The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was once the place to capture the pulse of the conservative movement. The annual conference, which boasts that Ronald Reagan spoke at its inaugural event, was filled with attendees in tricorn hats during the rise of the Tea Party and in fedoras during the libertarian moment that followed. But, in 2023, CPAC attendees are still wearing the same MAGA hats that they’ve donned for over half a decade.
Yet, it’s hard to interpret this year’s CPAC as a barometer of the American right or a measuring stick for anything. Unlike past years when potential presidential candidates swarmed to appear at the annual event, this year’s conference was a purely Trumpist enterprise. Most of Trump’s potential competitors for the nomination — including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former Vice President Mike Pence — didn’t show up. They flocked instead to an event held by Club for Growth in South Florida to appeal to right-wing donors rather than the MAGA diehards roving the corridors of a Maryland hotel who were all seemingly ready for Trump to win his third consecutive presidential election. The nature of the event was made stark on the agenda: There were four members of the Trump family speaking over the course of the three-day conference as well as four elected Republicans who voted to certify the 2020 election in Trump’s favor.
The decay at CPAC was partly due to the challenges the event itself faces. Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which puts on the event, has faced increasing scrutiny over his stewardship of the group. These concerns have been accelerated by allegations of sexual misconduct that he faces after an anonymous male Republican campaign staffer sued Schlapp in January, claiming that Schlapp groped and propositioned him.
But, then again, if allegations of sexual misconduct and problematic financial stewardship were enough to sink someone’s reputation in the conservative movement, Trump would never have won the nomination, let alone the presidency.
Instead, much of the enervated vibes at CPAC stem from the fact that the conference increasingly represented a diehard MAGA strain of the conservative movement. The media presence this year was not Fox but the Chinese religious movement Falun Gong: Instead of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, there were major media presences from the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty (NTD) TV, which are both affiliated with Falun Gong.
Even the slightest heterodoxy was frowned upon. After a lukewarm reception to her speech in a half-empty ballroom, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley — who was one of the few 2024 presidential hopefuls to attend — was met with chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump” and “we love Trump” from attendees after she left the ballroom. The shouts drowned out her efforts to make small talk with those attendees who wanted selfies with Haley as well as the reporters who fruitlessly tried to ask her questions.
The exhibit hall was packed with Trump merchandise as well. Those attendees in need of a MAGA hat or yet another Trump T-shirt had four shops to choose from. And those who were all set on merchandise could pose in a replica of Trump’s Oval Office or simply buy a signed copy of Sean Spicer’s children’s book, The Parrots Go Bananas. The latter was easy to do; to get an autograph from the former White House press secretary, one did not exactly have to fight through the largest crowd in history. There was a longer line on Friday afternoon at the booth for Patriot Mobile, a self-proclaimed Christian conservative cellphone company, for fringe right-winger Jack Posobiec to sign copies of his book. Posobiec, a longtime promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, had been banned from CPAC in 2017 before eventually being allowed to return to the gathering, which held an affiliated event in Viktor Orban’s Hungary last year.
Through it all was a sense of slow and steady decay creeping through the event as the attendees talked quietly among themselves asking where and when CPAC started to go downhill. It felt like a homage to one of Trump’s favorite movies, Sunset Boulevard. There was a focus on faded past glories and Trump-era grievances as it was a cycle of the same extended universe of MAGA celebrities. Attendees vied for a selfie with Sebastian Gorka or Mike Lindell as crowds swarmed the booth where Steve Bannon broadcast his daily television show.
Inside the hall, CPAC attendees applauded when Matt Gaetz called for abolishing the FBI and hooted and hollered when Steve Bannon assailed Fox News because it “illegitimately called [the 2020 election] for the opposition and not Donald J. Trump.” Perhaps the liveliest moment in the ballroom where speakers came and went was when attendees scrambled to look under their chairs when Donald Trump Jr. announced that there were gold-covered chocolate bars scattered throughout the ballroom that served as a ticket to a private reception with his father. Some were so eager to attend that they worked their way through the ballroom in case there was a ticket hidden under one of the hundreds of empty chairs in the back.
The question from CPAC is simply just what percentage of the larger conservative movement CPAC and MAGA diehards currently represent. CPAC is no longer a measuring stick, it’s simply a factional gathering. If this subset represents half of the GOP or even a third, then Trump is the favorite for the nomination. If it’s a fifth or a quarter of the party, Trump is vulnerable in a primary but his diehards still present long-term challenges for whoever the nominee is. That question sparked hours of late-night debate over drinks in hotel bars at the conference between the operatives and journalists obligated to come for business. But, among the attendees, those who have probably spent, at minimum, hundreds of dollars on a ticket and traveled from across the country to attend, there was no debate. They were with Trump.