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CPAC 2019 reveals a base in thrall to Trump

CPAC has always reflected what the conservative base wants. This year is no different.

President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on February 23, 2018.
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Some of the conservative movement’s biggest names are gathering this week in National Harbor, Maryland, for the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC. President Trump, fresh off his trip to Vietnam to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, will speak. So will Sebastian Gorka, Fox News host Laura Ingraham, and the star of the History Channel show Pawn Stars.

But in 2019, some on the right think that CPAC doesn’t seem to have the same energy in years past. One conservative commentator told me that the conference looks “irrelevant” this year. “They’re like the Oscars. Some years, irrelevant. Some years, highly relevant.” Another pundit told me that CPAC was a “lagging indicator” of where conservatism is, more reflective of what conservatism used to be.

Guests listen to President Trump address CPAC at the Gaylord National Resort in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on February 23, 2018.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Conservative writer Nicole Russell added at the Daily Beast, “Whereas CPAC used to be a platform for a party of ideas, propagated by conservatives’ biggest names, it’s now unsure of itself, especially in the aftermath of last fall’s electoral defeats for the GOP, wavering between the competing values of ideas and entertainment.”

But maybe nothing has really changed. In years past, CPAC was a place where conservatives, even those outside the Republican Party, made their priorities known to the world. And perhaps it still is — if Trump and a very particular brand of Trumpism are those priorities.

CPAC this year: lots and lots of “celebrities”

At this year’s CPAC, there is no panel on the rise of conservative populism, one of the biggest discussions taking place within the movement, and there will be just one panel on immigration, a one-on-one conversation between Sen. Ted Cruz and National Review editor Rich Lowry. In other words, the biggest tensions within the conservative movement — the tensions that have caused more debates and arguments than virtually any other — will get almost no space at the biggest activist convention of the year.

And while there are numerous panels on issues that many conservatives are focused on — social media bias (one of this year’s biggest topics), foreign policy concerns (namely, China) — CPAC’s emphasis on promoting a specific type of conservative “celebrity” has gotten more attention from right-leaning observers than the panels that are supposed to be the fulcrum of the conference.

The four-day conference will feature a “boot camp” for young student activists on how to create email lists and build campus organizations, and panels on such topics as “The Cost of Surrendering Art, Film, and Books to the Left.” (You can read the full agenda here.) Other events include:

  • A panel discussion with California Rep. Devin Nunes, architect of the very brief “Release the Memo” news cycle
  • “AOC’s Green New Deal: Debunking the Climate Alarmism Behind Bringing Full Socialism to the United States,” sponsored by the Heartland Institute
  • Keynote speeches from Vice President Mike Pence, White House economic adviser Peter Navarro, the UK’s Nigel Farage, conservative activist Michelle Malkin, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, and Fox News pundit Jeanine Pirro

The agenda also includes events on America’s debt, criminal justice reform, Venezuela, and “stopping the progressive drift of evangelical border,” but visitors can also attend a panel on the censoring of conservative media content featuring Project Veritas’s James O’Keefe, who attempted to trick the Washington Post into reporting on a false sexual assault allegation involving former Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.

CPAC has been home to some big moments in the conservative movement

Granted, since its inception, CPAC itself has vacillated wildly at times between honoring right-leaning standard-bearers of the Grand Old Party and the fringes many conservatives would prefer to ignore. Like when Newt Gingrich celebrated becoming House speaker back in 1994 in a speech that received a standing ovation, or when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a gay slur in 2007.

CPAC is where Mitt Romney described himself as “severely conservative” in 2012. But it is also where the more libertarian — or, some would say, libertine — strains of the movement are on prominent display. Fans of both Ron and Rand Paul are often found in abundance, and more recently, conservative provocateur of sorts Milo Yiannopoulos was supposed to speak, until a conservative blog posted a video in which Yiannopoulos appeared to defend hebephilia, sexual attraction to children between the ages of 11 and 14. (The evangelical strain of the conservative movement has its own competing annual conference, the Values Voter Summit.)

The tension between mainstream conservatism and the fringier conservative activists has always been on display — perhaps most notably with one of the first big speeches there by the current president.

Donald Trump first alluded to running for president as a conservative Republican in a speech at the conference in 2011. “This was the most important event at CPAC; Trump came out of the closet in the sense of revealing he is a conservative,” said former Virginia GOP Chair Jeffrey Frederick.

Unlike, say, the Republican National Convention held every presidential cycle, CPAC is supposed to be, as Ronald Reagan said in 1985, “the opportunity to dance with the one who brung ya.” The focus isn’t intended to be on the party but on the conservative movement, the grassroots organizations and individuals who make up the ideological backbone of the party — and who want to keep the party in line.

In fact, CPAC began in 1974 as a protest of sorts against the GOP, and against a president many conservatives deeply loathed — the soon-to-resign Richard Nixon. The conference was a joint effort between Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union, the latter of which still operates the event. I reached out to Matt Schlapp, chair of the ACU (and husband of White House director of strategic communications Mercedes Schlapp), but he did not respond.

In a New York Times article from January 27, 1974, attendees at the first iteration of CPAC assailed Nixon, who was in the throes of the Watergate scandal, for Watergate but also for being inadequately conservative:

Much of the conservative outrage predates Watergate. Their hearts belonged, in 1968, to Gov. Ronald Reagan of California, but many went along with Mr. Nixon because he was considered more “electable.” Since then, the conservative spokesman made clear, his policies on China, the Soviet Union and wage and price controls have caused them dismay.

Said one participant at the inaugural CPAC, “[Nixon’s] operations have been, for all practical purposes, those of a liberal. We have to attack him on that basis.”

How Trumpism changed CPAC

Since then, CPAC has tried to reflect the mood of the movement, even while occasionally showing shifts in base sentiment on LGBTQ rights, for example. Think of CPAC as a lasso of sorts, intended to keep the Republican Party in lockstep with conservative priorities, while GOP officials attempt to sound as “severely conservative” as humanly possible.

It was at the 2015 edition of CPAC, for example, where conference attendees expressed dismay about Sen. Marco Rubio’s plans for immigration reform — and in response, Cruz told attendees, “Unfortunately, Republican leadership is cutting a deal with Harry Reid and the Democrats to give in on executive amnesty” (referring to immigration), adding, “because they are not listening to you.”

And as conservatism has shifted under the weight of Trump’s popularity among conservatives, CPAC has changed, too, growing increasingly more reflective of the “own the libs” silo of the conservative movement, which has its own celebrities (Diamond and Silk, for example) and its own priorities and language. You can still go to CPAC and learn more about how to run for city council or discuss criminal justice reform, but that same CPAC will feature a lot of talk about George Soros.

That said, roughly 10,000 people (and thousands of journalists) will still attend CPAC this year, many of them young people looking to hear from younger right-leaning figures, like Parkland shooting survivor and Turning Point USA high school outreach coordinator Kyle Kashuv. They will look to CPAC to get an idea of where conservatism is right now.

And with Trump at the helm, and conservative celebrities the biggest draw, perhaps they’re looking in the right place.

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