Nikki Haley wants to be President of the United States. If you leave after the applause in the audience at a conference of right-wing conservatives near the US capital Washington, that’s unlikely to happen. The people there applauded the loudest on Friday (local time) when the former UN ambassador said: “America is not a racist country.” Or: “When I’m President, we will stop giving money to countries that hate us.” If the 51-year-old Republican indirectly attacks ex-President Donald Trump, the silence in the more than half-filled hall is almost palpable. The people there have other idols – and they came for one in particular: Trump himself.

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is a regular conference of conservatives. However, moderate tones are not struck there – the meeting has now become a gathering place for right-wing nationalists, conspiracy theorists and the religious right. Radicals like Republican MPs Marjorie Taylor Greene, Rick Scott and Lauren Boebert are on the list of speakers. While Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban called for a fight against liberal values ​​at the conference in the US metropolis of Dallas last summer, Brazil’s right-wing ex-President Jair Bolsonaro is now expected this Saturday.

Serious Trump rivals tend to avoid the conference

Potentially more promising Trump rivals in the race for the Republican presidential candidacy, such as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis or ex-Vice Vice President Mike Pence, cannot be seen there. Haley’s performance therefore stands out. The former governor of the state of South Carolina made her application for the candidacy public a good two weeks ago, making her Trump’s first prominent challenger. When she enters the hall, people stand up and applaud. But that seems more like a polite gesture than pure passion. Once again she calls for competence tests for older politicians, talks a lot about foreign policy and tries to match the tone of the conference with the topic of culture wars.

“In our world, she’s something of an establishment,” says Regina from the city of Zionsville, Indiana. The ardent Trump supporter wears blue sunglasses with star-shaped lenses – the outfit is inspired by the US flag in red and white. Haley first stood behind Trump, now she is competing against him. “It’s kind of unfortunate,” says Regina. She and her friend intentionally left the hall when Haley came on stage. She speculates that she might simply want to become vice president – like many other visitors to the conference. Then she gets excited, because the far-right MP Greene walks by. She seems to be in a hurry, no time for a photo, Regina puts her cell phone away again.

Firm belief in Trump’s stolen election lie

The audience here is different than in tranquil Charleston, where Haley started her campaign in February. There the tone was more moderate. At the CPAC, on the other hand, many visitors are convinced of Trump’s lie about the stolen election. There are conspiracy theories about Corona, including Maga caps and Trump shirts. The party appears divided, but is still largely behind Trump. Haley’s poll numbers are in the single digits, with Trump leading. Trump’s former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is also considered a possible challenger – and speaks at the CPAC shortly after Haley. But Trump can probably only be really dangerous DeSantis, who is on a tour in Florida introducing laws that discriminate against minorities.

He is not seen in the Trump fan club at CPAC. Meanwhile, one extreme is chasing the next. As in the past, T-shirts are being sold that show Biden with a Hitler beard. “Not my dictator” is written on it. On stage, trans people and allegedly demented US President Joe Biden are hounded. Another hate figure: Democratic Senator John Fetterman, who has been admitted to a clinic for depression. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also not suffered well. The financial support for Kiev should rather be spent on “their own people”.

A closed off area is reserved for the press

The ticket for the multi-day conference costs just under 300 US dollars (around 280 euros), and a number of additional events are extra. Travel and accommodation are on top of that. It’s still worth it for many. Even if Regina from Indiana complains that the whole thing is very expensive and badly organized. As is often the case for Trump events, the press likes to be tamed a bit. Media representatives are no longer allowed to sit on one of the many free chairs in the hall on Friday. A closed press area is intended for them, in which there is far too little space – and for many only the floor remains. The rules are strictly and firmly monitored to ensure that nobody breaks the rules.

For Jim, the CPAC is a successful event, he meets like-minded people there. In principle, the United States is about good versus evil, says the older man from the state of Virginia. Biden – he is demented and simply controlled by ex-President Barack Obama. And then, almost casually, he tells us that he was there in Washington on the day of the Capitol attack a good two years ago.

“I looked at different speakers, waited for Trump’s speech,” he says. There was “good energy” and everyone was angry about the election. At some point before the deadly riots began, however, he left. But he is certain: There is a lot of footage showing that the police shot tear gas and other things into the crowd and stirred up the crowd. He’s not alone at CPAC with that opinion. And would he have marched to the Capitol that day? “My wife was worried. She said: Watch out, don’t interfere.”