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CPAC shows many in Republican Party aren't ready to move on from Trump

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Former President Donald Trump closed out the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, last night with a 90-minute speech that wound through a litany of his often-repeated grievances and ended on a target popular with others of his political leanings right now - the so-called woke.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Change only happens if we plow fearlessly ahead and declare with one voice that the era of woke and weaponized government is over. That is our task. That is our mission, and this is the turning point and the time for that decision.

MARTIN: For years, CPAC has been a must stop for Republicans looking to test the waters for a presidential bid or just to shore up their bonafides with the conservative base. But last week's conference was different. Some observers pointed out that it could have been called TPAC rather than CPAC, since many of the speakers were the former president's allies and family members. Some presumptive Republican presidential contenders didn't show up to make their case at the conference at all.

In fact, some conservatives held a parallel conference in Washington, D.C., called Principles First, which was billed as an effort to refocus the Republican Party on its core principles. Our next guest was a speaker at that conference - Mona Charen, a longtime conservative commentator and policy editor at The Bulwark. That's a relatively new media outlet founded by conservatives, which says it hopes to offer reporting and opinion free of partisan loyalties and tribal prejudices. And Mona Charen is with us once again to tell us more about it. Mona Charen, thanks so much for joining us.

MONA CHAREN: My pleasure. Glad to be with you.

MARTIN: So we have to start out by talking about Trump. So I wanted to ask what you made of the entire week at CPAC, its offerings, and also the former president's speech last night.

CHAREN: CPAC has always been a little bit of a freak show in the conservative world. But in recent years, it basically just transformed itself into a cult club for Donald Trump. But in any event, this year, there is still that hardcore of Trump people who will show up. Admittedly, attendance was down. Many big donors stayed away. Ron DeSantis notably stayed away. But the fact that even after this president attempted to stage a coup, even after he has said explicitly that we need to repeal the U.S. Constitution in order to put him back into the Oval Office, there remain millions of Republicans for whom he is their preferred candidate. It is just mind-blowing.

MARTIN: Are there any potential candidates out there that you think could be the standard-bearer for this movement?

CHAREN: Candidates are always going to be a matter of compromise. My sense is that if we can avoid the catastrophe of another Trump nomination and, God forbid, election, we will have dodged the worst possible bullet. That is my chief concern.

MARTIN: Let's talk about Fox News for a minute, which has been defending itself against this $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit brought by the voting machine supplier Dominion Voting Systems. The filing, for people who follow this, revealed that Fox's biggest executives and stars expressed disbelief at Trump's claims that he won the 2020 election, even though they were publicly continuing to support that claim, you know, on the air. You wrote, I think, a pretty tough and, I would have to say, heartbreaking column about this for The Bulwark. I'll just quote a little bit of it.

It says, "if your doctor assured you that your skin lesion was benign because he thought this would be more welcome than the news it was melanoma requiring immediate treatment, the doctor would be guilty of malpractice, and you wouldn't thank him. When Fox News and its competitors lie to viewers, they're endangering not their physical health but their civic health and the good of the nation." What you're saying is is that there is a whole group of people who are being deliberately lied to and, if they're particularly loyal to this particular source of information, aren't going to find out what is the truth. So I...

CHAREN: Yeah.

MARTIN: What is the - I guess part of your - the purpose of having a conference is to discuss a way forward. Did you come up with one?

CHAREN: These are tough, tough questions. One of the things that I said in that piece is that, you know, we all like to get the news that's agreeable to us. I mean, that's true of all of us. I confess to it myself. I have a lot of trouble - I can't watch Fox anymore, well, partly because they lie, but also because their point of view is anathema to me, and I prefer other outlets. Now, you know, some people will only watch MSNBC. I mean, that's natural.

But what I said in the piece is that when you choose a news outlet, it's not like choosing, you know, another consumer product, you know, where you say, oh, you know, some people like iOS and some people like Android. No. When you choose news, you have to be aware that the information that you are getting could hurt you - or the lack of information. Even though it's pleasing, even though it may - it fulfills all your priors, it still harms you to be lied to. And so that is what I - you know, we all hope to be able to get through to this Fox audience that is so loyal. And it's a hard, hard nut to crack.

MARTIN: So Fox is clearly moving away from Trump. He has not appeared on a Fox News show since November. And it's also clear from testimony in the Dominion lawsuit and other reporting that the powers that be at Fox are throwing their weight behind others. But is that an advance? I mean, it seems to be for them to sort of decide who they think the nominee should be based on airtime as opposed to offering the information that people can use to then decide for themselves. I just - is that a way - is that an advance?

CHAREN: I've got to say two things, Michel. First of all, they're not acting like a news organization, right? They're making calls here based on their preferred outcome. That is already illegitimate. But second, and this part is even worse, if Trump starts to look like a winner, they will flip back, and we'll be back where we were a few years ago.

MARTIN: That is conservative commentator Mona Charen. She's the policy editor at The Bulwark. Mona, thanks so much for being with us once again.

CHAREN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.