In Miami, the post-Trump populist right speaks to its base — and courts donors

MIAMI — Some of the biggest names on the right, from mega-donor Peter Thiel to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, flew to South Florida to address a conference of “national conservatives” who have steadily gained sway in the GOP in recent years.

On the surface, the National Conservatism Conference held Sunday through Tuesday at the JW Marriott Turnberry Resort and Spa looked like an attempt to appeal to the Republican Party’s right-wing base, with a heavy focus on Christian nationalism, curbing immigration and battling “woke” politics. But veteran GOP operatives saw a second conference just below the surface: a play for money.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at a rally in August. (Eva Marie Uzcategui/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The continuing realignment of the Republican base and its supporters, which has kept political professionals supremely confused about what exactly America’s political right is at the moment. (The only constant seems to be that neoconservatives, who held the reins of the party and the conservative movement for decades, seem almost entirely boxed out.)

In Miami, a broad array of old conservative battlers and new, authoritarian-tinged activists, shared stages as part of an effort to apply an intellectual structure to the sprawling brand of Trumpist populism that swept the right seven years ago.

Thiel, the money man behind much of the new right, compared California to communist China and berated the scourge of literal “homeless poop” which has beset his home state of California in a speech arguing that the flood of tech money into California had distorted the nation’s politics by giving the state outsized influence in national debates.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the likely heir apparent of this brand of Trumpism, seized the crowd touting his fight against COVID-19 vaccines, gender reassignment surgery for minors and the Disney Corp. Most of DeSantis’s positions are longstanding hallmarks of the right, but DeSantis dressed them in rigid language, declaring himself “the protector of the state’s freedom and the state’s security.”

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump gather near his residence at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Fla., on Aug. 9. (Giorgio Viera/AFP via Getty Images)

And Balasz Orban, the son and top adviser to Hungary’s authoritarian leader, Viktor Orban, who has become a hero to the hard right in recent years, said that “woke globalists” were “brainwashing” children. He also said that the West’s economic sanctions against Russia for its war against Ukraine has Europe “down on its knees,” alluding to rising gas prices.

But behind the scenes, top Republicans corralled with donors from this South Florida enclave of Republican money.

Blake Masters, a Thiel protégé who’s running for a Senate seat in Arizona, was added at the last minute to headline a closed-door fundraiser for the NatCon crowd.

And National Senatorial Republican Committee Chairman Rick Scott, who’s tasked with helping Republicans try to win back the chamber, spent Sunday afternoon at the luxurious Miami resort meeting with donors, including Claremont Institute chairman and Republican mega donor Tom Klingenstein, before his Sunday night speech.

“We’ve actually done really well,” Scott told Yahoo News. “After taking over the National Republican Senatorial Committee in January 2021, we said we’re going to raise money, define our opponents early,” Scott told Yahoo News afterward.

Trump supporters at a rally in Sarasota, Fla., July 3. (Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A New York Times investigation of the NRSC’s digital fundraising operation under Scott sparked cries that Scott was more interested in promoting himself than the Senate Republican candidates. But a spokesman for Scott refuted those concerns.

Scott has been pulling in top Florida donors to the NRSC since he took over and has also “flipped” spending plans, with the NRSC spending more earlier in the year ahead of the November midterm elections, leaving more money for candidates and outside groups to spend closer to election day, NRSC communications director Chris Hartline said.

“The reality is this has worked, despite all the pissing and moaning from Washington,” Hartline told Yahoo News.

Far from the most well-known of the conservative conferences, like the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, which has turned into something of a comic-con for far-right activists and podcast celebrities, the NatCon conference felt more subdued and restrained.

Washington Republican operatives and longtime conservative think tank leaders, like National Conservative Conference chairman Chris DeMuth, mingled with conservative media outlets, Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish leaders from South Florida and college students.

JD Vance, Republican Senate candidate in Ohio. (Gaelen Morse/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In his speech, Thiel called the gathering a “ragtag band of rebels” which he equated to “Star Wars.” (Thiel dubbed himself the Han Solo of the group and former President Donald Trump Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the original “Star Wars” films, Obi-Wan is an ever-present apparition guiding the group but not controlling it.)

“It’s donors, Zionists and a nerd prom,” said one veteran Republican operative as he watched from the sidelines. The operative and other veteran Republicans speaking on background said the conference felt more like a play to peel donors from CPAC, which is increasingly seen as a singular extension of longtime operative and CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp.

Schlapp told Yahoo News the chatter and sniping didn’t bother him and that he likes what he sees from the Miami conference. “The more generals on the field, the better,” he said.