CPAC 2023: the End of an Era

AP Photo/John Raoux

As the legend goes, William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, forged an alliance between social conservatives, Republicans, and libertarians to fight Communism. He also booted the John Birch Society from the pact. Beginning in 1973, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) leadership and the dedicated group of activists in its ranks launched the Reagan Revolution. The Buckley coalition elected Ronald Reagan in 1980 and launched 25 years of unmatched prosperity and U.S. hegemony.


For the last decade, I attended CPAC to participate in the movement. Some of the most interesting and contentious debates I have ever heard occurred in the Wyndham and Gaylord Resorts suites in National Harbor, Md. CPAC was the premier event within the conservative movement to network, join a group, receive training, and fund a campaign or organization. Attendees also heard a diverse set of ideas from the stage. In 2016, CPAC was so consequential that Jeb Bush bussed in supporters to cheer his speech. This year Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-Fla.), broadly seen as President Trump’s strongest competitor in 2024, chose to speak in Houston, Texas, instead.

Now, many of the people I met at CPAC-adjacent events don’t speak to one another. And the debate is over. Nearly every speaker who talks about 2024 insists that Donald Trump must be the nominee. Most of the attendees seem to agree. And a small crowd surrounded Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) as she made her way to the John Birch Society’s booth in CPAC Central for an interview.

The hollowing out of CPAC is heartbreakingly evident. The staff of National Review has not attended for the last several years. The last time I recall seeing them was in 2016 when they gave me a commemorative Never Trump t-shirt. Still, it would have been a pleasure to have a beer with Charles C.W. Cooke during RinoCon at the Public House as we paid tongue-in-cheek homage to Mitt Romney. However, it appears that kind of levity and collegiality is no longer a feature of the conference.


RinoCon at the Public House Wednesday night was the first casualty of the civil war within the party and two years away from National Harbor. Fox News is nowhere to be found, and many other popular outlets are absent from Radio Row. Real America’s Voice is the most prominent attraction, and Newsmax is the primary sponsor. The crush of people narrowing the hall toward the ballroom entrance was fixated on Steve Bannon’s morning broadcast live from the Gaylord. The Trump campaign lightning rod also gave a speech.

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On day one, I might not have known where I was if it weren’t for Larry O’Connor and Kurt Schlichter appearing on a panel and CPAC fixture Robert Stacy McCain roaming the halls; I saw almost no one else I knew. The main ballroom was sparsely filled, and the media filing area was half what it used to be. I would hazard a guess that there were more left-wing outlets there to feed on the carnage than serious right-wing print outlets there to cover the events.

The video feed to the media overflow room was broken, so we had to scrounge for a DirecTV log-in to watch the speeches back in our suite. Even the badge seemed cheap. It was a printed sticker folded in half with no picture or indication of what outlet a media member worked for. And the attendees got no swag bag for the first time in my years of attending.


The restaurants and bars around the Gaylord were filled with locals, not conference attendees. Even the menus and food around the Harbor seemed skimpier and less impressive than they were pre-COVID. Fleet Street was adorned with a rainbow light canopy, not the typical red, white, and blue that illuminated the area in past years. And leaving a bar or restaurant, you can be sure you will catch a whiff of the Devil’s Lettuce. It’s just a little shabbier than it used to be.

The conservative movement needs an enthusiastic, energized, and collegial base of activists capable of coalescing around an eventual nominee. Those people used to attend CPAC. They may have voted for diverse potential candidates in the straw poll. However, the feeling that permeated the conference was that of a group of happy warriors who were enthusiastic to debate ideas and come together when required. Now it seems CPAC is dominated by a distinct faction that can be described as “Only Trump,” even if he loses a contested primary.

I will drive south tomorrow with a heavy heart for something significant and fundamentally good that has been lost. And serious concerns about where we go from here.



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