Since 2016, CPAC has been a celebration of all things Donald Trump and all things MAGA. I myself have sat in the “press” section of the conference area of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland and marveled at the extent to which Matt and Mercedes Schlapp had hitched their wagon to Trump’s “star.” Well, that was three elections ago, and the MAGA-fied GOP’s cruelty in targeting the vulnerable, along with a complete lack of an actual policy platform, has failed to charm purple state voters.
But Trump will not go quietly, nor will CPAC, despite evidence that perhaps the Republican Party would be better off without them. Matt Schlapp, the head of the American Conservative Union, the organization behind CPAC, appeared numerous times during the conference but failed to address the reason he’s been in the headlines lately—an accusation of sexual misconduct and a battery and defamation lawsuit. A Herschel Walker staffer alleged that Schlapp “groped” and “fondled” him, claims the ACU chief has denied. Trump himself has faced numerous allegations of groping and fondling so this isn’t such a deviation from the brand of MAGA. The cloud over Schlapp certainly cast a pall over the far-right trade show, which was still populated with MAGA celebrities like the MyPillow guy and the “brick suit” guy. But there was a palpable feeling that the conservative gathering’s best days were in the rearview.
Photos of half-empty rooms haunted the four-day event, which failed to draw expected GOP candidate and Fox News number one draft pick Ron DeSantis or former Vice President Mike Pence—both of whom appeared at the competing Club For Growth retreat. Also missing from CPAC: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, and Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin to name a few. Meanwhile, MAGA favorites Donald Trump Jr., Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke to sparsely attended events. According to The Guardian, the conference, “while vociferous as ever, appeared diminished in size.” Still, just like dismissing Trump, one dismisses CPAC at one’s own peril. Some of the GOP’s loudest digital warriors and far-right pundits were busy workshopping talking points at panels and in speeches that could eventually make it to Fox News primetime or a Jim Jordan-led House panel.
During previous years I’ve watched speakers complain about wokeness and threaten that Democrats are going to take away your hamburgers and abort babies that were already born. A lot of the ideas floated around previous CPACs were scary, but mostly silly, yet this year some speeches took a much darker turn. Daily Wire host Michael Knowles told the crowd that “there can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism,” which he said, “must be eradicated from public life entirely.” (Knowles later wanted to make clear he wasn’t calling for the genocide of transpeople, objecting to news outlets framing his comments about eradicating “transgenderism” as eradicating transgender people.)
Rather than “Make America Great Again,” the vibe, at times, was more like “Let’s Make America Hungary.” During a Saturday morning panel, one speaker, Miklós Szánthó, described Hungary as Europe’s “shining city on the hill,” borrowing from Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase and drawing applause from the crowd. Viktor Orbán, the country’s authoritarian prime minister, is no stranger to the CPAC stage, having spoken at a gathering last year in Dallas. Former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro was on hand this year and bragged Saturday of his “exceptional” relationship with Trump while pounding familiar right-wing talking points on gun rights and vaccines. As NBC News noted, he received “multiple standing ovations.”
That was just a warm-up for Trump. In wannabe strongman fashion, the former president portrayed himself as the crowd’s weapon against their perceived enemies. “I am your warrior. I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” Trump said in a “wildly dishonest,” 90-plus minute speech. “For seven years, you and I have been engaged in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the people who hate it and want to absolutely destroy it,” Trump said at one point, while accusing “sinister forces” of trying turn America into a “socialist dumping ground for criminals, junkies, Marxist, thugs, radicals, and dangerous refugees that no other country wants.”
Trump also portrayed himself as a political outsider, as he successfully did in 2016, despite being the GOP standard-bearer ever since. “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open-border zealots and fools,” he said. “But we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush.” Worth noting that Jeb has lately been gushing about DeSantis, who, as I’ve written before, has his own autocratic tendencies.
“In autocracies, ruling parties become personal tools of the leader, and loyalty to the head of state, rather than expertise, is the most prized political quality,” historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat wrote last year in the Los Angeles Times. It’s hard to look at CPAC and not see this happening before our eyes. Even Utah Republican Mitt Romney apparently sees “his party’s slide toward authoritarianism and what role he may have played in empowering the extreme forces within the GOP.” Of course, the Romneys of the party aren’t welcome at CPAC, which overwhelmingly backed Trump in this year’s straw poll, and the GOP base could very well make Trump the 2024 nominee.
“We are going to finish what we started. We’re going to complete the mission. We’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory,” Trump told the crowd. It’s easy to imagine that this “ultimate victory” is achieving an authoritarian state like that famous shining city on the hill, Hungary.