What can we learn from America’s most hotly anticipated conservative event? More than you might think

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Holly Baxter
·4 min read
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 (CPAC)
(CPAC)

Few political events are more hotly anticipated by right-leaning Americans than the Conservative Political Action Conference — otherwise known as CPAC — which this year has styled itself as “America Uncancelled”. The gathering of Republican and libertarian minds is happening in Orlando, Florida this year and kicking off today. Its speakers include household names such as Ben Carson, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Marco Rubio, as well as controversial superstars like “QAnon-sympathetic” congresswoman Lauren Boebert, Senator Tom Cotton — whose New York Times op-ed during the Black Lives Matter protests titled “Send in the troops” led to the public firing of the paper’s opinion editor — and Maj Toure, the founder of a polarizing organization named Black Guns Matter. By far the most high-profile of the guests, however, is Sunday night’s keynote speaker, former president Donald J Trump.

In the words of the CPAC website, Trump is “the very definition of the American success story”. Surrounded by adoring fans this weekend, he will no doubt feel the part. But CPAC is a small bubble in a big ocean now; its attendees — who range from those who bought $330 general attendance tickets to “premium gold” participants who, for the hefty price of $7,500, will have private access to VIP lounges, champagne receptions and priority seating at the final Ronald Reagan Dinner — little more than blasts from the past. When Trump was in power, CPAC felt like the event of the season. Now, it’s a side-note during a week in which President Joe Biden ushers in a new Cabinet.

Nevertheless, it is important for editors like me to keep an eye on what’s happening behind CPAC’s doors. Some speeches, like Mike Lee’s “Why the left hates the Bill of Rights and we love it” on Friday, will be little more than predicable rabble-rousing. But Ted Cruz’s planned speech on “cancel culture” will be one to watch, especially considering there have been whisperings about a 2024 run. What would have perhaps been Cruz’s chance to position himself favorably for that run will now become a chance to redeem himself after jetting off to Cancun during the Texas winter storms last week. It will be interesting to see how he uses the subject matter to his advantage, and which lines he tests out on a friendly audience before being brave enough to take them elsewhere.

Another session to keep an eye on is the ambiguously named “Reigniting the American Dream,” delivered by Donald Trump Jr and introduced by the always-enthusiastic Kimberley Guilfoyle. Ever since the 45th president reluctantly stepped down, rumours have swirled about how his family members might yet take advantage of the last remnants of MAGA mania. Eric Trump’s wife Lara is reportedly planning a Senatorial run in North Carolina and Ivanka is said to have her eyes on a presidential bid in 2028. What’s clear from the appearance of Junior at his father’s side at CPAC is that the family intends to continue to capitalize on Trump Sr’s presidency and align themselves with him as well. Gone are the days when we could have expected that Ivanka and her siblings would deftly step away from the worst of Trumpism and leave it to burn itself out while focusing on their personal ambitions.

Most of all, Trump’s appearance at CPAC confirms something we already suspected: in conservative circles, there is still deep sympathy for the former president and indeed lasting loyalty. Platforming “Number 45” while he continues to say the election was stolen from him sends a clear message (notably, Mike Pence — who ultimately did accept the legitimacy of the election and was viciously attacked by his running-mate on social media during the Capitol riot as punishment — turned down an invitation by CPAC organisers to appear). And now that he’s been deprived of his favourite method of communication — Twitter — we can only imagine Trump has saved up a few strong messages of his own to deliver to the gathered attendees and the nation from that blue-lit stage. While we report much less on his words and actions these days, it will be important for us to consider the words of the former president on Sunday, and the reactions of those listening. Trump is gone, but Trumpism is far from over, and to pretend that it is would be hopelessly naive.

Yours,

Holly Baxter

US Opinion Editor