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CPAC, explained

A conference for ideologues has become a celebrity experience.

Conservatives Gather For Annual CPAC Convention Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

CPAC, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, starts Wednesday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in the suburbs of Washington, DC.

The conference has already made headlines for the invitation and subsequent disinvitation of troll and provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos when it was revealed that he’s added the occasional pro-pedophilia remark to his usual arsenal of misogyny, racism, and transphobia.

But while speaker invitation controversies are part and parcel of any good CPAC, the annual conference is much more than the Milo story. CPAC is a unique event on the political calendar, a gathering of conservative movement activists and loyalists that’s also a hub for people who are much more entertainers and entrepreneurs than they are ideologues or policy wonks. The left has its own gatherings, of course, but there is no real CPAC of the left, just as there is no real liberal equivalent to the mass-market conservative talk radio audience, to Fox News, or to the conservative book publishing world.

An old saw often misattributed to Eric Hoffer states that “every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”

Had FBI head James Comey not released his infamous letter on October 28, Hillary Clinton’s popular vote win would almost surely have been matched by a narrow Electoral College victory. Everyone would be talking about how Donald Trump badly underperformed the structural fundamentals of the race, and cost the GOP a winnable election. A political party would have been hijacked by a con artist and driven to ruin in a bizarre and barely explicable way, and CPAC 2017 would be a perfect moment to reflect on how the cause of the American conservative movement had become a racket.

Instead, Friday at 10:20 am, the adoring crowd will be addressed by President Donald Trump.

CPAC’s origins date back decades

CPAC is itself a product of the American Conservative Union, a venerable institution dating back to a very different time in American politics. At the time of the ACU’s founding in 1964, the parties were not well-sorted by ideology, and there was a critical role for groups like ACU (and its counterpart on the left, Americans for Democratic Action) to essentially serve as ideological clearinghouses. ACU and ADA helped issue activists form networks with one another outside of the largely non-ideological patronage networks that defined the political parties.

An annual conference at which conservatives could meet face to face was a natural complement to ACU’s core work of lobbying Congress and giving members voting records scores for how conservative they are. And so in 1973, ACU started the Conservative Political Action Conference.

CPAC was a small affair for its first 25 years or so of existence. And by the late 1990s, the parties were thoroughly sorted along ideological grounds. Moderates existed in both parties, but all the conservatives were Republicans, and there was no real doubt that the Republican Party was the political vehicle of the conservative movement and vice versa. New institutions that spoke more directly to the needs of the present day naturally came to overshadow older ones from a much earlier era.

And by the 21st century, the ACU was no longer a particularly vibrant or important operation, a fact that in many ways speaks to its fundamental success. George W. Bush is not and will never be a conservative icon in quite the way Ronald Reagan was, but his administration marked the Washington ascendancy of a thoroughly conservative Republican Party in a way Reagan’s never did. But while ACU itself fell somewhat into the shadows, CPAC saw a surge of attendance coincident with Bush’s inauguration that set the stage for its emergence as a major phenomenon.

CPAC is a barometer for the conservative grassroots

CPAC functions, for the media, as something of a holy grail.

For starters, it was held for years inside the District of Columbia and even today has moved to an easily accessible suburb. That means it’s cheap to cover, which is always a plus.

And it assembles en masse a certain kind of unicorn character who is good to write about — the “normal person” (as opposed to professional political operative) who is also highly attuned to politics and willing to express opinions about it to a perfect stranger.

That these are conservative unicorns in particular is doubly appealing. For starters, Republican Party politicians have traditionally been more worried about the views of their grassroots ideological base than their Democratic Party counterparts, so what conservatives think seems important and relevant. Beyond that, most journalists covering national politics live in big, liberal coastal cities and aware that this leaves them socially distanced from most grassroots conservatives. Having rooms full of them served up on a platter is too much to resist, so each year journalists line up to take the temperature of the movement.

This has often taken the form of a kind of outrage politics ping-pong.

In 2007, for example, Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot” at CPAC, which progressive outlets roundly reported and denounced. The following year, her annual outrage was saying “the best thing that had ever happened to the campaign of ‘B. Hussein Obama’ was when he was born ‘half black.’”

CPAC evolved into a live show of conservative entertainment

Coulter-esque fare was hardly the only thing on offer at the CPACs of the aughts. But in retrospect, observers may have paid too much attention to the ideological content of various CPAC happenings (Ron Paul was hot in 2009, but foreign policy hawks stole the show in 2015) rather than to the role of people like Coulter.

The ACU’s origin was as an enforcer of ideological rigor at a time of largely non-ideological parties. But one consequence of the conservative movement’s success is that an enormous ecosystem of commercially successful conservative media arose.

Figures such as Coulter, Fox News primetime hosts, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh, and other stars of AM radio and conservative publishing imprints are in the big-time moneymaking business in a way that would have been inconceivable to an ideologue of a generation ago. Conservative politics became, for many, an identity, a lifestyle, and an affinity group. Conservatism certainly had something to do with political issues, but it also had a lot to do with watching the right shows, buying the right books, and listening to the right radio stations.

As CPAC attendance soared, it naturally took on more of this coloring. Rather than a meeting to hash out an agenda, it was to a substantial extent a live version of the conservative entertainment experience that one could also get on cable or on the radio — just as people pay good money to see live performances of their favorite bands, you could attend CPAC and see your favorite conservative media stars in action. Republican politicians seeking favor would also be there, and would do their best version of rabble-rousing, base-oriented speeches.

Donald Trump was a big hit at CPAC 2011

An excellent sign of what the new CPAC was all about was the fact that way back in 2011, Donald Trump was invited to give a speech. Trump was not, of course, a conservative politician or policymaker at that time. He had no record of consistent adherence to conservative movement ideology. Nor did he have any standing whatsoever as someone any reasonable person would look to for policy guidance or as a shaper of ideological doctrine.

He was, however, an enormous celebrity. A person who’d been famous since the 1980s, who’d written popular books, and who starred on a broadcast network television show. He’d signaled affinity for the conservative lifestyle with his embrace of the “birther” conspiracy theory, and now you could see him live at CPAC.

His speech, according to a contemporaneous Washington Times account, “sent more than 2,000 conservative activists into a frenzy of approval.”

The speech was not by any means a paean to the principles of free markets and traditional family values that, on an ideological level, had defined the conservative movement for decades. Instead, Trump had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand with a very familiar message — the United States of America used to be great and now was not great but could in the future be great again:

Mr. Trump said the world has lost respect for America and takes advantage on economic and trade fronts. Choosing words not normally uttered by politicians, he said he would restore that respect.

“If I decided to run, I will not be raising taxes, we’ll be taking back hundreds of billions of dollars from other countries that are screwing us, we’ll be creating vast numbers of productive jobs, and we’ll rebuild our country so that we can be proud,” Mr. Trump said.

“Our country will be great again,” he said.

The audience loved it.

Actual politicians who came courting at CPAC over the years normally took the institution’s mission at face value. Talking as if the political dynamics of the 1960s and ’70s still lived, they would arrive to argue that their record and their ideas reflected the perfect blend of ideological purity and electability to carry the movement into the promised land.

Trump’s message, by contrast, reflected the reality that the intraparty war between ideologues and the establishment was essentially dead and irrelevant. Conservatives were an identity group now — one that leaned older, whiter, and less educated than the population at large and that was filled with a keen sense of nostalgia for the good old days. The kind of people for whom Christian identity is less about avoiding divorce than about insisting on the superiority of “merry Christmas” over “happy holidays.”

Trump is today’s conservative movement

It’s worth saying that while television celebrity Trump was beloved by CPAC, presidential candidate Trump had a rougher time of it. Just one year ago, he backed out of speaking there under threat that his speech would be protested by conservative regulars.

Trump, after all, is in many ways a strikingly un-conservative politician.

His ascension to the leadership of the Republican Party has led the GOP to abandon its decades-long embrace of free trade, and to drop demands for cuts in Medicare and Social Security spending from its economic policy agenda. Trump has affirmed his rock-solid support for the pro-life movement (having affirmed just the opposite 15 years ago) but has also shifted the GOP to the center on LGBTQ rights issues, abandoning efforts to get gays out of the military or end same-sex marriage.

Fighting against people who want to try to win elections by abandoning unpopular hard-right stances is, quite literally, what the American Conservative Union was founded to do. And Trump, amid all his other antics and fireworks and controversies, has basically done just that.

The Trump boycott of 2016 represented a vestigial effort to bring back the CPAC of yore — the one whose attendees helped Reagan mount a primary challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford — even though Trump the celebrity had long been welcome there. Had Trump lost in November, as most people thought he would, it’s entirely possible that his defeat would have sparked a larger resurgence of interest in ideological rigorism, with CPAC back at the center of ideological fights.

But he won, and Republicans from Capitol Hill to the grassroots are thrilled about it.

Key GOP-leaning interest groups are thrilled, of course, because Trump in office can give them the tax cuts and business-friendly regulation they crave. But CPAC, the ACU, and the conservative movement as a whole have always been about more than that kind of transactional interest group politics. Once upon a time, that was ideological rigor and principle. More recently it’s provocation, street fighting with liberals, and identity politics for aging white Christians. And in Trump, the CPAC faithful finally have a politician who embraces the values of conservative mass-market entertainment as the core of his politics.

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