The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion This yearly conservative confab shows the peril of Trumpism

MAGA footwear at CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, Feb. 28, 2020. (Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post)

The festival of conspiracy theories, ideological extremism and funny outfits that is the Conservative Political Action Conference begins Thursday, and if you want to examine the contemporary Republican Party squeezed down to its essence like a pungent sauce reduction, Orlando is the place to be.

Looming over the conference — both figuratively and literally — will be former president Donald Trump. He is to give the climactic address on Sunday, his first public appearance since leaving office. I’m guessing it will be one of his rambling, stream-of-consciousness affairs, in which he has a prepared text that he occasionally refers to in between long digressions on people who have wronged him and the horrors of low-flow toilets.

But even if it’s one of those disappointing speeches where the attendees start out enthusiastically cheering as he plays the old hits (a Trump speech without “lock her up!” would be like a Jimmy Buffett concert without “Margaritaville”) only to begin drifting toward the exits at the 90-minute mark, what matters most — especially to the ambitious Republicans who plan on running for president in 2024 — is the very fact of his continued presence.

Even when CPAC attendees aren’t talking about Trump or listening to Trump, everything they do will reflect the way he changed the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

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Outside of some panels on China, there’s precious little policy discussion on the agenda. When policies are going to be discussed, it will be much more about how liberals are awful than about the choices Republicans will want to make about the future. I’m guessing there won’t be a lot of substantive policy formation coming out of the session “Exposing the Climate Hustle with Kevin Sorbo” (yes, that Kevin Sorbo).

Instead, the conference is packed with culture-war rabble-rousing, warnings about socialism, and identity politics. As The Post’s David Weigel reports, no one is pretending that this is a forum to consider weighty matters of substance:

“The idea that we’re going to come up with some kind of conservative platform at CPAC, it rings a little hollow,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference. “Right now, half the country” feels cheated “by the media coverage of the election. So we’re going to go back and cover the facts that most people in the media canceled.”

Which is why there will be no fewer than seven panels rehashing the lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

CPAC always offers a good read on the state of the GOP, especially at times of transition. That’s not because it presents a representative sample of the Republican electorate; the attendees are activists, who in either party will always be further to the edges ideologically. But the concerns and preferences of the activist class always drive party politics, especially so long before anyone has a chance to cast a presidential primary vote.

So most of those contemplating a 2024 run will be at CPAC: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Sen. Rick Scott and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida South Dakota governor Kristi L. Noem, and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo all have speaking slots, alongside a who’s who of former Trump administration B-listers, Fox News personalities and far-right House members.

For any Republican running for president, navigating the party’s waters will hardly be so simple as whether you’re “pro-Trump.” There’s Trump the individual, to whom one might be more or less vocally loyal. Then there’s the Trump legacy as a series of policies and initiatives one might champion, including opposition to immigration and support for protectionism on trade. Finally, there’s Trumpism as a political style, which many of those 2024 contenders will try to embrace.

What stands out about those who are speaking at CPAC is that they are all distinguished by their full-spectrum Trumpism: loyalty to the man, support for his administration’s policies, and an enthusiastic embrace of his venomous partisanship and “owning the libs” as the highest goal one can serve.

Equally notable is that the ambitious Republicans who lean away from one or another element of Trumpism have decided not to attend CPAC this year. They include former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). Former vice president Mike Pence declined to attend as well, perhaps because the last time he was in close proximity to a crowd of Trump supporters they literally wanted to murder him.

The challenge that all those possible candidates will face is whether they can capture the imagination of an electorate that for so long was drunk on Trump’s train-wreck charisma and omnidirectional belligerence. The truth is that while in February 2021 we might predict that only someone who apes Trump’s style could win the GOP nomination, it’s far too early to know for certain.

It’s always possible, for instance, that we could see a version of what happened to Democrats in 2020, when, after years of more progressive candidates capturing the bulk of the attention, in the end the party’s voters decided to go with the one they deemed least offensive to the general electorate.

That seems like an unlikely path for Republicans, though anything’s possible. But for now, as CPAC shows, Trump still has the party in his grip.