CPACalypse Now

Has CPAC transformed from a big-tent activist spectacle into a polarizing MAGA-world sideshow?
Has CPAC transformed from a big-tent activist spectacle into a polarizing MAGA-world sideshow? Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Tina Nguyen
March 8, 2023

Political news junkies already know the headlines surrounding this year’s underwhelming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the biggest rightwing confab in American politics—the event has become a too wing-nutty, too unsafe for the establishment and establishment-adjacent Republicans and media partners who used to throng the halls of the Gaylord Resort, and it’s apparently lost its media magnetism, as well as the bulk of its attendees. Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence declined invites to attend. CPAC garnered effectively zero coverage on Fox Nation, previously a sponsor of the event. Oh yes, and the conference’s activist-cum-lobbyist impresario, Matt Schlapp, is currently fending off allegations that he groped a male staffer on Herschel Walker’s Senate campaign. (Schlapp has denied the allegation.) 

I was unable to attend, myself, after my credentials were mysteriously denied for the first time in seven years. Nevertheless, it’s worth examining the transformation of CPAC from a big-tent activist spectacle that demanded the annual attention of Capitol Hill and Washington media into a polarizing MAGA-world sideshow where keynote speakers included MyPillow salesman and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. (Nikki Haley, perhaps the most high-profile Republican presidential challenger at CPAC this year, was chased by hostile Trump fans into an elevator after her speech.) And while there are plenty of conclusions to be drawn from CPAC about Trump’s enduring stature with the base, it’s also worth examining for a deeper understanding of the widening schism between Trump-era grassroots activists, the median Republican voter, and a new generation that doesn’t necessarily align with either.

Herewith, five observations about this year’s CPAC, which mirrors some worrying trends for the Republican party writ large.

1. The Rise of MAGA Inc.

Yes, Trumpism and MAGAism dominated CPAC, as they have in the past. But MAGA Inc., the super PAC backing Donald Trump, was also a top sponsor this year, hosting not one but two of the biggest booths in the exhibition hall and on media row (where Don Jr. hosted a live podcast taping) as well as a well-attended reception after Trump’s speech, with CPAC speakers like Reps. Wesley Hunt, Elise Stefanik, and Matt Gaetz giving remarks. It was, in short, a mini-CPAC nested within the Trumpified CPAC itself, albeit with more explicit branding.

The political return on MAGA Inc.’s investment at CPAC played out in the straw poll, which Trump won by a definitive 62 percent, followed by DeSantis with a distant 20 percent. But it also reflected a marked turn in the dominant ideology at the conference, which in past years upheld Reaganism, free markets, muscular foreign policy, and traditional Christian values as lodestars. Instead, speeches and interviews this year were largely dominated by an “anti-globalist” view that took the form of opposition to Ukraine, to large corporations, to the F.B.I., and to election denialism—something that even Reagan’s more conservative son, Michael Reagan, expressed discomfort with. “My father would be embarrassed for the Republican Party knowing the Kari Lake is speaking at the Ronald Reagan Dinner tonite @CPAC” he tweeted, referring to the 2020 results-denying former Arizona gubernatorial candidate who is now a leading contender to join Trump’s ticket.

2. CPAC Is Boomer

One of the more striking features of CPAC’s past was its status as a veritable spring break trip for young, diehard conservative activists looking to get their foot in the door. Hillsdale College would send buses of students; Turning Point USA would subsidize tickets and lodging for hundreds of chapter members; and the evening would be packed with numerous afterparties across the city for college students letting loose for the night. This year there was a notable lack of students at the Gaylord Resort—the crowd that used to form the bulk of CPAC attendees. “It used to be packed with kids but now Turning Point has all the youth shit,” former CPAC comms director Ross Hemminger told me, having attended on Friday night. “Lots of old people and my god I’ve never seen so many fur coats.” 

Megan Powers Smalls, a spokeswoman for CPAC, disputed that characterization. “CPAC attendance was so strong this year that we had to close ticket sales on Friday due to concerns over capacity,” she told me. Of course, Friday was the third day of the conference, which would previously sell out months in advance. 

There could be plenty of reasons for CPAC to have a lower student turnout—the prohibitive cost of travel to D.C., for instance. (Student tickets this year were $50, which are often subsidized by student organizations.) But the real elephant in the room (or lack thereof) was the new youth behemoth on the right. Turning Point USA and Turning Point Action, the campus conservative networks founded by Charlie Kirk, seems to have hoovered up the majority of the right’s young activists with their own live events, including at least five last year. Some 10,800 people traveled to Arizona last December to attend Turning Point’s largest confab, AmericaFest. The shift also presages larger demographic trends within the G.O.P.: Kirk’s Ambassadors Program, which develops conservative internet personalities, among other things, is precisely what younger, digitally-obsessed Gen Z activists are looking for. Wonky student activists hoping to network their way into a campaign or internship, it seems, are migrating to new platforms. 

3. Does CPAC Even Activism Anymore?

In the old days, whenever people called CPAC “wonky,” they referred invariably to the breakout panel sessions. While the main stage features the biggest speakers and stars of the movement—politicians, activists, media personalities, etcetera—the breakout sessions were the real meat and potatoes of the conference, pairing smaller groups with conservative professionals to rap about topics as varied as tech policy, First and Second Amendment issues, campaigning, student engagement on campus, careers in conservative media, the future of international relations, and so forth. It also served a logistical purpose to manage the overflow of attendees who could not fit into the main ballroom. “There used to be, in my day, 10-12 breakout rooms,” Hemminger told me.

This year, for the first time, there were zero breakout rooms, not including the 25-minute activism training seminar that preceded the beginning of the conference. The focus was instead on the mainstage speakers, who presented in roughly 20 minute increments, save for Trump. (If the intention was to concentrate the audience in these rooms all day, it didn’t work out too well—most of the speakers frequently spoke to half-full rooms.) It’s unclear why CPAC eliminated the breakout sessions, whether it was due to the publicly notable lack of attendees, or the lack of interest in people speaking on panels. (According to Smalls, “attendees love the breakout sessions, and we plan to do more next year.”)

4. The Fox News Exodus

Historically, part of CPAC’s allure was not just its ability to draw the most dedicated activists in the game, young and old, but also its convening power to put major conservative institutions and grassroots audiences in the same room. Back in the day, it wasn’t unheard of for the American Conservative Union (ACU), the Matt Schlapp-led group behind CPAC, to charge up to six figures for sponsorships and booths, and places like Breitbart, GETTR and the NRA would gladly pony up. Even Google and Facebook were major sponsors in the years before Trump, and anti-Big Tech sentiment, took over the party. But this year, there were a few moneyed stalwarts notably missing.

Sure, there were Heritage Foundation scholars on media row, and the Heritage Foundation’s media outlet The Daily Signal had a team on the ground to get interviews with lawmakers and famous conservatives. Heritage was also a sponsor of the event, according to Smalls. But it did not escape notice among attendees I spoke to that the Heritage Foundation’s brand—its giant, iconic bell—was nowhere to be found on-site. Its absence was an odd curiosity, considering Heritage’s recent adoption of more nationalist-populist rhetoric and its past status as a top CPAC donor. Indeed, Heritage frequently had the biggest booth in the exhibition hall (and was, in my recollection, a reliable source of free, fresh popcorn). 

Heritage spokesman Rob Bluey told me that the organization chose to focus instead on Project 2025, a Heritage-led and Heritage-funded coalition with several dozen other institutions aimed at staffing the next Republican administration. “Over the past few years, we have worked closely with ACU to customize a sponsorship that serves Heritage’s priorities,” Bluey told me. “This year our priority was promoting Project 2025. CPAC is a great event to highlight the leadership of our broad coalition effort to staff the next friendly administration with patriotic conservatives.” 

Other big-gun sponsors were notably missing from CPAC’s famed media row, a location as much of a draw for activists and conservative celebrities as getting a speaking slot on the main stage. For the influencers, it’s a convenient opportunity to appear on conservative outlets with diehard followings; while for those outlets—Newsmax, Real America’s Voice, Right Side Broadcasting Network, etcetera—it’s a way to generate content that caters to their audiences at home. Even Fox Nation, the online streaming division of Fox News, which paid $250,000 in 2021 to underwrite their booth, did not have a presence on media row this year, despite live-streaming past CPAC events as recently as last summer in Dallas. (This year, they live-streamed Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial instead.)

5. The Money Grab Backlash

Perhaps most importantly, there is no longer the same code of omertà surrounding criticism of CPAC, itself. For years, Republican and conservative activists have quietly grumbled about CPAC’s inexorable transformation from a pseudo-academic, activist gathering into a corporatized, profit-driven, and occasionally grift-ripe endeavor, but no one dared say so publicly. But in many ways, Trump’s decision to pull out of the conference in 2016 broke the spell—proving that CPAC needs conservative starpower more than they need CPAC. It’s also possible that Schlapp himself diminished the brand’s power and allure by pushing to offer multiple yearly events and to expand internationally—an ostensible money grab that risks stretching the foundation’s budget. (Who wants to go to two CPACs in America per year, after all? And are there enough CPAC-style activists in Japan to justify a conference?) 

More recently, however, the quiet grumbling about CPAC’s business has grown louder. In an interview with Fox Business’s Stuart Varney, Vivek Ramaswamy, the longshot Republican presidential candidate who spoke at this year’s CPAC, said that he had been approached by a consultant who offered to secure him second place in the CPAC straw poll for the price of “a few hundred thousand dollars.” (CPAC has not commented on the allegation.)

In defense of CPAC, they’ve made it more difficult in recent years to game the infamous presidential straw poll, attaching specialized QR codes to each ballot. But Ramaswamy’s claim, whether it’s true or not, has certainly contributed to an impression among Tea Party-era activists and MAGA true believers, alike, that CPAC’s status as the singular grassroots event demanding establishment Washington’s attention is not only waning, but being devoured by a money-hungry establishment seeking relevance and profit, itself. It may not matter exactly how many Kari Lakes, Marjorie Taylor Greenes, or even Trumps make appearances at their events: if CPAC is seen as trying to make even more money off of populist ideologues, telling their skeptics that they should fly to the Swamp, of all places, to see their favorite politicians, perhaps they have misjudged the political moment.