By the time I got in line for the Ronald Reagan Dinner, I was already a few minutes late. During check-in I was instructed to hurry up and find a seat. I figured there'd only be a few spots still available.
But when I walked into the ballroom it was the opposite: At each of the 10-person circular tables, spaced at intervals from the distant stage, there were more options than I could count. The empty place-settings seemed to outnumber those that were taken.
I shouldn't have been surprised. It had been like this all week. Attendance at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference was down across the board. And most of those who'd made the trip counted themselves as supporters of a single politician who was scheduled to speak Saturday. You know who I mean.
Conference-goers I talked to blamed the downturn on the venue's location, the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Fort Washington, Maryland, just downriver from D.C. Maryland is a blue state, and the affluent Washington suburbs are one of its bluest regions; for the previous two years the festivities had taken place in Orlando. Among journalists, there'd been talk of intra-party rivalries and boycotts and the increasing presence of extremists. Supposed 2024 presidential frontrunner Ron DeSantis was skipping the event altogether. Nick Fuentes, the baby-faced white supremacist made famous for his dinner at Mar-a-Lago shortly before Thanksgiving, was staging his own counterprogramming at a nearby hotel. And then there was the issue of the conference's embattled chairman, Matt Schlapp.
Schlapp, who along with his wife, Mercedes, has become the face of CPAC, was accused in a recent lawsuit of sexually assaulting a male Republican staffer.
Eventually I found a half-full table near the back. I sat down across from a cordial older couple, who were dressed in black-and-white evening wear. Just then, Schlapp took the stage to announce the evening's menu. "How many fish eaters do we have here tonight?" he asked. "Fish? Who's abstaining from meat? There we go. That's my crowd." His voice had a playful lilt to it. "Raise your hand if you're abstaining from meat tonight. OK, be careful — the DOJ will probably be visiting your hotel room tonight. We learned that."
The Ronald Reagan dinner bills itself as an exclusive opportunity to hear from a rising Republican star — tonight it would be Kari Lake, the onetime local newscaster and defeated gubernatorial candidate in Arizona whose false claims of election fraud echo Trump's — while hobnobbing alongside the usual conservative celebrities. Tickets start at $375, with the price for the VIP section running at 10 times that. I've been writing about CPAC for half a decade, but this was the first time I'd attended the dinner; in the past, it had always been sold out.
We were served the first course, a baby spinach and citrus salad. Then the main, a beef medallion with some shredded rockfish and garlic mashed potatoes. The conversation at our table throughout the meal was cordial. Eventually the topic turned to Ronald Reagan. Part of my interest in attending was to see, among other things, exactly what a 20th-century politician like the Gipper — broadcaster, movie star, corporate spokesman, governor of California, and finally, at the end of his life, two-term president — had come to mean to this current subsection of the Republican Party.
But before we could say much, the music started up and the beams of the overhead lights crossed together and parted again. Kari Lake was taking the stage.
In Kari Lake's CPAC narrative, real historical figures become character actors in a sinister drama of "globalist" conspiracy, which JFK, Nixon, Reagan and Trump all struggled to defeat.
She was wearing a floor-length navy gown cuffed above the elbows. Her hair was cropped short in her signature style, with a pair of gold earrings at her neck. She opened by acknowledging the "heroes" in the VIP station. One of the perks that comes with shelling out thousands of dollars for the most elite ticket is that, instead of finding yourself with the half-full crowd at the back, you get to sit near the stage, where each table is hosted by a celebrity guest. There was Mike Lindell, the MyPillow CEO now facing a billion-dollar lawsuit for his voting-machine conspiracies: "That man has done more for this country and election integrity than anyone," Lake intoned. And James O'Keefe, recently ousted founder of the discredited activist group Project Veritas. There was also Steve Bannon. "I call him the patriotic stud-muffin," Lake said, pointing to him with an enormous smile.
For the next 40 minutes, speaking in the tones of a local drive-time radio jock or a high school assembly speaker — her voice an octave deeper than you might expect — Lake laid out what amounted to a step-by-step counter-history of the country we're all living in today.
In this narrative, real historical figures were reduced to character actors in the larger conspiracy, which was infused throughout with QAnon references and blatantly antisemitic tropes. John F. Kennedy was killed, she intimated, for trying to expose a "globalist" conspiracy. Richard Nixon was forced from office for the same reason. "Then the great Ronald Reagan, he warned us as well and they called him senile when they tried to take him out. Then Donald Trump: he started to dismantle that entrenched globalist machine and we all know what they did to him. That man was a bull in a china shop. I miss that man so much."
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She went on to mention Reagan twice more. Once when talking about how Bill Gates and the Chinese Communist Party were conspiring to buy up the country — "I grew up in the '80s under Ronald Reagan. That he would allow the USSR to come in and buy one blade of farmland?" — and again at the very end, after a joke about how Hillary Clinton and George Soros have started to look alike, when she offered her own greatest-hits list of Americans: "We stand with our patriots past and present, with George Washington, with JFK, Ronald Reagan, Steve Bannon. We stand with Donald J. Trump."
Steve Bannon? Here he was again, the former investment banker, film producer and presidential adviser pardoned by Trump on his last day in office. Except that now he'd been promoted into the company of four former presidents.
Lake finished her speech a few lines later. "I want these globalists to know that damn right we are dangerous. It's not just me. It is all of us. And I am not just the most dangerous politician in America when it comes to globalism, I am the most dangerous politician in the world because we are not letting these guys win."
Two years ago, I was in the crowd on Jan. 6, 2021, for Donald Trump's speech at the Ellipse, and I didn't have any illusions about his capacity to inspire violence, which was exactly what happened. The same goes for Bannon, who, in addition to calling for the beheadings of prominent government officials, currently faces a host of new legal troubles, including the very real possibility of jail time (his conviction for contempt of Congress is currently being appealed).
Still, it can be hard to tell, amid the choreographed ballroom pomp of what I was witnessing now, how much of a threat someone like Kari Lake poses to our democracy. Who is she really? A failed local newscaster and defeated candidate looking to monetize every possible link to the far wealthier, and objectively more successful, donors in her midst? Or is this someone who genuinely revels in the violence infused in her speeches?
I felt just then the way I always tend to feel at CPAC: bewildered and dismissive and increasingly restless. It was time to put my expensive ticket to work in the only way that still made much sense: the open bar at the back.
Instead, the stage was being prepared for another event. A woman in a dazzling gown was crossing from the podium to the floor. The occupants of my distant section were leaving their seats and proceeding toward the VIP area up front, where, contrary to the logic of all the other CPAC events I've attended, they were being encouraged to leave behind their preassigned area in favor of a better one.
I followed. The auction, I learned, was about to begin.
* * *
Yve Rojas clutched in her right hand the microphone, which contrasted darkly against the livid shimmer of her dress, a mermaid-tail cut that, with its long sleeves and mock-neck, reflected the conference's fuchsia-infused theme lighting. From her perch below the stage she rattled off numbers with a sing-song rapidity: "Can I get one one one one two thousand money ware?" Rojas, a 53-year-old former "Survivor: Nicaragua" contestant (she was voted off the island halfway through the 2010 season), bills herself as an "International Auctioneer Reserve Champion" who left behind her acting career to "specialize in the philosophy of how, when, and why people commit to action at charitable events."
Multiple items, donated by the conference's patrons, were up for bidding. There was an enormous portrait of Donald Trump by Vanessa Horabuena, a self-described "Christian worship artist and performance speed painter," which was accompanied by an equally large action photo of the 45th president autographing it. "Have your eyes right there," Rojas exclaimed, "watching him sign the original piece." It went for $6,000.
There was also a photograph — boxed in a small showcase — of Ronald Reagan himself, taken at the beginning of his presidency. To Lou, the inscription read, with every good wish and best regards, Ron.
"It's right up there," Rojas told us, "encased in the beautiful shadow box."
At this point of the auction I was standing in the center of the VIP section, a few feet away from Rojas. On the stage above, Reagan's photograph was dwarfed by Trump's portrait.
In preparation for this dinner I'd been reading selections from Reagan's biographer Edmund Morris, known for characterizing his subjects through their physicality, as opposed to relying on political motivations and ideology. In fact, Morris' eye for detail was so striking, I found myself sketching out his version of the Gipper in the margins of the book.
This was a Ronald Reagan who loved swimming and diving. Who, in his teens, danced the foxtrot. From the start he had impeccable balance. His gait was that of an athlete's, long and lean. He wrote short stories in college. They were never published. As an actor he didn't wear makeup. The lights on set, with their heat, were something he didn't recall feeling. Before he was a conservative, he was an avid New Dealer. In 1938, he submitted an application to the Hollywood Communist Party, but was rejected; he was too patriotic. In 1988, as president, he was told by a delegation from Bangladesh about the catastrophic floods that had killed more than 1,000 people and left millions homeless. He smiled wistfully. "You know," he replied, "I used to work as a lifeguard at Lowell Park Beach, on the Rock River in Illinois, and when it rained upstate you wouldn't believe the trees and trash, and so forth, that used to come down."
He had saved 77 people from drowning, as a lifeguard, in that river.
He disliked taking naps in the afternoon. He talked to children the same way he spoke to adults: smoothly, indifferent to their broader capacity for understanding. What interested him — and this applied to all audiences — was the warmth of general applause. In the daily journal he kept during his eight years at the White House, he wrote more than 500,000 words. But the entries in this journal were mostly copied verbatim out of the presidential schedule, which was printed for him each morning. Over the course of his life he rarely questioned himself, except for a stretch of two years, from 1948 to 1949, after his marriage with the actress Jane Wyman fell apart. The reason for the divorce: Wyman said he was too boring. He loved his second wife, Nancy, without hesitation. In 1961 he wrote a poem about her footprints on a shag-rug carpet. Its final line: "I am glad that the carpet sweepers can never erase them." At the end of his life, dying of Alzheimer's, he couldn't recognize images of himself as president. He died in Los Angeles, at the start of the 21st century, no longer capable of saying his own name.
But here he was, on stage at the Potomac Ballroom, his photograph trapped in a shadow box half the size of the portrait of Donald Trump hanging above. The bidding for this item concluded at $16,000.
By now the crowd around me seemed to be growing restless. "Ladies and gentlemen," Rojas interjected, "taking selfies is not why we're here. We are here to raise funds."
The next item up: an all-expenses-paid trip with Matt Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes, to the Inn at Little Washington, a secluded destination an hour west of the D.C. metro area. This trip included, along with dinner at the inn's lavish restaurant, a room for the night.
"Don't worry!" Rojas exclaimed. "You have accommodations right there at the lodge."
An all-inclusive overnight trip to the Inn at Little Washington with Matt Schlapp — recently accused of handling the "junk" of a Republican male staffer — went for $11,000.
The allegations of sexual misconduct against Schlapp, reported in a series of articles, include phone records, video testimonies and text messages. The male Republican staffer who filed the suit described, among other things, being trapped with the CPAC chairman over the course of a Georgia car ride that he felt helpless to escape. "Matt Schlapp," he revealed to the Daily Beast, "grabbed my junk and pummeled it at length. What is wrong with me? This is OK to happen?" (Recently he chose to identify himself in response to a court order to allow the case to proceed, and in the time since, he has faced his own allegations of sexual misconduct, which he in turn denies.)
Rojas kept searching for a higher offer. "You can say yes too!" she told a young woman at a nearby table. Eventually, the all-inclusive night with the Schlapps went for $11,000. Rojas congratulated the winning bidder: "Enjoy your meal and conversation!"
At this point in the auction, many of the Ronald Reagan Dinner's celebrity guests had stopped paying attention altogether. To my right, Mike Lindell, dressed in a very blue suit, was talking to an older woman with a cane, who was wearing, over her evening gown, an elegant black cape with a mink trim.
"You know what pillow I like," she said to him. "A feather pillow."
"You've got my new feather pillow now?" he asked.
"I've got to check that out."
"It's great," Lindell said.
"I like a down pillow."
"That's what I'm talking about!" he told her. He threw his hands in the air. "Otherwise, you're gonna be walking like this." Lindell pinned his head to his shoulder, and crimping his neck as if in pain, proceeded to mock-step forward, crying out, "Ah! Ah! It's the pillow!"
The woman laughed brightly.
Near the stage, Yve Rojas was doing her best to drum up interest in the final item: a week at a four-bedroom ranch house in Sun Valley, Idaho.
But the bidding was stalled. Suddenly she turned her attention to a man and woman sitting nearby. "They're thinking about it," she said into the microphone.
The man held up his palms. "I have a big family," he told her. "Fifteen people."
"Well," she replied. "You can get another place too. This comfortably sleeps up to six. You're here for the donation — to be a champion of CPAC! — not to worry about the other eight members of your family."
At that instant, Yve Rojas let out a soundless, sustained laugh — broken into three distinct beats — that I understood, standing a few feet off, as an attempt, after so much continuous auctioneering, to catch her breath.
The couple demurred. The week-long stay at the ranch house wouldn't receive another bid. It went for $7,000.
At last the auction was done. "Let's get back to the stage," I heard Rojas tell an assistant. Then she was gone.
Matt Schlapp appeared. He stood at the main podium. "Shhhh," he said into the microphone. "Shhhh. See? We can get quiet. Guess what we do now. The bar is open. Please go dance and have fun."
* * *
The next day, Donald Trump closed out the conference with a speech in the Potomac Ballroom. Attendance, again, appeared to be down. "That room was half full," Chris Christie said afterward.
Trump spoke for nearly two hours. At the podium he looked lethargic. There were his familiar volleys of nonsense — Zuckerbucks! I want a baby boom! We will press forward with push! — but his threats were as unmistakable as ever. "I am your justice," he told us. "I am your retribution."
There shouldn't be any doubt: this is a man who's determined to see through his latest bid for the presidency, once again, to the bitter end.
Now it was evening. A blue night was coming up over the water, moon-bright and clear, the wind breaking the surface of the Potomac in waves. CPAC was over. But there was still one more event left to attend: over at the Brass Tap, a bar just down the street from the Gaylord Resort, Steve Bannon was holding the first annual "Warriors Ball," a private affair. To get in you had to arrive with someone already on the guest list — which, as it turned out, I did. (This person has asked that I not use his name.)
Inside, the place was so packed you could hardly reach the bar. I spotted many of the same faces from the night before. Kari Lake was there, along with James O'Keefe. Bannon was holding court in the corner, cordoned off by a pair of what appeared to be very large bodyguards.
But the rest of the crowd was new to me. It was mostly male, many of them in their 20s and 30s. They were dressed in blazers and T-shirts and jeans. Some wore "War Room Posse" baseball caps, merch for Bannon's podcast. Others sported high-and-tight haircuts, still popular with the far right. A few had even gone full cowboy; as far as I could tell, their Stetsons were authentic.
I ordered a drink. Bannon had bought out the entire bar. Anything you could name, you could have. I thought then about the Republican staffer who'd accused Matt Schlapp of assaulting him. A number of the people at this gathering probably knew him personally, I had the feeling. What were the odds he'd have been here too, another face in this crowd, had he not made his allegations?
Just after 10 p.m., a microphone appeared. Someone passed it to Bannon. "Was Donald Trump great today or what? Is this Trump 2024 kickoff right here?" He introduced Kari Lake, "our first warrior." As the crowd chanted her name she smiled and started to speak.
But it was hard to catch what she was saying. "Quiet on set!" someone yelled. "Simmer down!"
"Man," Lake said. "I feel like a DJ." People got quiet now. "These damn criminals," she intoned. "They are stealing our elections. This is the issue of our time."
She pointed her finger for emphasis. The buttons at the cuff of her blazer flared. "I'm sick of these bogus, bullshit, fake ballots," she said. Her eyebrows, narrowly arched, stood a shade darker against the short, soft coif of her hair. "The first step is, we root these corrupt individuals out of office."
The crowd couldn't get enough. There was no fury in her voice. They amplified back at her the growing sense of menace the words contained. She turned left, then right. She was taking the time to look directly at each of them.
"Yes!" someone shouted.
"There's a mob here," another said. "I don't ever want to leave!"
She nodded soberly. "I'm in this fight to the bitter end."
And that was it. In under two minutes she'd made her case. Of the two nights in question this was by far the better speech.
As she handed back the microphone a chant broke out, one I hadn't heard before. "Kari for vice president!"
Bannon was elated. "This is the War Room right here. Feels like France 1792!"
Ah, the Jacobins. I looked around the room to see if anyone got the reference, but now it was James O'Keefe's turn to speak.
He talked briefly about creating his own media network. "O'Keefe News? O'Keefe Report? O'Keefe Files! I love that." In the wake of Lake's performance he was small and self-promoting, somehow wooden and scattered at the same time.
Bannon came back to close things out. "Look at what our movement is made of! Is there any political movement in the country as strong as this? Are we gonna party down hard tonight? I want to make sure that the War Room's First Warrior's Ball sets new lows!"
Afterward, he made sure to shake hands with the young men invited to his event. He posed for their photographs and answered every question they had. He didn't look like someone expecting to spend the next few months behind bars.
Which Orwell book, I asked Steve Bannon, was his favorite? "'Homage to Catalonia,'" he said, looking directly at me. "There's no question. It's absolutely his very best."
A few minutes later I ducked into the line too, taking my place behind the row of boys ahead of me. Of all the questions I heard him asked, not one was about politics. Instead, they kept seeking advice on dating, on how to be successful and on the business of podcasting — on what they might do to become more like him.
When I made it to Bannon, we had a chance to talk. Well aware of his longstanding reputation as "the most well-read man in Washington," I was interested in hearing his take on an author whose work I've associated with him in the past: George Orwell. I introduced myself, and as we shook hands I asked if there was an Orwell book he considered a particular favorite.
"'Homage to Catalonia,'" he said. He was looking directly at me. "There's no question. It's absolutely his very best."
That was my favorite book by Orwell — an unparalleled braiding of memoir and political analysis that beautifully depicts the writer's experience, in 1936 and 1937, fighting against Franco's Fascists in the Spanish Civil War.
We recounted, together, our favorite scenes. He mentioned the depiction of the infighting that broke out among the revolutionaries in Barcelona in May. I quoted, as best I could, the moment Orwell was shot through the neck (only to survive, miraculously) by a distant sniper: "Roughly speaking it was the sensation of being at the center of an explosion."
We could have gone on like this for I don't know how long. But then we were shaking hands and he was asking if I'd like a picture.
"You know," he said as we leaned together for a shot from my phone. "It's a parable for Ukraine today."
I glanced at him quickly as the camera went off. I understood what he meant: The Western coalition that's come together against Vladimir Putin's invasion is doomed to suffer the same failure that the international left met, nearly a century earlier, in its fight against Franco.
Not that I agreed. Still, what could I say? Before me was the sort of person, I told myself, who liked the right things for all the wrong reasons.
The line of young men still waiting to meet the party's host stretched out before us. "Is this the kind of book you'd recommend to people here?" I finally asked.
Steve Bannon smiled. "Without hesitation."