“I’m not at CPAC. I’m at TPAC,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio show host who served as the chairman in Virginia for Trump’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns.
Indeed, Ron DeSantis’ decision to skip CPAC was both an act of cowardice and an acknowledgment of Republican reality. CPAC 2023 may be reduced in size (for several reasons), but more than ever, it’s a Donald Trump stronghold.
“CPAC is long gone. The Trump forces, the America First movement, and the populist movement, of which I’m a key member of and a protectionist, has hijacked CPAC. We own this convention,” added Fredericks.
CPAC has long been a major event for conservatives of all stripes to gather and mingle with some of the most popular figures in the Republican Party. But this year’s event has underscored two realities: One, that the annual conference is drawing thinner crowds than it has in the past, as the auditorium where the major speeches were held were often half-full; and two, that most in attendance weren’t particularly interested in seeing party luminaries besides the 45th president.
Over the past few days, visitors and speakers alike have made clear their support for the former president, whether it was in the trademark red “Make America Great Again” hats and other pro-Trump attire seen among the crowds, or in the overwhelming presence of some of the former president’s biggest allies.
“Trump’s a proven entity,” said Walt Davis, who serves as an at-large member of the Ohio State Board of Education. “We watched him over four years accomplish so many things. It’s a record that exists. He doesn’t have to promise anything.”
But Republicans on the outside looking in have an entirely different view, according to The Grid.
The list of GOP luminaries skipping this year’s event is just as remarkable as the list of headliners. Potential 2024 presidential candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence declined to attend this year, as did House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.
Within the walls of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, several attendees said the legal problems facing Trump and his allies were products of the media and a leftist government gone awry.
“The media stirs up so much chaos around [Trump] and then labels him the agent of chaos. But they are the agents of chaos,” Kevin Speight, a North Carolina physician, told Grid. “And if DeSantis says he’s running, they’ll do everything in the world to ruin him as well.”
Indeed, when the highest-ranking Republican in government, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, found someplace else to be than at the Gaylord National Resort, mainstream Republicans need to ask why. In past years, CPAC served as a safety valve where conservatives of many stripes could gather to discuss issues of importance.
That’s just not true today.
GOP strategist Dennis Lennox told The Grid, “I’m old enough to remember when you had debates at CPAC between the assorted tribes within the conservative movement over policies. There are no debates anymore,” he said. Now, “it’s a carnival. There is definitely a carnival atmosphere to it with a bunch of carnies grifting.”
And after several years of knocking at the mainstream door, the John Birch Society now has a seat at the CPAC table. The Birchers were one of the main reasons for the formation of the American Conservative Union not only to remove the stench of segregationism from the political right but also because the Birchers’ conspiracy-mongering became a political liability.
Bill Buckley is turning in his grave now that the John Birch Society is exhibiting at CPAC.
There’s nothing wrong with making CPAC a Trump-dominated event just as long as the Trumpers realize that many in the GOP have moved on from the former president, as evidenced by the half-filled venues. And as long as the MAGA movement calls good conservatives like Nikki Haley “RINO,” the next CPAC promises to be even smaller.