The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A former CPAC organizer’s broadside shows conservatism’s ongoing descent

Former president Donald Trump and Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

If you need another sign of the deterioration of the conservative movement and the GOP, here’s a good one. The former head of the group that runs the Conservative Political Action Conference is skipping this weekend’s big gathering, because of fears it will devolve into a festival of Donald Trump’s lies about the election.

And Al Cardenas, who once ran the American Conservative Union — the parent organization of CPAC — is also suggesting that these very same lies could inspire more domestic terrorism.

The former president is scheduled to speak at CPAC this weekend. He is expected to try to assert his control over the GOP, which will undoubtedly mean he’ll again amplify the claim that the election was stolen from him.

This is what Cardenas fears, as he noted in an interview with Cameron Joseph of Vice News. Cardenas said he expects Trump to air “a number of grievances” and to issue a “laundry list of demands for loyalists”:

“Disrespecting the outcome [of the election] is disrespecting the rule of law, and it weakens our democracy,” he said. “Anyone who continues to claim the election was rigged … is in essence creating a sense of doubt in America that your vote counts, and that, in my opinion, is destructive.”
Cardenas worries about the risk of further violence following the Capitol attacks last month.
“I’m hoping these domestic terrorist groups are not incentivized by elected officials, and I’m hoping everyone understands the danger of what certain words mean to people,” he said. “These groups have proven before that they’re willing to undertake violence to prove their point.”

What’s striking about Cardenas’s warning — that when officials broadcast the claim that the election’s outcome was illegitimate, it could inspire more violence — is that the coming installment of CPAC is itself going to feed that claim.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

The CPAC gathering is planning numerous panels devoted to variations of the idea that there was massive voter fraud, that numerous states failed to adequately run their elections, and that judges and the media have refused to adequately vet the evidence of all those failures.

Cardenas has long been a critic of Trump. But this latest turn nonetheless represents yet another marker in the conservative movement’s ongoing descent.

To see this vividly, watch this dispiriting interview with the current chairman of CPAC, Matt Schlapp, in which CNN’s Chris Cuomo debunked numerous of Schlapp’s falsehoods about widespread election fraud.

In a striking exchange, Cuomo flatly declared that giving Trump a platform means CPAC is “tacitly endorsing his election farce.”

In response, Schlapp forthrightly defended this by insisting that at the conference, they’d be “going through what happened in these states.”

It’s as if CPAC can magically erase what we all just lived through: All these very same lies about the election getting shot down in dozens of court battles, followed by these lies inciting a violent effort to subvert the election.

Cuomo pointed out that all the claims of widespread fraud are false, and asked: “You guys really want the conservative movement to be made on the back of a lie about the election?”

Schlapp demurred, but the answer to this question is Yes. That’s what they do want. This idea is rapidly becoming the central organizing mythology of the remnants of the conservative movement that remain captive to Trump.

To be fair, Schlapp did ultimately say that “Joe Biden is my president.” But he went on to spew still more absurdities about voter fraud and laughably claimed that Trump had solid legal arguments but simply lost in court.

The extent to which this mythology is capturing the CPAC event is neatly captured in this reporting from Vice News:

Four of the eight GOP senators who objected to certifying Joe Biden’s election victory were given speaking slots, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, while just five of the 42 other GOP senators who voted against the anti-democratic effort will appear.
Not a single one of the GOP lawmakers who backed Trump’s impeachment will speak, including conservative Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, both of whom have addressed multiple past CPAC conferences. But almost every one of Trump’s House ringleaders will speak, including Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Jim Jordan of Ohio.

Despite all this, it is possible to look at what is happening now and see signs that the MAGA movement and its conservative allies are actually facing a moment of serious weakness.

As Christian Vanderbrouk observes in an interesting piece, Trump himself is a diminished figure. He just suffered a string of humiliating defeats and has been hounded off social media. And the role that Trump and the GOP played in inciting the insurrection is overwhelmingly obvious to the country.

If so, then this CPAC celebration will look less like the show of force Trump hopes it will be, and more like a series of strange rituals conducted by a dwindling band of Lost Cause of Trumpism cultists. Like Cardenas, we can only hope so.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Trump’s grip on the GOP just tightened. Here’s what that means for Democrats.

Greg Sargent: How Republicans will sabotage a full accounting of Trump’s insurrection

Joe Scarborough: No amount of disaster can shake the GOP loose from Trump

Henry Olsen: Goodbye, Trump Derangement Syndrome. Hello, Trump Deprivation Syndrome.

Paul Waldman: Cleansing ourselves of Donald Trump will be a project of years