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'Trump will win, 100%': conservatives on socialism, Bernie Sanders and 2020

The Guardian logo The Guardian 1/03/2019 David Smith in Oxon Hill, Maryland

Which Democrat does Donald Trump’s base fear most in the 2020 presidential election?

Senator Bernie Sanders was the candidate named by many attendees interviewed by the Guardian at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the biggest annual gathering of grassroots conservatives, citing his authenticity and ability to generate big crowds.

But none reckoned Trump will actually lose next year as they believe America is booming and the Democratic party is careening towards running on a socialist platform that spells electoral suicide.

Once deeply resistant to Trump, CPAC is now like a religious gathering full of Trump idolatry. “Make America Great Again” (Maga) hats and sweaters are much in evidence. Current and former White House officials such as Bill Shine and his controversial wife, Darla, Sean Spicer and Sebastian Gorka can be seen wandering the corridors. “Socialism sucks” stickers, written in the typeface and style of Sanders’ campaign logo, are in abundance.

“The favourite in the Democratic race is Bernie Sanders because the way he makes socialism sound,” said Brandon Morris, 32, wearing a Maga cap. “Most citizens don’t know how the system works; once I tell them, they see it will fall apart.”

Morris, a nurse from Gainesville, Florida, who is African American, added: “I’m against socialism because I see it as a form of slavery. The rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris talk about Medicare for All and that will kill doctors’ incentives to work hard. Look at Cuba.”

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Like Trump, Sanders ran in 2016 warning of a rigged system and the downsides of global trade and, like Trump, he thrived in midwestern states against Hillary Clinton. Less than a week after declaring his 2020 candidacy, Sanders had already raised $10m, well ahead of any of his rivals.

Wearing a Maga cap and stars and stripes jacket, Sam Lee, the communications director of conservative group Grand Opportunity USA, said: “I think Sanders has the ability to generate a base. He’s genuine. It’s the same thing as Trump: they’re very upfront about who they are. But Trump will win, 100%.”

Lee rejected candidates such as Harris and Elizabeth Warren as “background noise”, adding: “Every election has people who aren’t going to make it and I don’t think they could.”

Fran Wendelboe, the treasurer of the conservative organisation the 603 Alliance in New Hampshire, the first state to hold a primary, said: “Among the young voters, Bernie Sanders still seems popular. I think he still has great traction. Elizabeth Warren doesn’t seem to be getting much – she should get out of the race. But they’re all trampling themselves to get as far to the left as they can. Nobody’s going to beat Trump.”

Mike Wertz, a self-employed property appraiser, said: “It’s hard to run against Santa Claus: Bernie Sanders is Santa Claus because he says he would give everything away free. But Trump is still popular.”

Wertz, 52, from Stevensville, Maryland, dismissed the prospects of Joe Biden, the former vice-president who is yet to declare whether he will mount a third bid for the White House. “Biden would get exposed. He stumbles around and says silly things. Trump would bring that out of him; he wouldn’t let Biden get away with it. If Biden said something stupid, Trump would tweet it in about 30 seconds.”

Related: Why ‘Trump country’ isn’t as Republican as you think

In the CPAC hub there are merchandise booths hosted by campus groups, fringe organisations, political action committees, self-publishers, thinktanks, the National Rifle Association and the CO2 Coalition, which argues that “our lives and planet Earth will be improved by additional atmospheric carbon dioxide”. The “Official Trump Store” sells a space force hat for $35, Trump Pence playing cards for $25 and a build the wall bumper sticker for $2.50.

There are people dressed up as Abraham Lincoln and an American eagle and a giant gaudy Trump painting. Books on sale include Donald Drains the Swamp!, with a children’s illustration on the cover, Adios, America! by Ann Coulter, Hands Off My Gun by Dana Loesch, Liars, Leakers and Liberals by Judge Jeanine Pirro and Dinesh D’Souza’s The Big Lie: Exposing the Nazi Roots of the American Left.

Wandering among the displays on Thursday were William and Debra Noe, both 68, from Lexington, Kentucky.

William, a retired accountant, said: “Kamala Harris may be formidable; she comes across as idealistic. Elizabeth Warren just looks angry all the time. Harris looks friendly, like someone you could trust – not her policies, for sure. But if you saw her at the Brett Kavanaugh hearing, her true colors came across. She’s a little scary in that she looks nice but she’s not.”

Wearing a “socialism sucks” badge, James Stevens, 20, a student and chapter president at the activist group Turning Point USA, said sarcastically: “Out of the 200 candidates running on the Democratic side, there really is no frontrunner. They’re running on a platform combined with socialism and it looks like Trump is guaranteed to win in 2020.”

Raymond Arroyo, a journalist and Fox News pundit, was signing books.

“Americans vote on safety and prosperity and they tune out the tweets. It’s forced the Democrats to run far left of their party and I don’t see America buying it... I travel the country. I was just in Texas and Ohio; people are generally happy.”

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