CPAC Was the Real Republican Party All Along
It turns out that the conservative Star Wars bar was actually representative of the Republican base.
1. The Big Lie Is Alive And Well At CPAC
Six hours into Day 1 of CPAC, radio host Ben Ferguson announced that they were calling an audible and bringing a surprise guest to the stage.
The excitement was palpable.
And then came the big reveal.
They call him the “Ted Cruz of Korea,” Ferguson intoned.
And then after a brief stumble over the guest’s name, Ferguson settled on an introduction he could pronounce. “Please give a warm welcome to Min . . . Mister Min, I should say.”
After a full run-down of his resumé, Mister Min explained the reason he was a late addition to the CPAC line-up: “Just like President Trump, my loss was due to election fraud,” Mister Min said. “I have since been fighting diligently against election fraud.”
That’s right. The only thing a foreign politician had to do in order to get a coveted spot on the CPAC Main Stage was go all-in on the Big Lie. Testifying that Donald Trump is the exalted one and only “lost” to Joe Biden due to election fraud is the price of admission for entry into Conservative Inc.
Actual policy positions are negotiable.
In fact, putting in new laws that make it harder for people to vote in order to combat the imaginary 2020 election fraud is one of only two “policies” that were on consistently on the agenda at this year’s largest conservative confab, the other being “taking on Big Tech” to stop “cancel culture.” (Details on how, exactly, to do that should be coming any day now.)
The first two policy presentations were focused on combating election “fraud.” Both featured Fox News contributor and National Review Online contributing editor Deroy Murdock.
Murdock claimed that election 2020 was a “nightmare” that featured “late night ballot dumps” (Totally normal and just sounds scary) and “cars with out of state license plates unloading piles of ballots at counting centers in the wee small hours.” (There is no evidence of this.)
He used the Frank Abagnale Jr. “where’s the crease” theorem to determine that some absentee ballots were fake because they had not been folded and the bubbles were filled in too neatly. He called for Republican state legislatures to investigate his claims. (They have.) When asked by the moderator how much election fraud evidence is accumulating, right now, in ballots across the country, Murdock suggested “They’d be shredded by now. Probably. Possibly.”
Finally Murdock blamed the insurrection at the Capitol not on Donald Trump, nor even on irresponsible “journalists” who infected Republican voters with lies—but on the judges who rejected Trump’s embarrassingly crafted lawsuits. It was the judges, according to Murdock, who "bear a lot of the responsibility for the chaos that ensued."
The politicians who followed Murdock either echoed these claims or avoided them entirely. Over the dozen or so speeches I watched, not a single Republican leader told the truth about the 2020 election or condemned the insurrection. According to Dave Weigel, on one Saturday panel Republican super-lawyer Charlie Spies had the gumption to reject the premise of a question about vote switching machines. His was a lonely voice. And he was promptly was booed.
As for the insurrection, it was as if it had never happened. It will shock you how much the it never happened.
Tom Cotton inveighed against anti-cop mobs—but only in the context of Portland and without seeming to have any self-awareness about the cop-killing Trump flag-waving elephant in the room.
The only pols I saw reference the insurrection directly were Ted Cruz, who did so only to mock AOC for fearing for her life, and Josh Hawley who received a standing ovation for boasting that he had objected to the election even after the Capitol was besieged.
And so for three days in Orlando, the Republican party made sure the election fraud “truths” were abided by without question and the events of January 6 were altogether disappeared.
2. The CPAC “Star Wars Bar”
There was a time when CPAC was generally regarded in elite conservative and Republican circles as merely a circus, a Star Trek convention, a freak show, even. The undercurrent of these comments and discussions was that while CPAC might be a cross-section of the weird edges of the conservative activist set it didn’t truly represent the seriousness and sobriety of the broader movement.
And so establishment RINOs like me would go for the spectacle and to network with conservative influencers who had travelled to DC for the event. Staffers from Conservatism Inc. would trudge down to the Marriott to hawk their wares and promote their email lists. The mainstream media would flock to the nuttiest looking guy in a tri-corner hat and take the ample opportunities that the speakers provided to make conservatives look crazy.
For readers who have never had the pleasure of attending, let me paint you a little impressionistic picture of the archetypes we saw back then:
Reagan-era holdover in a bad suit speckled with dandruff regaling uninterested young reporters about the old days.
Grover Norquist wannabe who can cite chapter and verse from God and Man at Yale and wants to tell you about his recent Washington Times op-ed.
Pimply, awkward college Republican boys who are often keeping either their sexuality or fascist sympathies (or both) in the closet. They fancy themselves either the next Fred Barnes or Karl Rove. Or, in recent years, the next Charlie Kirk.
Nerdy postgraduates carrying their resumés around in a briefcase, treating CPAC like a job fair.
Pretty, blonde college girls quickly finding out that the boys on the trip with them are either virgins or frequenting Craigslist M4M.
Late twenties, mid-level congressional aide/ blogger/ PR flack who only shows up for the happy hours and then get a little creepy with the blonde College Republican gals.
Doe-eyed youth on a church group trip to DC wearing pro-life and/or anti-gay flair.
Older women who sit through every single panel during their one week hiatus from the Topeka phone bank they started organizing after first getting inspired by the Eagle Forum.
Guys in Revolutionary War garb.
Up-and-coming young “content creators” with their pajama boy cameraman.
Down-and-going comedians who used to be the dinner entertainment on the National Review cruise. (“Did you know that when Obama got elected they changed the name to Ear Force One?” Buh-dum-bum.)
Upper-middle-class Republican activists who are active blog commenters and have just enough money to blow on a vacation to DC because they hope they might meet Ed Morrissey.
Dance-offs between Flat Tax Guy and Fair Tax Guy.
Put it all together and you can see why there was a general sense that this was the GOP’s Creature Cantina.
But in retrospect I think us snooty establishment types had it wrong.
CPAC didn’t misrepresent the conservative base because the real Republican voters out there were more normal and serious suit-and-tie types. It misrepresented the Republican voters in the other direction: CPAC attendees were more policy oriented than your median Republican voter. But as a matter of weirdness and tribal antipathy, they were actually a pretty good reflection of the right, broadly speaking.
By nature of being in or around Washington and drawing people who were passionate about policy—sometimes insane policies, but policies nonetheless—CPAC over-indexed away from the GOP’s core demo: the middle- and working-class exurban Boomer dittoheads who were the beating heart of the party all along.
They just wanted their anti-elite grievances validated in the most entertaining (and/or bullying) way possible.
Sarah Palin tapped into this part of the GOP base during her rollicking 2013 keynote when she mocked Mike Bloomberg by bringing out her 172 ounce Big Gulp. Trump himself tried a not-yet fully-formed version of the Palin schtick in 2011 and 2013, taking the material that worked with him when he took the GOP electorate by storm in 2015.
Looking back, my perception of CPAC as a kooky outlier was only partly correct. The conference may have had some more ideologically extreme elements than the median Republican voter—who, it turned out, was happy to support a heterodox, twice-divorced, big government, isolationist Republican.
But if anything it was less of a circus and more intellectually honest than what Republican voters wanted. And with the benefit of hindsight, it seems like the whole confab was a much closer reflection of the Republican Party as a whole than many folks wanted to admit.
And this year, in Orlando, CPAC reached its true singularity. Crazy as ever. More conspiratorial. Less issue focused. Golden Trump worshipping. Everything the party regulars wanted and more.
CPAC isn’t the Creature Cantina. The Republican party is.
3. CPAC Throwback
To make sure my memory of CPAC’s past wasn’t playing tricks on me, I surveyed some friends whom I had hung out with there, and went back to watch speeches from the years I attended in person: 2010, 2011, 2013, 2015. (Yikes)
But as part of that research I also came across this delightful little CPAC réaliste that Matt Labash wrote for The Weekly Standard in the year of our lord 1996. Enjoy.
The best thing about the conservative summit is its inclusiveness. All factions are represented. The worst thing is its inclusiveness. No factions are excluded (save dread Rockefeller Repubs and neocons). I sat with a Buchanan supporter in a ruffled tourister shirt and baseball hat, wearing sneakers purchased at Piggly Wiggly's and eating Toblerone. He never looked at me but sat there sipping gratis icewater, taking scrupulous notes on a Media Research Center luncheon leaflet ("If you believe the Liberal Media -- Don't come," it read) during the "Truth about Ruby Ridge" panel as if he were going to be tested.
Read the whole thing.