• A conservative conference near Miami was focused on the future of the American right.
  • Trump was scarcely mentioned as he huddled at his golf club in Virginia. 
  • There's an open question over whether another Republican can capture Trump's movement.

AVENTURA, Fl. — Republicans are working to harness the populist movement Donald Trump started under his Make America Great Again campaign. Missing from it, though, is the ex-president.  

At the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort, top Republicans who headlined the third annual National Conservatism Conference made just a few isolated nods to Trump. Instead, the GOP leaders spent Sunday to Tuesday painting a picture of the post-Trump American right, one Trump himself inspired.

Most attendees came to see Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who touted his actions in Florida as a roadmap for the party. During an hourlong keynote on Sunday night, he also embraced a Trump-like posture of doubling down in the face of opposition.

The gathering happened at a time when congressional Republicans are split over whether to make promises to voters heading into the 2022 midterms.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will unveil a "Commitment to America" next week, according to Axios, while Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell isn't planning to offer a GOP policy agenda. 

NatCon was unapologetically a place to explore policy and map out the future. The conference promotes a nationalist brand of conservatism and is a project of the Edmund Burke Foundation, a conservative public affairs institute.

The tenets have a lot of ties to the movement Trump started. Attendees support free enterprise and limited immigration, and reject globalism, according to a statement of principles provided to conference attendees.

They also support policies that promote traditional nuclear families that include opposite-sex couples and children, as well as the belief that "public life should be rooted in Christianity." In contrast, Trump is not a churchgoer and was a thrice-wed politician who supported same-sex marriage — though he also advanced anti-LGBTQ rights policies as president.

NatCon's consensus, kicked off first in a speech by billionaire investor Peter Thiel, was that Republicans need a plan for how they'll govern. It's a point that Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been trying to make for a months.

"If the Republicans return to Washington business as usual, if we have no better plan than to be a speed bump on the continued road to socialism, we don't deserve to govern," Scott said in his Sunday evening speech promoting a "12-point Plan to Rescue America" that McConnell hasn't embraced for the party. 

Scott wasn't alone in calling for a clear governing philosophy. Fellow Floridian Sen. Marco Rubio said during his speech that he hoped the Senate would do more introspection about policymaking, adding that it's not enough to compare themselves to Democrats. 

"We have to outline a vision of the future that captures the hopes and dreams of everyday people and also paints a picture of the kind of future that made America unique and special," Rubio said. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump gestures during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at The Rosen Shingle Creek on February 26, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. Foto: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Trump huddled in Virginia 

NatCon isn't like the massive Conservative Political Action Conference held in Orlando, Florida, this year, where attendees sported sparkly Trump shirts and hats, eager to hear from the former president himself. 

The latest conservative gathering was just 4.3 miles north of a trio of Trump's eponymous residential skyscrapers towering over Sunny Isles Beach. And there was not a single MAGA hat in sight at the Marriott. 

NatCon is a more low-key event that's heavy on policy, and is an opportunity for GOP headliners to fundraise. It features leaders from conservative think tanks and media organizations, and college students are among the attendees. 

In making the case for why they thought it was necessary for Republicans to paint a vision of their priorities, speakers painted a dark picture of the Democratic Party, and of the US. 

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri spoke about liberal Democrats' "efforts to unmake history" in a speech that heavily focused on Christian values and stories from the Bible. Rubio called Democrats an "out of touch elite" engaged in "Marxism." Scott called the "militant left-wing" the "enemy within," saying the "woke" controlled numerous areas of American life. 

"We are meeting at a time of great peril for America and also, we just hope, significant opportunity for recovery," Christopher DeMuth, chairman of the conference, wrote in a letter to attendees enclosed with the conference program. 

The speeches hearkened back to Trump's "American carnage" picture of America, delivered on the steps of the Capitol during his 2017 inauguration. In his address, Trump pointed to abandoned factories, crime, and poverty, pledging to bring about change and saying: "This American carnage stops right here and stops right now."

As for Trump, he wasn't one of the speakers at this week's event, but instead was at his golf club in Virginia just outside Washington, DC. Trump was photographed huddling with his son Eric and a few other men soon after the Justice Department subpoenaed 40 people close to the former president. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, delivered the keynote speech at the National Conservatism Conference in Aventura, Florida, on September 11, 2022. Foto: Courtesy of The Edmund Burke Foundation

Republicans bash Mar-a-Lago search

Numerous signs show Trump still has a hold on the party, and developments about his life and legal troubles continue to dominate national headlines. The conventional wisdom is that Trump would secure the 2024 GOP nomination if he were to run again.

A Harvard CAPS-Harris poll released Monday found Trump has the highest favorability among political figures, both Democratic and Republican. If the 2024 presidential election were to be held today, Trump would defeat President Joe Biden, the poll projected — yet it also found a majority of voters think neither man should run.  

Trump's grip on the party did surface in a few instances at NatCon. Scott made the largest overtures to Trump by expressing outrage over the FBI's Mar-a-Lago raid before kicking off his formal remarks. 

Hawley, too, said the raid was a sign Democrats were "not afraid to use power." The Missouri senator was also the first to announce he would challenge states' election results on January 6, 2021, the day a violent mob of Trump supporters breached and ransacked the Capitol. 

At another point in his speech, Scott said the US needed to finish building the "damn wall" bordering the US and Mexico, and said it should be named after Trump. 

In the same vein, DeSantis slammed Biden for reversing Trump's border policies and cities that oppose or refuse to fully comply with federal immigration authorities of doing so to "virtue signal" against Trump. 

NatCon's Republican headliners are among a growing list of candidates who appear to be exploring the possibility of running for president in 2024. 

Others include former Vice President Mike Pence, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming.

The lineup suggests a wait-and-see approach. Trump is dealing with considerable legal and political problems, from scrutiny of his activities during the January 6, 2021, Capitol riot, to a DOJ investigation into whether he improperly took classified materials to his Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida. Other factors, such as age, health, or an unforeseen matter, could make room for an alternative GOP ascendant. 

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