At Florida's Retirement Xanadu, GOP Firebrands Lead Their Own Trump Rally : The NPR Politics Podcast House Republican bomb throwers Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz threw a rally at The Villages retirement community in Florida this weekend. It showcased how the Republican Party's base has dropped its ideological core to define itself by loyalty to Trump, even after his defeat.

This episode: White House correspondent Tamara Keith, demographics and culture reporter Danielle Kurtzleben, and national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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At Florida's Retirement Xanadu, GOP Firebrands Lead Their Own Trump Rally

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JESSE BYRON: Hey, this is Jesse Byron. I'm about to start the 12-hour journey from Montevallo, Ala., to Manteo, N.C., where I'll be spending the summer at America's longest-running outdoor drama, "The Lost Colony," my first theater contract after the pandemic shut down the industry. This podcast was recorded at...

TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

10:54 a.m. on Monday, May 10.

BYRON: Things may have changed by the time you heard this. But hopefully, I'll be at least a few hundred more miles closer to my journey. All right. Here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Congratulations.

KEITH: I really do feel like the universe is healing. Well, or at least our corner of the universe is healing. I was trying to just schedule something with a friend and our schedules were too busy.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: Yes.

KEITH: It's things like this. It's starting to feel like normal.

KURTZLEBEN: Soon we'll be happy to cancel plans again.

KEITH: (Laughter) Exactly. And we won't have a pandemic to blame - maybe.

Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And Danielle, speaking of things returning to some sort of pre-pandemic normalcy, I hear sweet, sweet sounds behind you.

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Easy for you to say. Yes. I am huddled in a corner of the Orlando airport right now, the quietest corner I could find, which - you know airports - isn't that quiet.

KEITH: I seriously think this is our first airport podcast in more than a year. And I'm here for it.

KURTZLEBEN: I am honored to bring us back.

KEITH: (Laughter) So you are about to hop on a plane headed back from what sounds like a pretty wild weekend. You went to The Villages, which is, like, this massive retirement metropolis, very conservative place, to cover a rally held by Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Green. These are two House Republicans. Matt Gaetz is reportedly under investigation over a number of allegations, including that he slept with a teenage girl. And Marjorie Taylor Green is a firebrand, attention-grabbing freshman congresswoman from Georgia. What were you doing there? What were they doing there?

KURTZLEBEN: They were holding an America First rally, is what they called it. The idea is they said that this will kick off a string of rallies across the country. America First, by the way - speaking of these two being attention-grabbing is one way to put it - members of the party - America First also happens to reference the name of a caucus that was connected to Marjorie Taylor Green, a proposed caucus that was going to launch in Congress. And some of the language that leaked around that caucus referenced - invoked white nationalism. The caucus eventually did not happen, but it's just a note of how much they're willing to kind of - to continue to poke at things and are trolling. They continue to troll in certain ways and be willing to upset people.

LIASSON: And these are two backbenchers in Congress. And as a matter of fact, Marjorie Taylor Green is about as back on the bench as you can get because she has no more committee assignments.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yes. And this is another note of their defiance. Like, this rally - first of all, these two, we should say, their supporters are Trump supporters, and The Villages is a conservative place. I talked to some residents. They said it's always been a Republican area. It's always been conservative. But an outgrowth of that is that it is heavily Trumpy (ph) as well. And these two are Trump's - two of Trump's biggest supporters in Congress.

KEITH: Yeah. Last time I was at The Villages in 2015, it was just, like, a parade of Trump-decorated, bedazzled golf carts parked in every...

KURTZLEBEN: Yes.

KEITH: ...You know, parking lot and near the pools and whatnot. Yeah. So, like, what was the point of this? Was this a pro-Trump rally? Was this a we are the center of this party even though we are two members of Congress who are totally on the outside?

KURTZLEBEN: Those are two of the points. I mean, let's be - let's really stress here, this is not Gaetz's district. He's from Florida, but he's not from this part of Florida. And this is not Marjorie Taylor Green's state. So they aren't there to get votes. It was in part a fundraising thing. They were asking for money surrounding the rally. The moment that I signed up for it, I got fundraising emails, and there was a VIP fundraiser section. So money definitely a part of it.

But also, this rally was a Trump rally. The two are one and the same - lots of Make America Great Again hats and other clothing, a giant bus, a sort of unofficial Trump bus outside covered with Trump, doctored photos, his head on a shirtless boxer, his body, that sort of thing. It was to slam other Republicans who they perceive as not the party. And, yeah, it was to also sort of whip up support for themselves and to kick off what they said was going to be this tour.

KEITH: Yeah. So Mara, this all coincides with a very big fight within the House Republican caucus - conference. And maybe it's not even a fight, really, but where the - where Liz Cheney, who is a member of leadership, is on the outs, likely to be ousted as soon as this week and replaced with a pro-Trump congresswoman, Elise Stefanik from upstate New York, who is less conservative in terms of votes than Cheney, in terms of policy, but vastly more pro-Trump and totally willing to go along with Trump's election fraud claims in a way that Cheney is just refusing.

LIASSON: Right. I think that this week will really end the debate - one-sided as it might have been - inside the Republican Party. Donald Trump is now the leader of the party. The party is no longer an ideological party. What it stands for is anything that Trump wants at a given moment. He's very focused on rewarding people who are loyal to him and punishing people who are not. And the definition of loyalty to Trump right now, the bottom line, is whether you accept his lie about the 2020 elections, that somehow it was stolen from him and that Joe Biden is not a legitimate president. This has profound implications for the Republican Party and for American democracy because we now have one party who doesn't accept the results of elections where they don't win.

KEITH: And Danielle, I imagine this leadership fight came up at this rally?

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, most definitely. I mean, this was a central point of the rally. Like, look, at one of these rallies, you're always going to hear them call out the media, call out Democrats they don't like. That is nothing new. But a big, big strain of these two speeches was listing off Republicans that they consider insufficiently loyal to Trump. So - not just loyal to Trump, but loyal to Trumpism. So Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, Adam Kinzinger, they - I'm not remembering all of them, but that's (laughter) a taste of it. And of course, Liz Cheney topped the list.

And when they brought up those Republicans that they consider not sufficiently loyal, the crowd booed. You know, this is a self-selecting group, but the - everybody I talked to, everybody I mentioned Liz Cheney to, knew exactly who she was and knew they did not like her. And when I brought up Elise Stefanik, they had better things to say. This is a group of people who knew who the enemy was because this is Trumpism. Trumpism is built around negative partisanship, negative politicking - who we are not. And everybody in that crowd knew who they weren't, and they knew all the names on that list.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. And when we get back, more on what all this says about the Republican Party.

And we're back. And Danielle, you cover demographics and culture for NPR, so let's talk about that for a second. You know, people at an America First rally in The Villages are likely to be among the most hardcore Trump supporters that you can find in an already very Republican community. But that doesn't necessarily make them fringe, right?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. I mean, these are people who make up the core of the Republican Party. They are older. They are often - not always - white. But, yes. Also the counties that make up The Villages and surrounding The Villages, those three counties, around 60% or more, sometimes substantially more, of their residents voted for Trump in 2020.

KEITH: And they're super fast-growing counties, too.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. If you talk to some Villages residents who have lived here for a while, they will tell you about just how crazy fast these places are growing because there's just so many retirees and so many flocking down here. But it's not just, you know, that these people voted for Trump, it's that - it's like we said. The people who show up to a Gaetz/Green rally are likely to be Trumpy Trump supporters. And all the people I spoke to at the rally when I asked them about the election, they did not accept the 2020 election results.

And I mean, if you look at polls, this isn't weird in the Republican Party. There is a recent Ipsos poll, for example, that found that 55% of Republicans believe that the 2020 election was somehow unfair, that Joe Biden is not the rightful winner. That's not the entire Republican Party, but it's still a potential slim majority of the party that believes a lie. That is huge. And these people very much reflected that.

KEITH: Can you tell us about any of the people in particular that stood out to you from your interviews?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes. So one thing I want to get at is just how opposed to Liz Cheney this crowd was, how much they are tapped into this whole leadership fight. There is one woman I spoke to, Rhea Amees (ph) - I caught her after the rally outside the hotel. And I barely had brought up Liz Cheney's name when she interrupted me with just disgust at her. Here's what she said.

They mentioned Liz Cheney a lot in there.

RHEA AMEES: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. I cannot stand her.

KURTZLEBEN: Wait, why?

AMEES: You know, why she hates Trump? Why is - she's supposed to be out of Republican Party. Republican Party need to be united.

KURTZLEBEN: And that was, like we were all talking about earlier, very indicative of what this rally was about. Like Mara was saying, this is not a party that is about necessarily conservative ideology. You didn't hear much about limited government at this or even Christian family values. It was very much about winning, one of Trump's favorite words. It was very much about who are the enemies.

It was very much also a rally about who is the center of the Republican Party. And I spoke to a woman named Linda Murphy-Griffaw. And I asked her about her voting history, and she said, I'm a Republican. And she said, I used to be a Democrat. And I said, oh, did you vote for Obama? And she said, no, never. And I said, did you vote for Romney or did you vote for McCain? And she said, no, neither of them either. And I said, OK, so you voted for Trump? And she said, yes. And then she explained why.

LINDA MURPHY-GRIFFAW: I never vote unless I truly believe in the party I'm voting for. And I truly believe that he wanted the best for us.

KURTZLEBEN: And so this was one of the biggest takeaways from this rally. And this is something that the Republican Party is definitely watching for and talking about. As - if you have enough of those voters who are excited by no one but Trumpists, then that shifts the party potentially in a really big way.

KEITH: Well, and Mara, President Trump is not going to be on the ballot in, whatever, 20 months when the next election happens that will change the balance of power in Congress - or could.

LIASSON: That's right. The last time he wasn't on the ballot, the party did just terribly in 2018. But this is the big question. Will energizing the base in a way only Trump can, is that something good or bad for the party over the long term? This is the new business model for the Republican Party. It's a cable news business model. You don't need a big audience. You just need them watching you 24/7. And he proved in his four years in office that he could get his base more and more and more excited, but he couldn't grow it. And it wasn't big enough for him to hold onto Congress in 2018 or to win re-election in 2020.

And that's the question. You have people like Lindsey Graham who says, we can't grow this party without him. Liz Cheney says, we can't survive as a party with him because he's anti-democratic and won't accept the results of a free and fair election. This is the question that the Republican Party is going to have to resolve, and I think it's going to take a couple more election cycles before they do.

KEITH: Yeah, I don't know that 2022 is going to solve it (laughter). But it...

LIASSON: No, because they have so many structural advantages that a party that's in an identity crisis is not the same thing as a party that's in shambles or is about to lose a lot of seats. They could win control of Congress while still not knowing what they stand for beyond what Donald Trump wants.

KEITH: All right. Well Danielle, I think that you probably have a flight to catch, and I don't want to be the one that makes you miss your first flight of 2021...

KURTZLEBEN: (Laughter) Thank you.

KEITH: ...Or your second flight of 2021. But thank you so much for joining us on the pod from the airport. This has been awesome.

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, my pleasure.

KEITH: I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House

KURTZLEBEN: I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover demographics and culture.

LIASSON: I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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