The Conservative Political Action Conference, which began this week, has evolved from a fractious meeting of Republicans and libertarians into a celebration of the 45th president and the airing of his grievances.
Trump will close out the event with his first speech since leaving the White House, minutes after a 2024 presidential straw poll that he’s expected to win. The arguments among some elected Republicans about whether they should retool their agenda to prevent future losses, or revisit their alliance with Trump, will have to happen somewhere else.
“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.”
The facts haven’t been kind to that argument. Dozens of lawsuits and Trump’s Justice Department found no evidence of fraud last year that would have altered the election results.
But polling since Nov. 3 has found strong majorities of Republican voters agreeing with Trump and supporting his false take on the election. That has left CPAC in the same place as the larger Republican Party as they head toward the 2022 midterm election: wedded to Trump even as he alienates millions of potential voters.
The conference, founded in 1973, is usually held near Washington, with a crowd that can grow to 10,000 people. It moved this year to Orlando, where local covid-19 restrictions allow an indoor gathering if attendees are socially distanced and masked, and complete a quick health survey.
That will cut the full crowd at festivities that began Thursday down to perhaps 3,500 — still one of the largest conferences in the country since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, with all but the priciest tickets sold out for weeks. Scaling a four-day convention down to a virtual Zoom-fest was never considered, and it might have clashed with the theme — “America Uncanceled,” a reference to the Republican idea that “cancel culture” is punishing conservatives for their beliefs.
Some prominent Republicans, whose criticism of the election myths have angered party activists, won’t be in attendance. Former vice president Mike Pence, a regular guest who against Trump’s wishes refused to declare the electoral college vote invalid, will not attend and has kept a low profile since attending the inauguration of President Biden.
Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, a onetime winner of CPAC’s presidential straw poll, has been disinvited since becoming the first senator to vote for convicting an impeached president of his own party. (He also voted to convict earlier this month after Trump’s second impeachment.) Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who hasn’t attended since 2014 and who excoriated Trump after voting to acquit him this month, wasn’t invited, with a CPAC director telling McClatchy that he could return in 2022 “to address the improvements to election laws” Republicans are pushing through state legislatures.
Of the 47 Republican members of Congress scheduled to speak at CPAC, just nine voted to uphold every state’s election results on Jan. 6. None voted for impeachment.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led a Trump-backed lawsuit to undo Biden’s win in Pennsylvania, will speak about “the devaluing of American citizenship” alongside Rep. Paul A. Gosar of Arizona, an early organizer of “Stop the Steal” rallies. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who had resisted the transition to the Biden administration, will speak about the Bill of Rights.
There’s more on the schedule than just 2020 recriminations or election law briefings. House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (La.), who voted to challenge election results on Jan. 6, will lead a panel on “the angry mob and violence in our streets”; three panels will focus on “big tech” and related “monopoly” issues; and one will discuss “protecting women’s sports” from transgender athletes.
A series of panels, including one with former Trump trade representative Robert E. Lighthizer, will focus on the economic tussle with China. Conservative activists whose social media access has been limited, including podcaster Dan Bongino, will explore the weekend’s “cancel culture” theme.
But there will be less debate about what conservatives stand for than at many prior conferences, and far less than the last CPAC that unfolded after Republicans lost the White House and Congress. In 2009, after the GOP’s last federal wipeout, rising stars like then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan (Wis.) said that the party had lost its way under George W. Bush, and a new generation of true conservatives was ready to lead.
“What the public rejected in 2008,” then-ACU Chairman David Keene said onstage, “was incompetence.”
In 2021, Schlapp said, some of what conservatives used to fight over had been settled by Trump. Some immigration restriction measures, which were “considered racist when they were brought up,” he said, proved potent to “a lot of union Democrats, a lot of diverse people.” Trump had won new voters for the party without the predicted costs among Latino voters, just like he had delivered on deals with Israel despite warnings that he would destabilize the Middle East, Schlapp said.
“Even though Donald Trump is a one-term president,” he said, “there’s this feeling among Republicans that he was a huge, smashing success.”
Schlapp’s predecessor at the ACU, Al Cardenas, had criticized Trump’s immigration policies; he was no longer attending the conference, he said, and focused on his work with the bipartisan group No Labels.
Despite the anti-cancellation theme, CPAC organizers have also kept some people off the stage. Previous CPACs barred or disinvited speakers who had advocated white supremacy. This week, after the liberal watchdog group Media Matters published antisemitic tweets by a Black commentator named Young Pharaoh, CPAC disinvited him from a panel of Black conservatives. Schlapp said that action did not amount to canceling Pharaoh.
“Cancel culture is a desire to push somebody out of polite society, destroy their ability to make a living, and take away their voice,” Schlapp said, saying that Pharaoh’s views were “abhorrent” and worth keeping offstage.
“If that person wants to air those views,” he added. “I don’t think they should be illegal. Just do it on someone else’s dime.”
Some Republicans who had been comfortable at CPAC in the past are staying away from anything associated with Trump.
On Wednesday, reporters asked House GOP leaders whether Trump should be speaking at the conference at all. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), who’ll speak on Saturday, said that he should. House GOP Conference Chair Liz Cheney (Wyo.), who will not attend, said that he shouldn’t.
“I don’t believe that he should be playing a role in the future of the party or the country,” Cheney said.
“On that high note, thank you very much,” McCarthy said. He walked to one exit, Cheney to another.