It’s that time of year again.
This week, CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference founded in 1974 — will lay siege to Orlando instead of Washington, D.C., amid a global pandemic that has, as of this week, taken a staggering 500,000 American lives. Hopes of mask-wearing and social distancing seem as likely as a panel on the return to fiscal conservatism. (I checked. There isn’t one.)
As a young, up-and-coming movement conservative, I attended this conference a number of years, spoke on panels, signed books and autographs, posed for pictures, did radio row. It was an opportunity to network, socialize and gain exposure, and I usually enjoyed it.
But it was always a little ... weird. While the major stars of the party — even often sitting presidents like George W. Bush — would deliver important, agenda-setting keynote speeches, the conference also attracted some of the fringiest elements of the right. We chalked this up to the party’s “big tent” philosophy of welcoming intellectual diversity and patriots of all kinds.
But over the years the fringiest elements became the more dominant ones, mirroring the morphing of the party itself into a far-right, nationalist, nativist, conspiratorial and Trumpian exercise in subtraction, not addition.
Mainstream voices both fell by the wayside and were pushed aside, as they either voluntarily skipped the event or were no longer welcome. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive nominee for president in 2008, earned cheers for his speech at CPAC that year. By 2018, President Trump’s unkind mention of McCain’s name elicited boos, and by 2019, far-right pundit Michelle Malkin had resorted to attacking his ghost.
In 2012, Mitt Romney gave his pre-presidential nomination speech at CPAC. Last year, in a move that smacked of Trumpiness, conference chairman Matt Schlapp announced Romney was “formally NOT invited” and claimed that he’d “actually be afraid for his physical safety” if Romney attended.
Romney’s running mate and former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan hasn’t spoken at CPAC since 2016.
What a difference a Trump makes.
And now, despite the hyperventilating over an imaginary “battle for the soul” of the GOP — a non-battle between Trump and folks like Mitch McConnell, who for years enabled him — the roster this year is utterly predictable. Rest assured, the party is not at all confused about who it is and where it’s going.
Speakers include Trump and kin; Team Insurrection co-captains Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley; creepy GOP lingerer Jon Voight; ex-Cabinet luminaries Ben Carson and Larry Kudlow; and assorted stars of right-wing media.
A hip-hop artist and conspiratorialist named Young Pharaoh was just dropped from the list after it was pointed out that he’s trafficked in anti-Semitism on Twitter, calling Judaism a “complete lie” “made up for political gain,” and exclaiming that “Jewish people are ‘thieving fake Jews.’” Yes, it’s hard to see where that would have fit in between Friday’s Purim luncheon and Sunday’s Light Shabbat lunch.
The agenda is just as predictable, obsessed with culture wars and cancel culture, fear and loathing, resentments and grievances.
Panels are unsubtle in their flavor:
“My Pronouns are First Place and Winning: Protecting Women’s Sports.”
“When Government Grabs the Wheel: The Imminent Threat to Your Daily Drive.”
“Tolerance Reimagined — the Angry Mob and Violence in Our Streets.”
“California Socialism: Promising Heaven, Delivering Hell.”
In short, it promises to be a delightful romp. It’s noteworthy to point out who isn’t attending the fun fest, whether by default or design: some of the party’s most popular governors, including Maryland’s Larry Hogan, Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker and Vermont’s Phil Scott. Hogan at least has publicly considered running for president in 2024 and might be preserving his distance from the Trump-wing of the party, also known as the party.
Also reportedly skipping this year is former Vice President Mike Pence, presumably because Trump’s incitement of an angry mob nearly got him killed. But perhaps I’m overthinking.
Ronald Reagan’s “City on a Hill” speech, delivered at the inaugural CPAC in 1974, is often quoted as one of his best and as a nod to American exceptionalism. Except, that’s not really what the original quote, from Puritan writer John Winthrop in 1630, had in mind. It was a warning that being a figurative “city upon a hill” meant that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” and any mistakes of hubris from that lofty and visible perch would bring upon shame.
The eyes of all people were upon the Republican Party for the past four years — mistakes of hubris were plentiful and visible. At least by the looks of this year’s CPAC, shame doesn’t appear to be a factor.
Forty-seven years later, Reagan and Winthrop’s words of warning never sounded more urgent — and ignored.
S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN.