DALLAS — The Deplorabear booth at the Conservative Political Action Committee conference sells what owner Chris Armes said is the only bear that will stand up for America.
The 15-inch plush teddy bear wears a blue “power suit” with a red tie. Its left paw gives the thumbs-up symbol, and a red Make America Great Again baseball hat sits squarely in between his ears.
“The Deplorabear will stand up anywhere, not just flop around in a corner,” Armes said.
The symbolism of a flopping bear in a corner versus the Deplorabear’s rigid stance is not lost in the moment here at one of the year’s largest gatherings for the conservative wing of the Republican Party.
The nearly 50-year old CPAC convention is where Republican activists, conservative party loyalists, and in past years, presidential hopefuls, gather to network and fire up the base.
In recent years, the event has shifted as the themes of its speakers and activists have become more about loyalty and devotion to Donald Trump and less about the debate between libertarians on conservative Republican strategies.
That has never been more so than now, half a year after Trump claimed his bid for a second term was stolen from him by the Democrats.
From the booths of Trump paraphernalia to the lineup of speakers and their themes, it’s clear that the Republican Party today is intent on keeping the momentum of the Trump era.
Armes came from Fernandina Beach, Fla., to the Dallas CPAC convention in the hope of selling at least 200 of the $40 bears. Three hundred if he’s lucky, he said. The event is part of the conservative circuit Armes makes to sell the bears, which he developed the idea for after a “person who should remain nameless” called Donald Trump supporters like him “deplorable.”
Former Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton, in her run for president in 2016, was quoted as saying half of Trump’s supporters belonged in a "basket of deplorables."
Beyond the pavilion booths of Trump hats, T-shirts and campaign information for other conservative candidates, the back-to-back speeches on the CPAC agenda are a wish list of discussion points in the cultural battle lines dividing America today: election integrity, cancel culture, critical race theory, religious freedom and, of course, the border.
But like the CPAC that was held in Florida in February, the major theme of the Dallas event was hinged around former President Trump and who in the Republican party is with him, and who is against him.
Trump headlines the three-day event on Sunday afternoon. Donald Trump Jr. was scheduled to speak on Friday.
During the CPAC convention in February in Orlando, Trump stuck to his story about how the 2020 election was rigged by Democrats, an idea that polls show six out of 10 Republican voters support. To those Republicans who voted for his impeachment, Trump said, “Get rid of them all.”
That speech was one of the first appearances of the former president after leaving the White House. He has since made a smattering of appearances, including a border trip with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott last month.
“CPAC is one more venue where the president will have an opportunity to command the news cycle, which he finds more difficult to do now that he's out of the white house,” said Cal Jilson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University.
Abbott, who Trump has endorsed for reelection in 2022, is not at the conference. Two of his declared primary challengers, Don Huffines and Allen West, were scheduled to speak.
Despite Trump’s endorsement, Steven Hotze, a physician and conservative activist who founded the Conservative Republicans of Texas political action committee, said he wants Abbott out of the governor’s house.
Either Huffins or West would be a good candidate, Hotze said.
“Anyone but Abbott,” said Hotze, who described himself as being a thorn in the side of what he called “liberal Republicans” for decades. “He’s a flimflammer, they all are, including [Lt. Gov. Dan] Patrick and [Attn. Gen. Ken] Paxton.”
Last year, Hotze’s PAC raised $800,000 to fund legal cases against what Hotze said was "blatant” election fraud in Harris County and elsewhere in Texas in the 2020 election.
Both Patrick and Paxton were scheduled to speak during the Dallas CPAC event.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, opened the three-day event Friday. Gathered on stage together, they said holding the event first in Florida and then in Texas was because the states represent the “heart of the Republican party.”
There’s a red carpet for CPAC here in Texas, Schlapp said.
“We applaud you for what you are doing here in Texas,” Schlapp said. Pointing out the recent bills passed in Texas, such as permitless carry and a ban on abortions after a heartbeat is detected, is what conservatism is all about. American conservatives had their eyes on Texas as the state legislature’s special session currently happening in Austin took up more of their agenda issues, including a voting rights bill, Schlapp said.
“Everything is geting done here, and I think Texas would be the perfect place for CPAC to move to and establish its headquarters,” Patrick said.
Patrick said he stood with Trump last month at the border when he toured the area for Abbott shortly after the Texas governor announced that Texas would finish building a border wall.
“He looked over me and asked, ‘Are you ready for one more in 2024?’” Patrick said. Loud applause broke out in the auditorium, already about one-third full. Organizers have said they expect 4,000 attendees during the event.
“Make no mistake, whatever he decides,” Patrick continued, referring to rumors that Trump might run again for president in 2024, "the conservative movement in America has so much to thank President Trump for. He did something that’s rare in politics. He said what he was going to do, he did what he said he would do because that’s what you are supposed to do.”
The crowd applauded. “And that’s a message for anyone in office,” Patrick said.
“Here in Texas, we stand with President Trump. We stand for the conservative values and principles of CPAC. In 2021, Trumpism will rise again!” Patrick said.