Mike Pompeo almost got it exactly right with his critique of what’s gone wrong in the GOP circa 2023. Speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference outside Washington, D.C., last week, the former Kansas congressman and secretary of state put his finger on the deep problems in the Republican Party.
“The future of our American miracle is on the line,” he said, his manner humble and affable. “We should have won big” in the 2022 election. “I’m happy that we won the House, but we barely captured it. … We lost three elections in a row, and the popular vote in seven of the last eight.”
After the November red wave that insular right-wing pundits had been promising turned out to be more of a puddle, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley took to The Washington Post (because you can’t trust the mainstream media, you know?) to pen an op-ed that began with a claim designed to gain maximum attention for one of the loudest GOP voices in Washington:
“The old Republican Party is dead,” he wrote. “It has been wasting away for years now, and this month’s midterm results are the finishing blow. If Republicans learn nothing else from this election, they must learn that much.”
Hawley called to remake his party for “America’s working people” — a tall order for the banker’s son who graduated from Stanford and Yale Law. But he’s not wrong in identifying the rot.
Pompeo, a politician who often trumpets his conservative Christianity, partly blamed losing the support of “people who understand America and our Judeo-Christian founding.” Republicans can debate whether their party’s makeup is sufficiently Christian, but he’s wrong about the religion-skeptical Founding Fathers, who specifically designed a system of government independent of any faith.
However, Pompeo was spot-on when he took aim at the real danger in the room right there at CPAC: “We need a party, a conservative party … led by people of real character, competence and commitment. … We can’t become the left, following celebri-leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality.”
That was, of course, a direct jab at Donald Trump. “Over the last few years, I’ve heard some who claim to be conservative excuse hypocrisy by saying something like, ‘Well, we’re electing a president, not a Sunday school teacher,’” he continued. “That’s true. But having taught Sunday school, maybe we could get both.”
That line got Pompeo a few laughs and a smattering of applause from the sparse audience.
CPAC audience cheered for ‘retribution’But Saturday night, Pompeo’s former boss drew whoops, squeals and chants of “U.S.A.!” at his own CPAC speech: “I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. I am your retribution. … I will totally obliterate the deep state.”
It was a ridiculously amped up version of Trump’s apocalyptic inaugural address, which George W. Bush famously called “some weird s(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk).” And this year’s CPAC was a shadow of its former self, with few A-list Republicans and rows of empty seats as its chairman Matt Schlapp fends off allegations he sexually assaulted a young man working on Herschel Walker’s campaign.
Yet those cheers Trump drew are the big predicament Pompeo and his fellow GOP institutionalists face: Rupert Murdoch has had a lock on Republican eyeballs for two decades now. His Fox News began giving Trump a regular spot in its programming in 2011, often to promote the lie (as he finally conceded) that Barack Obama isn’t a U.S. citizen. It was through those appearances that Trump fully transformed from lying Democratic New York real estate developer into fact-free right-wing culture warrior, and then single-term president.
Today, though, Fox is staring down a potentially disastrous lawsuit from Dominion Voting Systems for airing false conspiracy theories about nonexistent fraud in Trump’s 2020 electoral defeat. Emails made public by that case show Murdoch now wants his powerful platform to “make Trump a non person.”
That’s not what the increasingly radical wing of the party wants. On-again, off-again Trump adviser and convicted felon Steve Bannon thundered at Murdoch during his own CPAC speech: “You’re not going to have a network, because we’re going to fight you every step of the way.” “Anger-tainment,” as Colorado Democrat Adam Frisch calls it, has gone mainstream on the right, and its proponents won’t give up their claim on the GOP without a noisy fight.
Former Republican Charlie Sykes summed up the “low-energy but thoroughly Trumpified CPAC” Monday:
“Nikki Haley was heckled, Kari Lake wins a straw poll, Marjorie Taylor Greene lied about Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and DJT unleashed the usual fire hose of (lies). Sure, it’s ridiculous. But … it’s also a serious threat masquerading as a cultic circus cum clown car. This is what a Trump 2.0 would look like.”
There are plenty of other politicians carrying that same torch. Freshman Missouri Sen. Eric Schmitt, the only other elected official from our area speaking at CPAC, offered up a disjointed, tepid laundry list of the same MAGA hate targets Kansas Sen. Roger Marshall also spends disproportionate time on, rather than working to solve Americans’ biggest issues.
It’s not hard to see how letting Trump talk birther nonsense on “Fox & Friends” for years led to hoots and hollers for his increasingly wild lies spewed from the bully pulpit Murdoch created. Fox still holds a huge edge over its competitors for the conservative audience. Now it remains to be seen whether toothpaste can be shoved back in the tube.
An editorial from the Kansas City Star.