CPAC Grand Finale: If Not Trump, Who?

February 28, 2021 Updated: March 1, 2021


It’s clear that Donald Trump wants to run again, at least at this time, particularly after his grand finale Conservative Political Action Conference address on Feb. 28, delivered under tightened security at a presidential level.

As he put it himself in the speech: “I stand before you today to declare that the incredible journey we began together four years ago is far from over …”

What did he mean by that? Well, we know.

But things happen to a man of a “certain age,” even though we don’t want them to … or they can change their minds, unlikely as that seems.

So let’s play a game. If not Trump, who? (Beyond being academic, it might tell us who will be his vice presidential pick as well. We can forget about Mike Pence.)

For starters, like it or not, the Republican Party is Trump’s now. The old Bush party, already a faint and diminishing speck on the horizon, can only dream of resuscitation. Further, Trump’s critics in the monumentally misnamed Lincoln Project have imploded spectacularly.

A staggering 95 percent of CPAC attendees supported all of Trump’s policies, according to the Washington Times straw poll. His job-approval level was even higher—97 percent. Who does that? (Only Stalin, but this was a free election.)

If you’re not “Trumpy,” forget about the nomination—for just about anything.

Republican officials not on Trump’s team and upholding his policies should therefore beware; those who waffled also. Primaries are coming and on the minds of many.

Again in Trump’s words from his speech: “The Republican Party is united. The only division is between a handful of Washington, D.C., establishment political hacks, and everybody else all over the country.”

CPAC itself was a ratification of this, but also an audition of sorts for a possible replacement for the former [sic] president, if necessary, or, looking far ahead, probably too far, the election of 2028.

What follows are my reactions to this audition, but my sense of the room is that they aren’t that far from the view of many attendees. (Overall, the CPAC atmosphere was surprisingly optimistic considering the very much still-festering wound of the dubious 2020 election.)

The three most obvious favorites in no particular order (so ladies first) are South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

None of these people have made previous runs at the presidency, at least in any obvious manner. To have done so would, to some degree unfairly, have made them damaged goods, having come under assault by Trump’s take-no-prisoners style during the 2016 primary season.

Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both with eyes on the prize for some time, have undergone that, so are, in essence, disqualified. (Cruz’s unfortunate jetaway to Cancun, while his state power grid was down, hasn’t helped him either.)

The only Trump opponent who really escaped his opprobrium was Ben Carson, who became an enduring part of the Cabinet, gave the keynote at the Reagan Dinner on Feb. 27, but seems to be headed in a think tank direction. (Still, you never know.)

So, Noem. She was possibly the surprise of CPAC.

That her policies were firmly conservative/libertarian and that she kept South Dakota open in the pandemic in a manner that left her state with the lowest unemployment in the nation was acknowledged. But what really wowed was her ability as a public speaker.

Noem skillfully went from sly humor (mocking the man who was seemingly Public Enemy No. 1 at CPAC—Dr. Anthony Fauci) to a heart-tugging tale of, at the age of 22, finding the recordings of her recently deceased farmer father in his pickup and how that nurtured her patriotic spirit of self-reliance.

The latter may have been a well-rehearsed part of her stump speech, but even so, it worked. In a way, she has the makings of a female Reagan, who had similar public speaking skills that clearly stood him in good stead.

Noem could also be a good vice presidential candidate for Trump should he run again in 2024, checking the female “diversity” box, nauseating and—let’s be honest—completely reactionary as the concept of “diversity” of all sorts is. (Goodbye, Martin Luther King Jr. and his “old-fashioned” idea of judging people by their character.)

Further in Noem’s favor is she is a governor, thus with plenty of executive experience. Governors have historically been more sought-after for the presidency than senators or, further down the list, congressmen and women. And then, more recently, there are businessmen, but that’s another matter.

Because of this general preference for governors (or businessmen) over senators, I have omitted Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri from this shortlist. He is doing an excellent and courageous job in the Senate, but probably needs more time. He could, however, be a 2028 contender.

Noem’s governorship is of a small state that she referred to in a wry self-deprecating manner in her speech, which segues to that governor of a big state—DeSantis.

DeSantis can stake a claim to being Governor of the Year or, more specifically, Governor of the Plague Year, if there were such a thing. Against the tide, he kept the state of Florida open—schools and all—and proved to be correct in what many assumed to be the riskiest of propositions.

He also stood firm against the immigration nonsense of the current administration, while governing a genuinely multi-cultural state.

Coming to Florida, even from my own home state of Tennessee, which isn’t so bad, is like visiting another country where the pandemic never happened. I can’t tell you how refreshing it is. Imagine if I’d come from New York or California. (Of course, it’s not quite that simple. You’re supposed to wear a mask at CPAC, but the vast majority of the several hundred people sitting with me in the conference room, listening to the speakers, sure aren’t.)

DeSantis, moreover, looks like a president. He has what JFK had, what they called during that brief period “vigah.” (He might not really have had it, but at least he looked like he did.)

Although I, like Trump, am of a “certain age,” I admit there’s a strong argument for having a younger man, like DeSantis, in the presidency with its 24/7 demands.

He’s also clearly bright and has no issues mixing it up with the sneering reactionaries of the mainstream media, aka the “nattering nabobs of negativism.” He’s more prepared and more educated than they are.

In this cancel culture era, that is more necessary than ever, even imperative.

DeSantis was the second choice to Trump in the straw poll, doing surprisingly, or perhaps not so surprisingly, well at 21 percent.

(He was almost as popular as Orlando itself, which won by acclimation as the site of CPAC. If that’s its future, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep it out of D.C.)

Pompeo also has experience handling the rapacious press. By now, the former secretary of state has seen it all—Congress, the CIA, and the State Department.

You would think with all this, he would have been infected by the Deep State, and, I must admit, I do detect a whiff. But only sometimes.

He’s a good speaker, too, and deserves more than a small merit badge, maybe a platinum trophy encrusted with diamonds and sapphires, for overseeing the epochal Abraham Accords, arguably the greatest achievement, among the many, of the Trump administration. Let’s pray it endures.

So those are my three. I believe they are all electable, Pompeo perhaps a smidge less. You may have others. Feel free to have at it. If there’s anything we’ve learned in the past year or two, it’s that the wheel turns more quickly than any hamster could spin it.

No matter how good they are, however, none of these prospective candidates have anywhere near the remarkable charisma of Trump. Nobody has in my lifetime and I dare say, yours. He has that ability to attract (and, in some cases, repel) others the Spaniards call “duende”—the ghost.

Roger L. Simon is an award-winning novelist, Oscar-nominated screenwriter, co-founder of PJMedia, and now, editor-at-large for The Epoch Times. His most recent books are “The GOAT” (fiction) and “I Know Best: How Moral Narcissism Is Destroying Our Republic, If It Hasn’t Already” (nonfiction). He can be found on Parler as @rogerlsimon.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.