiers in this battle.” “[The West] is under attack,” he warned. “The threat is not external. It’s not Putin.The biggest threat we face is from within. It’s the fifth column inside all of our countries that is attempting to destroy the family unit and our Judeo-Christian culture.”
The CPAC rank and file overwhelmingly agreed. Asked to name the greatest threat to America—“Internal forces such as the Deep State, Public Education, and the Mainstream Media” or “External forces such as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea”—91 percent of respondents chose internal forces. During his speech, Trump laid out a plan to defeat those forces. The former president called for purging the federal government of “corrupt” civil servants and replacing them with MAGA loyalists; “smashing the educational establishment” by abolishing the Department of Education and banning “critical race theory” from classrooms; and being “ruthless in going after the censorship regime” of social media companies. He proposed sending the military into Chicago, San Francisco, and New York to “restore order.” Perhaps most alarming, he called for rounding up homeless Americans and moving them to designated camps “where the land is cheap.”
Bannon gave more details about Trump’s strategy during his own CPAC talk on Friday night. If Trump retakes the White House in 2024, he said, “we’re going to have a well-trained cadre of people that will hit the beach [on] day one. And their number one thing is going to be taking apart the federal bureaucracy brick by brick.”
Over the course of his speech, Trump hinted at his sources of political inspiration. He praised China and Singapore for executing drug dealers. He invoked the spirit of George Patton, “a very violent man who would be thrown out of the military today . . . we need to get back to him.” Not mentioned was Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, who spoke at CPAC on Thursday and whose brand of authoritarian nationalism has earned the admiration of the far right.
But Trump didn’t need to drop Orbán’s name. They share the same blood-and-soil ideology. Both see immigration as an existential threat, and both divide their countrymen into patriots and traitors. “If somebody has doubts whether progressive liberals and communists are the same, just ask us Hungarians,” Orbán told CPAC on Thursday. “We fought them both, and I can tell you: they are the same.” On Saturday, Trump declared that “the nation doesn’t belong to [the left]. It belongs to you. This is your country, defended with your own blood and built with your own hands.”
This article has been corrected to reflect that our original story erroneously identified New York activist Ryan Girdusky as the person who claimed to be on a “hit list” for speaking out at too many school board meetings. The comment was made by Ian Prior.