Brick suits, lawsuits, insults and pillows: The otherworldly atmosphere at CPAC as Trump waits in the wings

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell holds up one of his products during an interview with Kimberly Guilfoyle at CPAC 2023 (John Bowden)
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell holds up one of his products during an interview with Kimberly Guilfoyle at CPAC 2023 (John Bowden)

Celebrities of Trumpworld descended upon Maryland’s National Harbor this week for a three-day bash in every sense of the word.

While celebrations of Donald Trump and a rallying cry for 2024 were clearly a central part of day one of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), they were far from the only emotions in the air.

There was also a deep anger — at the Democrats, for the policies of Joe Biden and liberals around the country; at the federal government, for bureaucracy that they argue caused America to suffer for two years while thousands died from the same deadly virus those same conservatives had minimised and dismissed; and at the mainstream news press, which they argued was nothing more but a tool of the Democratic Party. Related to that last category was frequent griping from many in attendance of the apparent blacklisting of election deniers by the biggest right-wing networks like Fox News and Newsmax.

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Some, like podcaster and noted sidewalk-parker Sebastian Gorka were utterly hamfisted in their critiques. Mr Gorka was spotted yelling at The Bulwark’s Tim Miller that he was “f***ing fake news” and should “go to hell”, before he told The Independent’s correspondent minutes later that he should “get a real job”.

Others were a bit more subtle, if only just. Newsmax CEO Chris Ruddy appeared onstage in front of CPAC’s main audience for an interview on Thursday afternoon and implied directly that the court overseeing Dominion’s suits against his company and Fox News was corrupt.

Dominion is suing Fox and Newsmax for repeating false conspiracy theories suggesting the company secretly switched votes from Trump to Biden in the 2020 election. (The media companies insist they did nothing wrong, citing their right to report Trump’s phoney accusations under their first amendment rights.)

“If we were not in a Delaware court … small state, liberal, Democratic state, the Biden family’s close with everybody there … If we were in federal court, this thing would be on the way to being thrown out,” Mr Ruddy insisted.

Real America’s Voice host Grant Stinchfeld, formerly of Mr Ruddy’s lawsuit-target Newsmax, added that “nothing matters unless we get election integrity under control”.

Diehard Trump loyalists were treated like celebrities in the halls on Thursday, with throngs of people approaching various Trumpworld figures like Kimberly Guilfoyle and others to hand their various trinkets and pamphlets to large, suited body men while their intended recipients gave half-promises to look into whatever was being shoved their way.

One of those with the most star power was MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the top purveyors of conspiracies about the 2020 election that were lapped up by Trump lawyers Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, and obviously the former president himself. Mr Lindell spoke to The Independent about the chilling effect that Dominion and Smartmatic’s lawsuits had on conservative networks that previously platformed his evidence-free claims about massive numbers of votes being supposedly flipped in Joe Biden’s favour by these voting machines.

“Once Smartmatic sued Fox News on February 4 of 2021, all the other media, conservative media, that would be Newsmax, Salem media, Fox News … none of them talk about things that matter,” Mr Lindell complained, referring to the supposed need to “get rid of the electronic voting machines”.

“Melt ‘em down, make ‘em into prison bars,” he quipped, before adding that the US media was “horrible”.

“Here’s what it would be similar to,” Mr Lindell went on. “Let’s say I’m a weather channel. And I got orders in front of me: don’t talk about hurricanes or tornadoes. That’s what Fox News, that’s what Newsmax says.”

Mr Lindell was a major player in the halls of day 1 at CPAC, and is slated to deliver a 10-minute address on the convention’s final day. He was quickly hustled from interview to interview at various media setups outside of the main hall, including his own: Lindell TV, which had a place of prominence.

Some of those who were milling about the spacious Gaylord hotel, like Mr Ruddy on the main stage, argued that the conservative networks who platformed the increasingly bizarre theories about the 2020 election were merely “reporting” the claims being spread by Donald Trump and his team.

One of those was Jeffrey Lord, who told The Independent that he believed Fox News had a “good argument” before a judge.

“The one thing that I think Fox has a good argument about is, it’s their job to report the news. And so they report the news and they’re being sued for defamation

“I mean, you can like or not like what the news is. But it’s your job to report it,” the former CNN contributor said.

Of course some of those right-wing media personalities went a lot further than “reporting” on the outright lies about election workers and voting machines that Mr Trump’s lawyers were happily spreading: some openly supported them.

Fox Corp’s founder Rupert Murdoch admitted as much in testimony in Dominion’s $1.6bn lawsuit against his company, revealed in recent weeks, explaining that Fox figures including Maria Bartiromo, Jeanine Pirro, Sean Hannity, and former host Loud Dobbs “endorsed” the never-proven (and in many cases, outright disproven) claims being thrust forward by the Trump team.

CPAC’s increasingly rightward tilt made for a somewhat disjointed scene on Thursday, where the gathering in the shadow of the nation’s capital took on a sort of even split between the kind of professionally-dressed suit-and-tie-wearing DC crowd and the almost “trip to the circus” vibe that is evident in every inch of the area surrounding a venue in the hours before Donald Trump is set to hold a rally. Where else can you find senators and members of the House, fresh off the Hill, mingling in legislative attire next to a man dressed in a brick-and-mortar “build the wall” suit, or a graying man with his custom-made “Pepe Deluxe” hat?

One of those senators who strode through the hall of Trump costumes and past a man wearing a tri-corner hat who carried a massive American flag was Senator Rick Scott, fresh off a failed leadership challenger to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that was rewarded with his removal from the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.

Mr Scott denied to The Independent that he was following the Dominion case as it progressed against Fox — as well as the embarrassing revelations about the network’s hosts — while outlining his idea for what conservatives and right-leaning media should focus on ahead of 2024.

“I think we have to focus on the issues that are great for Americans,” he said. “We have to focus on, how do we build a better economy? How do we make sure kids get a great education? How do we make sure people live in safe communities? If we do that, Republicans are doing the right thing. That’s what I think people care about.”

What was clear no one seemed eager for, however, was the kind of mud-slinging primary that led to Donald Trump coming to power in the first place.

Trump fans who spoke to The Independent and other media outlets were hesitant to attack Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who is seen as the unspoken main challenger to Mr Trump’s bid for the GOP’s 2024 nomination. Likewise, Mr DeSantis’s supporters, at least those at CPAC, all seemed to be still on the Trump train as well.

Mr Stinchfeld, speaking in the afternoon, identified himself as firmly on Team Trump. But in a conversation about the 2024 primary, his most serious criticism for the star Florida governor — whom he called the best GOP governor in the nation — was that Mr DeSantis should “wait” a few years before pursuing his obvious national ambitions.

“Conservative media, I think we’re doing a pretty good job. What I would like to see is [for us to] not attack each other,” he said in an interview.

“There is strength in numbers, every single conservative voice out there, we need each other,” Mr Stinchfeld argued. “And so you know, in conservative media, partnerships are great. Don’t attack each other. Don’t have infighting, and just push the truth.”