The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) has a reputation as the place where the movement’s big names and aspiring stars go to mingle and impress one another, and where presidential hopefuls joust for favor from right-wing activists and media organizations.
This year, Republican members of Congress and spotlight-seeking media personalities tried to one-up each other over who could indulge in the most contemptible transphobia. Combined with right-wing anti-trans legislation and a sharp increase in anti-trans rhetoric generally, CPAC was a dangerous escalation. It should be denounced and countered as strongly as possible.
As alarming as CPAC’s pervasive transphobia was, there was one equally important fact about this year’s conference: it was a total flop. The poorly attended weekend-long event showed a conservative movement increasingly beholden to its most loathsome figures and unable to speak coherently to anyone but its most devoted (and unhinged) supporters.
This development does not improve the Right’s electoral prospects. Then again, given the practically infinite resources behind the movement, its legal and illegal voter suppression and gerrymandering, and its capture of an expansionist judiciary system, it is unclear whether it actually needs to speak to anyone else in order to win.
Past CPACs were full of high drama, especially in years leading up to presidential primaries. GOP candidates vied with one another to win the organization’s famous straw poll, a kind of early seal of approval from the hard right of the party. But in a year when the jockeying for position in the presidential primary ought to be growing more intense, major potential candidates like Florida governor Ron DeSantis didn’t even bother to attend. CPAC was struggling to even give tickets away.
Perhaps one factor is the scandal surrounding the organization’s head, Matt Schlapp. Accused earlier this year of sexually harassing a male campaign aide to failed Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker, Schlapp was the subject of an extensive Washington Post story published just days before CPAC. The story outlined years of alleged sexual misconduct and inappropriate remarks and noted that, under Schlapp’s leadership, more than half of CPAC’s staff has left since 2021.
But it wasn’t just that. Reports from the field say everyone at CPAC seemed especially low energy this year. Donald Trump was there, but he merely revealed himself as even more of a one-trick pony, whining about 2020 and hurling personal insults at DeSantis. After years when every dumb offhand remark he made dominated the news, what should have been a major campaign speech got barely any coverage at all. What coverage there was treated Trump more like a sideshow than the leading candidate, with many stories focusing on the empty room in which he spoke and his increasingly nonsensical (even by Trump standards) ramblings about everything from urban crime to the war in Ukraine. Trump, along with future also-rans like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo, seemed focused on ginning up a more aggressive stance against China.
Fox News, which has recently been trying to separate itself from the cult of Trump, found itself under attack from Steve Bannon and others, who griped about it showing insufficient deference to the ex-president. Maybe that was where some of the hype went — this year’s CPAC was firmly Trump territory, but conservative movement’s biggest media outlet no longer has an interest in covering him,
Yet while some of Fox’s biggest personalities have been terrified of losing their audience over the network’s turn away from Trump, CPAC suggests the relationship goes both ways. The only conservative outlets that even pretend to try to speak to a wider audience (Fox, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post) are all owned by Rupert Murdoch, who has made it clear that Trump personally, and some of the major issues that drive him, are no longer going to receive much coverage. Penned in, Trumpists, and to a lesser extent the wider right, offer nothing but more and more extreme takes on their perpetual hobbyhorses. But if they’re not in power and they have nothing new or interesting to offer, who wants to listen?
It’s good that CPAC flopped — a small but hopeful sign that some of the most odious people in American political life are having a bad time. But we’re not out of the woods yet. It isn’t as though the “mainstream” (or, at least, non-Trump) right is trying especially hard to win voters over either; they are offering little besides a more polite version of the same stuff.
The concerning thing is that the Right may no longer need to win over voters to the extent we are used to. The country has an ever-smaller pool of persuadable voters, while the Right has a deep well of dark money, a vast array of lobbying and educational institutions, electoral maps drawn to their advantage, and laws designed to keep their opposition from voting.
They have also captured the federal judiciary, which in most parts of the country, and in the Supreme Court, is almost certain to rule in their favor on most consequential issues. And even if they can’t muster a full majority at the federal level — and at least for now, it looks like they can’t — the right-wing Supreme Court has stepped in to function as the country’s unelected legislature.
Ultimately, a conservative movement that doesn’t think it has to win people over to stay in power is much more dangerous than one that does.