CPAC Was Once for the GOP Fringe. Then the Party Shifted That Way

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For years, the standard dismissal of CPAC was that it was a fringe festival running adjacent to the modern conservative movement, the kind of scene often compared to the cantina of weirdos from the Star Wars franchise. Sure, the summit mattered, but far less than its enthusiasts wanted to think, and far, far less that its adherents had hoped. After all, this is a place where former Republican presidential nominees John McCain and Mitt Romney alike drew boos, far-afield ideas about voter fraud are treated as gospel, and Russia has an oddly enthusiastic set of defenders. In the words of one former Republican member of Congress, it is the Right’s “freak show,” one where the worst impulses of the GOP are on full display.

So as the gathering, formerly known as the Conservative Political Action Conference, starts to hand out credentials and grievances come Wednesday just outside of the nation’s capital, it’s worth asking if these assumptions still hold true. In an era where ex-President Donald Trump’s Big Lie holds sway over the current Republican Party, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene essentially made Kevin McCarthy’s bid for Speaker of the House, and GOP leaders are urging the United States to quietly back away from its support of Ukraine, does CPAC still stand on the periphery of the conservative movement, or has it actually dragged the electoral bloc over to its agenda? Is the event whose first storied gathering where Ronald Reagan essentially became a force in American politics finally recentering the arena? And is this annual confab the actual avatar for the modern moment?

The questions are, of course, unanswerable with any confidence. The dynamics of the modern Republican Party hinge on far more than a conference center’s hullabaloo not far from shouting distance of the Capitol—which, judging by last year’s gathering, should have suffered far more serious damage on Jan. 6, 2021, in the minds of attendees. The 2024 nominating season is in its nascent hours, with Trump as the man to beat and several of his potential rivals slated to make their case from the same stage. While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis isn’t attending, other potential rivals like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo are. Whether any of them can quell Trump’s early frontrunner standing is to be seen, but the crowd heading to National Harbor will include the kind of fervent grassroots activists that can make or break their efforts. As Republican strategists—many of whom will be patrolling the hallways for potential clients—like to note, one CPAC attendee, who has spent $300 on a ticket alone, is worth thousands of hours of telephone calls, door knocks, and digital activism within their networks.

The four-day summit always includes serious discussions, but the headlines will, of course, be about the trolling panels. “The New Axis of Evil: Soros, Schwab, and Fink,” “Don Lemon Is Past His Primetime,” and “87,000 Pinkslips” are among the announced conversations, each promising to drive up blood pressures—and activism—among the adherents. There is even a panel literally titled “How to Rile Up Conservatives.” And this is why Republicans—and all Americans, really—shouldn’t write off the conference entirely as unfolding on the fringes of the GOP: this mightn’t actually be the fringe.

Roughly 7-in-10 Republicans still wrongly think Trump won in 2020, a notion Trump himself continues to nurse. The illegitimacy of the US government is central to CPAC’s agenda and a major driver inside the current conservative movement. Instead of making elections about policy choices about taxes and regulation, CPAC is seeking to make the conversation about “right” and “wrong.” When voters are convinced the choice is one about morals and not merits, it’s a much easier sell to defeat the Democratic nominee.

Zooming out for a moment, it’s worth remembering the Republican Party has struggled to find its footing in the post-Bush era. President George W. Bush’s second term gave many conservatives permission to question the conservative grounding of the GOP. McCain ran in 2008 as an antidote to Bushism, but had alienated many of the same people who will show up before dawn to get the best seats at CPAC. Romney, too, didn’t exactly spark enthusiasm among the CPAC set despite using the word conservative 25 times during a 26-minute speech in 2012.

Trump, of course, did find his groove. CPAC has always been a Trump crowd, but one critics could long write-off as something of an outlier. But with an agenda that includes the likes of former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro—the “Tropical Trump”—and Brexit champion Nigel Farage joining the ex-U.S. President at the fore of American conservatism, it’s important to consider whether CPAC has shaped the global moment more than we realized. CPAC’s Dallas summit included Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister last year, after all.

Perhaps—and it’s a big caveat, to be sure—CPAC’s bluster and bravado actually masked a significant reframing of what it means to be conservative in the 21st Century. The crass nature of the conference’s trolling leans into Trumpism’s darkest shades and lends itself to dismissal, but it’s also impossible to imagine a major player in U.S. politics securing a presidential nomination, let alone a win, without these players.

If you put enough fringe together, eventually you wind up with enough fabric to make a flag. It might not be the banner that the Bush wing of the Republican Party would fly over its summer homes, but it still shows which way the winds are blowing.

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