While U.S. leaders are dealing with war in Europe and disruption of the global order, the leading lights of MAGA America are in central Florida this week for that annual bacchanal of right-wing pageantry and passion known as the Conservative Political Action Conference.
With all the serious challenges the nation has faced of late, now seems like a perfect moment for serious conservative thinkers and activists to come together in pursuit of serious solutions. That, alas, is not what happens at CPAC.
Put on annually by the American Conservative Union, whose name pretty much explains its aim, the confab may once have been about ideology or actual policy. But for years, the gathering has been better known as a multiday fringe fest featuring some of the most outrageous players on the political right.
This time, it promises to be largely a celebration of former President Donald Trump and his angry MAGA vision for the nation — which makes it less distinct from the broader Republican Party than it once was. But such is the debased state of modern conservatism, and — for those who have the stomach for it — this circus can tell you a lot about the state of American politics.
For most of its nearly five decades, CPAC was held in the Washington, D.C., area, the better to lure Very Important Politicos to the festivities. Last year, the Covid pandemic drove it out of the region — way too many local mandates for this freedom-loving crowd — and the event landed in Florida, the adopted home of one Donald J. Trump. But even if the former president were not a Florida Man, there is arguably no place more conducive to letting one’s freak flag fly than the Sunshine State. And providing a safe space to fly those flags has long been at the heart of CPAC.
This year’s lineup provides the same caliber of thought-provoking offerings that the conference’s fans and foes alike have come to expect. Among the scheduled panel discussions are “The Moron in Chief” and the more baroquely titled “Put Him to Bed, Lock Her Up and Send Her to the Border.” The latter session will feature crack analysis by Jack Posobiec, the conspiracymonger known for scampering down the rabbit holes of crank theories such as Pizzagate.
Asinine titles aside, the presentations offer a glimpse into what is obsessing the G.O.P.’s activist base. Among this year’s hot topics is clearly the threat of wokeness, inspiring multiple offerings, including “Awake Not Woke,” “Woke Inc.” and “Fighting Woke Inc.” A legal chat about “defending the canceled” seems to fit the theme as well.
There are several presentations related to schools, including “School Boards for Dummies,” “Domestic Terrorists Unite: Lessons From Virginia Parents” and a town hall on the fittingly misspelled “Pupil Propoganda.”
Mock if you will, but Republicans will wrap these culture war issues around Democrats’ necks in the coming midterms. CPAC is a prime venue for test-driving their material.
Some offerings are more incendiary than others. Take “The Truth About Jan. 6: A Conversation With Julie Kelly,” who wrote the book “January 6: How Democrats Used the Capitol Protest to Launch a War on Terror Against the Political Right.”
Then there’s “Lock Her Up, for Real,” featuring the former representative and enduring Trumper Devin Nunes; Kash Patel, a Nunes aide turned controversial Pentagon staff member; and Lee Smith, the author of a book purporting to show how Mr. Nunes uncovered the secret deep state plot to bring down Mr. Trump. So. Much. Fun.
The conference set list includes some classics as well. “Obamacare Still Kills” should provide a warm dose of nostalgia. Ditto “I Escaped From Communist North Korea.” The enduring menace of Communism is always a crowd-pleaser at CPAC.
The gathering’s educational component should not be pooh-poohed. Attendees tired of all the pandemic hubbub will want to catch the Saturday morning breakout session “Lock Downs and Mandates: Now Do You Understand Why We Have a Second Amendment.” And aspiring public servants surely learned a lot from the session “Are You Ready to Be Called a Racist: The Courage to Run for Office.”
A couple of the presentation titles go so far as to name-check individuals who really rile up conservatives, so it is illuminating to see who rises to that level of distinction. This year’s honorees are the CNN host Don Lemon (“Don Lemon Is a Dinosaur: The New Way to Get Your News”) and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia (“Sorry Stacey, You Are Not the Governor”).
The lineup of speakers is as telling as the panels and town halls. Who’s in? Who’s out? Who’s got the loser time slots? This year features appearances by conference old-timers like Wayne LaPierre, the National Rifle Association’s longtime frontman, as well as rising MAGA stars like Donald Trump Jr., who scored the closing speech, and his fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, an infamously high-octane orator. (One word for her: decaf.)
An array of presumed presidential hopefuls/Trump lickspittles are having have their moments as well. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are all on the program. Former Vice President Mike Pence is not, having declined his invitation.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida is generating the most buzz, mostly because the chattering class is giddy at the prospect of spotting even a hint of friction between Team DeSantis and Trumpworld. Mr. DeSantis is considered a top — maybe the top — 2024 presidential contender.
Unlike some 2024 hopefuls, he has not pledged to sit the race out if Mr. Trump runs. This has not gone over well in Trumpworld. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the governor was given a not-so-great speaking slot this week: early on the opening afternoon, wedged in between a presentation by Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, and a speech by Florida’s lieutenant governor.
Mr. Trump will speak at 7 on Saturday evening, serving as basically the keynote of the gathering.
As the convention unfolds, look for breathless updates on the dynamic between the governor and the former president — especially as the time draws nigh to announce the results of the annual straw poll on who should be the next president.
Last year, Mr. DeSantis was the solid winner when Mr. Trump was not among the options. This year’s results are likely to get more scrutiny than President Biden’s upcoming Supreme Court pick (OK, maybe not quite so much). That said, it’s worth remembering that, in the pre-Trump age, Senator Rand Paul won the poll three years running — 2013, 2014 and 2015 — with a Cruz win in 2016. So it’s best not to get too wrapped up in the predictive power of these things.
Until recently, it was best not to take CPAC in general that seriously as a political barometer. But with the G.O.P. eaten alive by Trumpism, there isn’t much left of the party beyond its raging MAGA base. Which makes this four-day spectacle as representative of Republican politics as any event.
Just one more thing to keep you up worrying at night.