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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.