Donald Trump

Inside the Pro-Trump Conference Where a Violent Meme Made National News

The American Priority Festival gave a glimpse inside the world where deep state theories thrive.


THE TRUMP NATIONAL DORAL MIAMI RESORT—Several hundred of Donald Trump's most fervent and fevered fans gathered for the weekend at one of his glitzy Florida resorts. Naturally, the biggest news was a meme.

The New York Times reported Sunday night that a video was played at this year's American Priority Festival, a pro-Trump event featuring the president's staunchest defenders, showing Trump massacring a church full of people with media brands superimposed on their faces. The video was an edited clip from the first Kingsman movie.

The White House Correspondents Association released a statement calling on Trump "and everybody associated with this conference to denounce this video and affirm that violence has no place in our society."

I was one of the few reporters allowed into the conference, by virtue of not being a lib or working for a mainstream outlet, and I can fill in the rather sad context. The video was part of an "art exhibit," located in a room to the side of the Donald J. Trump Ballroom, of videos created by the self-proclaimed "memesmith" who goes by the pseudonym "Carpe Donktum." Typing that sentence made me hate myself.

Anyway, inside the room TVs and projectors were playing Mr. Donktum's greatest hits. They generally all follow the same format. Trump's face is superimposed onto a clip from The Avengers, and he beats up CNN. Trump's face is superimposed onto Star-Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy, and he dances while kicking space rats labeled CNN.

I took a short video of the room:

I couldn't say how many people actually saw the offending meme. The room was empty when I walked in on Friday morning. I didn't stay in the room very long, because I don't like high-concept art and the real-life memes were walking around outside.

Nearby in the halls of the ballroom at the Trump National Doral Miami resort, former Trump campaign lackey George Papadopoulos was signing copies of his book, Deep State Target: How I Got Caught in the Crosshairs of the Plot to Bring Down President Trump, for a long line of festival attendees. Papadopoulos served 12 days in federal prison after being convicted of making false statements to the FBI and is currently on supervised release.

The Bikers for Trump were there in their leather vests, despite the South Florida heat. The Proud Boys, who reportedly take an anti-masturbation pledge when they join the group, were there too. So was guy who's known for dressing in a brick wall-patterned suit at Trump rallies. These were lifetime customers, the kind who would pay for airfare, conference registration, and $199 a night for a room at the hotel (plus $25 a day for the resort fee, plus parking)—not even to see Trump himself, but just to bask in his brand, be among the faithful, and hear others talk about how great the man is.

The conference was a glimpse inside the hermetically sealed reality where Trump's most hardcore defenders live, a place where the president is besieged on all sides by an incredible conspiracy to delegitimize and remove him from office. This wide-ranging plot involves the intelligence community, the press, the largest social media companies on Earth, and possibly several foreign governments, depending on which version of the story you hear.

Later on Friday, Papadopoulos appeared on stage with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (author of Trump's Enemies: How the Deep State Is Undermining the Presidency) and Judicial Watch's Tom Fitton, where the trio explained to the audience the ongoing coup attempt against the president.

"The media intentionally wanted to brainwash all of you," Papadopoulos told the audience. "They wanted to create chaos and division, and attempt a silent coup."

"These folks are no whistleblowers," Fitton said of the recent anonymous whistleblower complaints against Trump. "The president is a whistleblower. That's what he's being targeted for."

Like many bunker-mentality movements, the adherents of the theory believe that they are surrounded on all sides by enemies but that their victory is ultimately assured. Not only will the truth prevail, but the deep-state instigators of the Russia hoax and the Ukraine witch hunt will be investigated and, God willing, put behind bars.

"The most common question I get is when are they going to jail?" Rep. Matt Gaetz (R–Fl.), one of the most Trumpian members of Congress, told a delighted crowd.

There was a lot of talk of disinformation and fake news, but some speakers could have used a little factchecking themselves. Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk falsely claimed that whistleblower laws had been changed to accommodate the recent whistleblower complaint against Donald Trump. Kirk was relying on a debunked story by The Federalist. Another speaker told the audience that Facebook does not have immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a myth that Reason has repeatedly debunked.

Besides the liberal media and the Democrats, tech companies were the biggest boogeymen in the room. "To put it bluntly, big tech is doing everything possible to prevent the American people from ever deciding their own elections ever again," Gaetz said.

The American Priority Festival, now in its second year, was envisioned as an explicitly pro-Trump alternative to the Conservative Political Action Conference, for years the premier conservative gathering.

In the view of many pro-Trump activists, that sort of big-tent event has become unnecessary and annoying. Now that Trump's cult of personality has subsumed much of the Republican Party, fusionism—"the dead consensus," as one manifesto in First Things called it—is over, and there's no longer any need to pretend that nationalist conservatives share much of anything in common with free market conservatives, civility police, or decadent libertarians.

As Ned Ryun, a senior fellow at the pro-Trump journal American Greatness said at the festival, "We don't need more Ben Sasses and Mitt Romneys."

The crowd broke into cheers when plagiarist Benny Johnson, who was emceeing Friday's events, announced that Fox News host Shep Smith was leaving his longtime spot at the cable channel. Smith had reportedly been at odds with the outlet's rabidly pro-Trump prime-time hosts.

Politico reported that last year's AMP Fest, held in Washington, D.C. was lightly attended and stocked with conspiracy theorists. This year's festival, hosted at one of Trump's properties rather than the swamp, seemed relatively more successful, with a number of high-profile speakers. For example, a prayer breakfast featured former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders (book forthcoming from St. Martin's Press in 2020). 

There were also surprise guests, including Roger Stone, one of Trump's longtime consultants and a famously sleazy political operator. A federal grand jury indicted Stone in January on seven counts of obstruction of justice, false statements, and witness tampering as part of the Mueller probe.

In August a federal judge rejected Stone's argument that he was being prosecuted as an act of political retaliation for his support of Trump. Stone is also barred from posting on social media for repeatedly violating the judge's gag order in the case. 

In the friendly confines of the Trump National Doral Miami, all of this made him a revered martyr in the war to make America great again.

On Friday night, Stone was leaving the steakhouse bar inside the resort when I saw two women stop him, lay hands, and begin to pray over him. Stone solemnly bowed his head, but kept peeking around, as if to see who was watching.

The mystery guests and conservative heroes were all secondary to the headliner, though: the president's son, Donald Trump, Jr.

As The Atlantic reported earlier this month, Don Jr. has, to the surprise of everyone else in his family, become the heir apparent to Trump's political dynasty. While Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were using the White House to try and worm their way into the international elite, and while Eric Trump was busy tending the family business, Don Jr. was honing his shitposting and stump speeches among his father's grassroots following. Onstage, he can effortlessly whip a crowd of Trump fans into a hooting frenzy.

For an hour, Don Jr. delivered riffs on topics like Elizabeth Warren's Native American ancestry or lack thereof, Robert Francis O'Rourke's plan to take away your guns, the Jussie Smollet case, Hunter Biden's drug problems, and of course the persecution he and his family have faced for nothing more than loving their country.

It was a speech without direction or point, a long windup to nowhere. And at the moment, the crowd wanted nothing else.