OPINION - Welcome to the Republican Hunger Games: a circus for the madmen and creeps desperate to be Trump's vice-president

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Slow clap for former prime minister Liz Truss, who is in Washington tomorrow to deliver a speech on “Taking back our parties” at the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). The conference is often a raucous affair, but this week’s jamboree in the US capital will be a full-on Make America Great Again (MAGA) fiesta. Perhaps it has escaped Truss’s notice that the Trumpists have no need to take back their party. It is already theirs.

The foreign visitor with the most political stardust will be the chainsaw-wielding Argentinian president Javier Milei, who will be sharing the limelight with Donald Trump on Saturday. While they will be addressing plans to sink the deep state, Truss has already been sunk by it. Her talk will be followed by an afternoon session called, “Putting one’s head in a gas stove” (a reference to how the Democrats are going to force Americans to buy electric cookers).

The carnival barker is CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp, who faces allegations of sexually assaulting a former Republican male staffer. No need to worry, though, given Trump’s multiple lawsuits. With Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner keeping their distance, Trump has recently decreed his daughter-in-law Lara Trump — wife of second son Eric — should become co-chair of the Republican Party so she, too, has been given a speaking slot tomorrow.

This week’s Conservative Political Action Conference will be a full-on Make America Great Again fiesta

Now that Trump has all but wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination, all eyes at the conference will be on the vice-presidential contenders jostling for position. As Schlapp announced on X: “The speaker who performs the best under pressure and has the best charisma at CPAC might just be the person picked by Donald Trump to be his vice-president.”

It is the political equivalent of the Hunger Games.

I used to think Nikki Haley, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, would be a shrewd pick, given her ability to reach suburban female voters and upstage vice-president Kamala Harris on foreign affairs and their shared South Asian heritage. But things have turned nasty on the campaign trail.

Haley has accused 77-year-old Trump of being “unhinged” while he has implied her husband Michael, a major in the South Carolina national guard, is only serving his country in Djibouti, on the horn of Africa, to escape his wife. Haley will be hard-pressed to stay in the race beyond Super Tuesday on March 5, when the largest US states hold their primaries, but she has vowed to go down fighting. “I feel no need to kiss the ring. I have no fear of Trump’s retribution. I am not looking for anything from him,” she said yesterday. “My own political future is of zero concern.” If this is the case, Haley will be in a category of one. A spokesman for Trump predicted crudely that she would “drop down and kiss ass” once she quits the race.

The vice-president Veepstakes have turned the most high-profile Republican contenders into world-class flatterers and contortionists in a bid to please Trump. Of course it is possible that he will pick a relatively unknown running mate, who is no threat to him in the popularity stakes, much like Mike Pence in 2016, but after he refused to overturn the 2020 election, ostentatious displays of fealty are at a premium.

A CPAC favourite, Kristi Noem, 52, the South Dakota governor, hired a sculptor in 2020 to put Trump’s face on a replica of the granite monument, Mount Rushmore, alongside George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Trump was thrilled. Noem also boasted to the National Rifle Association last spring that her two-year-old grand-daughter already owns several guns. Noem will be speaking on Friday lunchtime, shortly before Nigel Farage takes the stage (eat your heart out, Liz).

On Friday night, Vivek Ramaswamy, 38, the Harvard-and-Yale-educated pharmaceutical muti-millionaire, will be bashing the elites and touting America First policies at the big ticket Ronald Reagan dinner. (At $395 a head, it is not too late to apply.) Ramaswamy has belittled Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenksy as “a comedian in cargo pants” and this week compared the death of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny in an Arctic gulag to Wiki–Leaks founder Julian Assange being held in a “foreign prison” in Britain. Does anybody doubt that if Trump were to criticise Vladimir Putin, his would-be Veeps would join in the chorus of condemnation? Their whataboutism brings to mind a tribute to Reagan in 1999 by the “father” of modern conservatism, William Buckley, called, “When Character Counted”. Today, not so much.

At a Fox News town hall event in South Carolina last night Trump bemoaned his own legal problems as a “form of Navalny”. For all intents and purposes, this is now the official Republican position.

The Veepstakes have turned the most high-profile Republican contenders into world-class flatterers in a bid to please Trump

JD Vance, 39, the ambitious Ohio senator with his sights on the vice-presidency, refused to meet Zelensky at the Munich security conference a few days ago on the grounds that he would not learn anything new.

Kari Lake, a former TV presenter turned CPAC star, who is vying to become a senator for Arizona if she does not make VP, insisted the Ukraine war was lost. “It’s not salvageable,” she said bluntly. On Monday Lake, 54, tried to reach out to admirers of John McCain, the late senator for Arizona and 2008 Republican presidential candidate, after losing her bid for Arizona governor in 2022 for being too MAGA.

At the time, she had called the former Vietnam POW a “loser”. Lake claimed she had only been joking, a familiar Trumpist trope. McCain’s daughter Megan, herself a TV personality, responded unforgivingly on X: “No peace, bitch. We see you for who you are and are repulsed by it.”

This is the circus Truss has joined. It makes Democratic grumbles about Harris’s presence as Joe Biden’s vice-president look laughably mild. Her performance has improved recently but White House aides are still reluctant to let her loose on the public. They will have to let her show she is capable of leading the country, if necessary. Even Navalny could see in the faraway Polar Wolf penal colony the fate of the US can’t rest purely on an 81-year-old’s shoulders. In one of his last letters, Navalny wrote: “Trump’s agenda and plans look truly scary. What a nightmare. And it’s clear that if during the course of the campaign Biden’s health fails, he can forget something etc, then Trump will become president. Surely that obvious thing must worry the Democrats?” It does. But not as much as it should.

Sarah Baxter is director of the Marie Colvin Center for International Reporting