Skipping out on CPAC: Did Trump kill off conservatives' biggest confab?

Conservatives turn their backs on CPAC

By Heather Digby Parton


Published March 3, 2023 9:21AM (EST)

Former U.S. President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole on August 06, 2022 in Dallas, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

It's that time again.

CPAC, the annual gathering of the most committed members of the right wing in America is back to catch up with their fellow travelers and own them some libs. As of late, they've been holding their little convention several times a year in different places like Hungary and Texas but this weekend they're back on their favorite stomping grounds at the Gaylord near Washington, D.C.

This year, there's a bit of controversy over the fact that certain probable presidential candidates aren't bothering to show up, something that would have been unheard of in years past. Instead of attending the traditional hate-fest, they've decided to go to a big donor confab hosted by the Club for Growth. Why? Because CPAC has become a wholly owned subsidiary of the MAGA movement with Donald Trump topping the bill as keynote speaker. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, for instance, decided to attend the donor meeting rather than go mano a mano with the former president, taking refuge with the group that has said it's dedicated to depriving Trump of another term.

And DeSantis isn't the only one.

Former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu are expected at the Club for Growth's event but are not expected to appear at CPAC. With only Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley coming to CPAC, it looks like the MAGA lane is wide open for Trump — at least for this weekend.

There are reports that the reason these luminaries aren't showing up at CPAC as they had always done in the past is that the man who runs it, Trump acolyte Matt Schlapp, has been credibly accused of groping a man who was working on the Herschel Walker Senate campaign and now he is supposedly persona non grata among establishment Republicans:

"It's a scandal," one Republican operative who has worked on several presidential campaigns told CNN. "If you are thinking about running for president and you're not Donald Trump, you can't afford a misstep. You can't afford to be linked to a scandal."

I find it hard to believe, frankly. It's far more likely they are avoiding CPAC because it's a hotbed of Trump mania as well as the fact that they are all desperately hustling for money from those big donors at the Club for Growth meeting. DeSantis surely figures he's feeding the MAGA monster all the red meat it can eat already and the rest of them (except, perhaps, for Noem) are trying to run to some small extent as anti-Trumps. None of them need CPAC more than they need money right now.

Trump, on the other hand, is going to be dependent on that small donor network he's put together since 2016. He's always relied more on the MAGA faithful to repeatedly give him, a supposed billionaire, their hard-earned money and they've always been happy to do it. With big donors hedging (for now) his first order of business is to keep his flock happy and excited. Besides, Club for Growth didn't invite him.

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One of the mainstays of CPAC over the years has been its gross merchandising and outrageous speakers (aside from the outrageous politicians.) Back in the day, you could buy bumper stickers that said "Happiness is Hillary's face on a milk carton" or some racist "Obama waffles" in the hall along with "liberal hunting permits." This year they are offering a new reprehensible joke only fit for a 12-year-old bully :

Featured speakers in the past included the bomb-throwing Ann Coulter who used to mesmerize the crowd with clever bon mots like, "I think our motto should be post-9-11, 'raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.'" This year, they invited the execrable Chaya Raichik, the operator of the hate-filled Libs of TikTok Twitter account that stalks LGBTQ teachers and medical providers for transgender patients. As Vice reported, she is on the grift, big time:

Her social media following has skyrocketed, she is raking in tens of thousands of dollars from her Substack subscribers, she has published a children's book that depicts teachers as predators, she's dined one-on-one with former President Donald Trump, and she's appeared numerous times on Fox News and Newsmax.

Oh, and Ron DeSantis invited her to stay at the Governor's mansion in Florida. 

They loved her at CPAC:

But the real stars of the show are the mainstream GOP officials who are even more sophomoric and crude than the professional bomb throwers.

You have Sen John Kennedy from Louisiana with a litany of stale oldies about liberal weirdos:

Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, talking about Democratic "thugs":

The always unctuous Ted Cruz calling for Dr. Fauci to be jailed:

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida with an enemies list:

Rep. Scott Perry of Pennsylvania on an extended rant about leftists using the government against individuals after which he promised to use the government against them:

Who needs rude pundits and insult comics to thrill the crowd when you have elected officials like this lot?

The bigger names are coming up today and over the weekend. Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is speaking and has been teasing a big announcement. (An endorsement perhaps?) Unlike last year's CPAC in Orlando, there isn't a white supremacist gathering across town that she'll feel compelled to attend.

And Trump himself will be there on Saturday, which should fire up the crowd. They love Trump and really don't care about any of the others. As one attendee told Business Insider:

Whoever wants to run, that's fine. But President Trump is the one that we need. There's others out there but they don't have what it takes to make America great.

Maybe it was just a slow first day or the crowd is burned out after so many CPACs last year that they didn't get the normal numbers. Maybe some people are weirded out about Schlapp's groping scandal. Whatever it is, the first day didn't have the kind of crowd it usually has. The big rooms were half empty, there weren't as many exhibits and the sense of wingnut fun that had people doing things like this was completely missing:

Wearing track suits and colonial-style wigs, Steve Crowder, a Fox News contributor and comedian, and Chris Loesch, the husband of conservative commentator Dana Loesch, warmed the crowd up with a rap about "Mr. America." Behind them was their own music video of the song, in which they wore more colonial-style clothing and stood in front of a building that appeared to be some sort of fortress.

From the looks of it, the crowd this year could barely get themselves to clap. Is it possible that the air really has gone out of the MAGA balloon? Or are people just bored with CPAC? We'll have to see if the event picks up over the next couple of days and if Trump can draw a big crowd on Saturday. But it's not looking good for CPAC, which has been around for decades. As the Never Trumper Rick Wilson said in his book of the same name: "Everything Trump touches, dies." It could very well be that CPAC is his latest victim. 

By Heather Digby Parton

Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.

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