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Opinion How CPAC turned into a circus with Trump as ringmaster

Vendors set up ahead of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on March 1. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The Conservative Political Action Conference once was a don’t-miss annual gathering of Republican leadership and anyone who aspired to it. That doesn’t describe the Trumpified four-day CPAC that started Wednesday at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in National Harbor, Md.

Absent will be such GOP stars as former vice president Mike Pence, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin. All three say they’re busy or otherwise booked; DeSantis is attending the Club for Growth’s annual conference in Palm Beach, Fla.

A bunch of other high-profile Republicans also won’t be attending CPAC this year: Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

For what it’s worth, these GOP leaders have not publicly said they’re no-shows because of sexual misconduct allegations against Matt Schlapp, who runs CPAC. But the allegations — denied by Schlapp, that last fall he groped a male aide to Herschel Walker’s GOP Senate campaign in Georgia — certainly don’t make appearing at CPAC look more appealing.

However, CPAC will feature former president Donald Trump, former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, and My Pillow king and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. There is no more vivid indicator of CPAC’s trajectory across the years than the fact that the conference’s annual Ronald Reagan Dinner address will be delivered by Arizona gubernatorial sore loser Kari Lake.

At a time when many Republicans are ready to move on from lunatic arguments about 2020 presidential election theft, CPAC organizers are doubling down, shining an even brighter spotlight on conspiracy-theory-minded election losers and their acolytes.

Year by year, CPAC has become less and less of a wonky conservative movement networking event and more and more of a circus. The guest list features fewer and fewer policy experts debating the correct path for conservatives, and more and more telegenic faces who usually populate the Fox News green room — one after another, at CPAC, serving up red meat. The tone is now indistinguishable from one of Trump’s campaign rallies.

And no one should be all that surprised; Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, served as White House strategic communications director under Trump, and both Schlapps are widely perceived as Trump loyalists. The image of CPAC is now indistinguishable from Trump’s.

To quote economist Milton Friedman — praised by Reagan at CPAC in 1981, probably unknown to most attendees today — the conference is “free to choose.”

If CPAC’s main goal is to fill seats, it appears to be working well enough. Like all conferences, CPAC runs on paid attendance and sponsorships, and you can’t begrudge organizers for wanting a lineup of speakers who will draw a crowd and fire ’em up.

But there’s an inevitable trade-off when the conference chooses Trumpification, prominently featuring figures such as Lindell and Lake. They become the face of the event. Suddenly, the streaming service Fox Nation isn’t so interested in being a sponsor anymore. (Fox News is already dealing with enough expensive legal headaches stemming from absurdly implausible stolen-election conspiracy theories.)

The cost-benefit analysis for an aspiring president such as Pence or DeSantis changes when the Venn diagram of CPAC’s brand and Trump’s brand becomes almost a perfect circle. If you’re trying to beat Trump, does it make sense to go to a de facto four-day Trump rally on the Potomac?

Granted, CPAC attracts a big crowd of the most die-hard conservative grass-roots activists, but a Republican presidential candidate can reach that demographic in plenty of other ways — interviews on Fox News, talk radio, podcasts or other conservative outlets. Nikki Haley, a declared Republican presidential candidate, who served as Trump’s United Nations ambassador, is attending CPAC, in a daring move, given that she’s challenging the star of the show.

CPAC chose the path of being identified as a Trumpy affair. Organizers shouldn’t be surprised when candidates not named Trump aren’t so enthusiastic about showing up. Much like in the fictional film “Spinal Tap,” CPAC would probably insist it isn’t losing popularity, it’s just that the gathering’s “appeal is becoming more selective.”