Picture yourself in a dark grand ballroom of a Marriott conference center on a late-winter Saturday in business-casual dress. You’re finishing watching your 16th consecutive speech of the day, since 8:30 a.m., about the need to “fight” against the “RINOs.” You get a break and go to the atrium market, pick up a soggy chicken Caesar salad wrap, and eat by yourself on a bench. You wander around the vendor area to look at Trump apparel and investment opportunities for gold or cryptocurrency, and then take the escalator back up. Through the high-paned glass windows, you look, vacantly, at the brownish-grey Potomac River and an empty Ferris wheel. It’s an uninteresting temperature outside, 47 degrees. You go back to the grand ballroom and sit for four more hours.
You paid hundreds of dollars for this.
You’re an attendee of the Conservative Political Action Conference. And this year there are a lot fewer of you.
CPAC, the regular gathering of the conservative movement, returned to the D.C. area this year after a couple of years in Florida during the pandemic. Previews of the confab focused on how CPAC’s star had “diminished” in stature on the right. In past presidential election cycles, any candidate, of any ideological leaning, would attend the gathering to prove themselves before the party’s conservative base and right-wing media gatekeepers. It was at CPAC in 2012, for example, that GOP presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney went before the judges and awkwardly described himself as “severely conservative.”
But CPAC was skippable this year for potential presidential candidates—and attendees. Major contenders, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, didn’t show. (Former Vice President Mike Pence also didn’t attend CPAC.) Part of the lighter attendance was the fact that the guy who runs CPAC, lobbyist and operative Matt Schlapp, is under scrutiny for a sexual misconduct allegation. But CPAC had also turned into a show for Trump, and those in the right-wing universe that make money off of him, than anything else.
“It’s a content machine for the right-wing media ecosystem,” a former Romney advisor told the New York Times.
The most notable images of CPAC, then, were the ones showing what appeared to be a consistently half-empty ballroom. And what were they listening to? Well, the hard sells of investment “opportunities” weren’t just limited to shady operators in the vendors’ room anymore. Kimberly Guilfoyle, the conservative media personality and girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., was doing it herself off of a teleprompter.
But even with limited attendance from presidential hopefuls and, you know, attendees in general, did this scammier-than-usual CPAC offer any traditional news, in terms of advancing presidential-cycle plotlines? A bit.
DeSantis and other presidential hopefuls didn’t want to show up for what was, essentially, a Trump rally. Trump certainly showed up, though, giving a 90-minute speech on Saturday. In the speech, the former president laid out themes for his 2024 run, which he dubbed “the final battle.”
The themes—as you might expect for a battle of such finality—are pretty grim!
This was not the relaxed, riffing Trump regaling attendees about his NBC ratings or how he saw a famous person’s boob in 1988. This was more of the dystopian, resentful Trump of his “American Carnage” inauguration speech in 2017, or his “marching over to the Capitol” speech before the mob invasion of Jan. 6, 2021.
He spoke about his influence reshaping the party. “We had a Republican Party that was ruled by freaks, neocons, globalists, open borders zealots and fools, but we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” he said. “We will expel the warmongers, we will drive out the globalists, we will cast out the communists, we will throw off the political class that hates our country.” The country, he said, is in an “epic battle” against “sinister forces” as the nation was becoming a “crime-ridden, filthy communist nightmare.”
“In 2016, I declared: I am your voice,” Trump said. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”
Yeah, so not exactly a sunny, “shining city on a hill” view of things. Trump’s campaign vision is more about, say, razing the communist city on the hill and its heathenistic cultural mores. He’s a lot more fun when he’s talking about how toilets don’t work anymore.
Trump won the CPAC presidential straw poll with 62 percent of the vote. DeSantis got 20 percent.
Speaking of DeSantis, the Florida governor now has enough hype and recognition that he can afford to miss CPAC, especially as it ain’t what it used to be. Those polling in single-digits—which is to say, everyone else—can’t. A half-crowd of people is still a crowd of people for them, and they needed to seize the half-opportunity.
The only other well-known candidate to have formally launched a presidential campaign, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, did put up a double-digit performance in the CPAC straw poll. Unfortunately for her, it was the CPAC vice presidential straw poll, in which she earned 10 percent. (Kari Lake, a person from Arizona who may believe she’s the current governor of Arizona, won with 20 percent.)
In her speech, Haley delivered the usual fare about how “the socialist Democrats just don’t want to spend our money, they want to take our freedom” and reiterated her call for mandatory brain testing of politicians over 75 years old. The response was reportedly “tepid.”
Tepid, however, seems generous, given that Haley was heckled in the hallways with chants of “we love Trump!” after finishing her speech.
Not that you need to say anything about Trump for his mercenaries to shout at you while you’re living your life, but what potshots may Haley have taken at Trump? One of her arguments for “generational change” is that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, a line she reiterated at CPAC. This at least points to the question of Trump’s electability. (Trump—and his many CPAC supporters—would likely inform you those are fraudulent numbers and he actually won the popular vote both times.)
Another likely presidential candidate, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was a little more direct. Not only had they lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections, he said, but “we’ve lost three elections in a row.” This acknowledged that Trump lost the 2020 election.
“We can’t become the left, following celebrity leaders with their own brand of identity politics, those with fragile egos who refuse to acknowledge reality,” Pompeo said.
Pompeo earned one percent in the CPAC straw poll.
In his speech, Pompeo noted that previous administrations, “Republican and Democrat alike,” had mismanaged the national debt. “That is deeply unconservative,” he said. It’s a point he would reiterate on Fox News later in the weekend, implying that Trump was not a “true conservative.”
It’s all a little odd. Why did he, or anyone else walking into Trump’s lion’s den this weekend, think the Conservative Political Action Conference had anything to do with conservatism?