CPAC has become the very thing Trump hates

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Before the fun began officially began at the Conservative Political Action Conference, a handful of supporters began chanting “Free J6” after a trailer ran for a documentary. This documentary concerned the supposed persecution of inmates arrested for their actions at the January 6 riot at the US Capitol.

Most planners would see such a chant at a major gathering of conservatives to be a public relations headache. But instead, in their opening address, Matt Schlapp, the ringleader of CPAC, and his wife Mercedes Schlapp both specifically mentioned January 6.

“If you call yourself a journalist, or you spend all your time trying to destroy Americans who love America and trying to destroy conservastives and patriots, people from MAGA, and yes, J6,” he said to rupturous applause. “If that’s what you do, we don’t want you here.” Certain journalistic outlets had been barred from the conference, and it was clear Schlapp saw that as a selling point.

Despite this, the the press area was just as big, if not bigger, for this year’s CPAC than last year’s gathering. But the actual attendees were fewer.

Indeed, there seemed to be much less of everything this year at CPAC than there was last year. Fewer booths for right-wing media outlets and ideologues peddling their latest products put up shop outside the main conference hall. Only a fraction of the radio row tables from 2023. And the vendors selling fun paraphenalia seemed almost sliced in half. One of the only entertaining products that remained was a conservative hammock company that joked it “swings right”.

Absent, too, were heavy hitters like the right-wing firebrand Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, or Senator Ted Cruz — who is up for re-election in a purpler Texas this year and cannot appeal solely to the right-wing base — or Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri. Lauren Boebert, who spoke last year, is also absent from the ticket as she fights for her political life, having ditched her district in Colorado to run in a safer area.

It would be easier to say that this is purely a product of Trump subsuming the entire conservative movement. And indeed, it might be a product of the fact that South Carolina will be the center of the conservative universe this weekend when Trump wallops Nikki Haley.

But there were even fewer Trumps. While Donald Trump will speak Saturday afternoon, the only other Trump set to speak is his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, whom the former president has anointed to be a co-pilot of the Republican National Committee. Donald Trump Jr, who hosted his show from the gathering last year, is nowhere to be seen.

Perhaps it is the fact that CPAC faces legal fire. Matt Schlapp still faces allegations of defamation and sexual battery after a former Republican campaign staffer alleged that he grabbed the staffer’s crotch in 2022. On Wednesday, The Daily Beast reported that new subpoenas accuse a CPAC staffer of shredding documents.

Of course, Schlapp vehemently denies all of this. But last year, when I caught him and asked him about the allegations, he scurried away. When I caught up with him this year, he didn’t change his pace; instead, he said, “Here we go,” in a tone that communicated resignation.

Similarly, the discussions on politics that did exist did not have as much vitriol as they did in 2023. While plenty of speakers espoused talking points about so-called “biological males” playing in women’s sports, they were not delivered with the same energy.

If there was one animating idea among attendees, it was immigration — specifically at the US-Mexico border. Despite the fact Republicans torpedoed their credibility on that one earlier this month when they rejected a bipartisan agreement in the Senate that would have restricted immigration in exchange for aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, CPAC faithfuls continued to talk about the border as if Biden had put up a “welcome” sign outside the Rio Grande.

The only topic that seemed to enthuse conservatives as much as anti-immigrant sentiment was anti-Ukraine hostility. Congressman Byron Donalds said at one event: “Decide, Joe Biden, which country matters more? The border of the United States of the border of Ukraine?” Similarly, Senator Tommy Tuberville of Alabama said of the war in Ukraine, “It’s an atrocity, but they can’t win.”

CPAC becomes its most lively iteration when it features the whole circus of right-wing ideologues and showcases the future direction of the party. But this lack of enthusiasm among speakers shows how much trouble Republicans face in the upcoming election.

Much has been written about how Trump is beating Biden in many polls and about how Democrats are none too happy about voting for Joe Biden because of his age. The same applies for Trump, who has low approval ratings as well. If conservatives aren’t jazzed on what is supposed to be their spring break, they will have trouble in November.

When it was held in Florida, this conference buzzed with energy and ideas. Now, CPAC seems to have left the juice in the Sunshine State.