The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was once a marquee event on the political calendar where Republicans seeking the favor of the party’s conservative base would attempt to woo a crowd of right-wing activists and diehards. In 2015, the last time there was a competitive Republican presidential primary, a dozen candidates showed up, representing all wings of the party from Chris Christie to Ted Cruz. And they weren’t the only ones there, it was a marquee event for the entire right-wing ecosystem with seemingly every group represented. Eight years later, the vibe was entirely different. The 2023 CPAC felt like a mall after all but one of its big department stores has shut down — an emptier, jankier, lower-rent version of conferences past. The rooms were more deserted, the vendors more downmarket, and speakers a little less important.
In the exhibit hall, where Facebook once had a booth with virtual reality games, there was now a booth where attendees could stand on a vibrating board promoted as effort-free exercise which could also boost sexual function. Many of the vendors simply sold Trump merchandise and nothing else. Upstairs, in the main ballroom, the list of speakers was considerably less A-list than in years past. Most potential presidential candidates didn’t show. Aside from Donald Trump, those who did attend had either served in the Trump administration or were political neophytes. And in the halls, it was far less crowded, save for a bottlenecked corner where, at one point, Steve Bannon held court and attendees flocked to see him.
There was no one reason for the event’s decline. The rise of competing conferences like Turning Point USA means CPAC is no longer the only show in town for those who want to spend an entire weekend listening to right-wing celebrities. And while CPAC is still a legacy brand, the allegations of sexual misconduct around its leader, Matt Schlapp, have further diminished its luster. Once a frequent Fox News guest, Schlapp has not appeared on the cable news network in months, and Fox News was almost a non-presence at the event; it did have journalists there, but no longer live-streamed it and none of its prime time hosts appeared on stage.
There’s also the fact that the event has, for years, been turning into a virtual proxy for Donald Trump and Trumpism. It wasn’t just that the halls were packed with attendees in red MAGA hats and wearing t-shirts proclaiming “Trump won” or “Let’s Go Brandon.” It was that the crowd was often indistinguishable from one at a Trump event. Many of the diehard Trump loyalists who followed the former president from rally to rally were now showing up at a conservative confab where panelists once held discussions about how to better achieve economic growth. And those devotees aren’t interested in other speakers. The attendance was at best sparse over much of the three-day conference, and Trump’s 2024 competitors, like Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo, weren’t even given the courtesy of boos by the MAGA crowd, who reacted instead with something like polite indifference.
The event isn’t receding on all fronts, however. While once mainly a celebration of the American conservative movement, (just last year, Lee Greenwood, the singer of “Proud To Be An American” was inducted to the CPAC Hall of Fame), the event has taken on a somehwat more cosmopolitan air in recent years thanks to the sprouting of various international franchises. Among the most robust are CPAC Hungary, which celebrates strongman prime minister Viktor Orban, and CPAC Brazil, which celebrates ousted strongman president Jair Bolsonaro. The latter spoke at CPAC on Saturday, where a number of attendees waved Brazilian flags and wore Brazilian soccer jerseys as Bolsonaro gave an address in Portuguese. Even the media organizations ringing the ballroom have been internationalized. Outlets linked to the Falun Gong and to the New Federal State of China, a dissident group led by Steve Bannon and his ally Guo Wengui, had prominent space next to conservative outlets like Newsmax and Real America’s Voice.
But this also reinforced the parochial nature of the event. CPAC may have attracted the Trump of Brazil, but it couldn’t draw rising post-Trump Republican stars like Ron DeSantis or Glenn Youngkin. It felt like the continuation of CPAC’s slow spiral from a can’t-miss conservative confluence to an increasingly shabby Trump-con that seems smaller and smaller each year. The cycle feeds itself, just like the once popular mall that attracts fewer customers as stores close, causing more and more stores to close, drawing even fewer customers. And it seems like the exact same demographic of people who only go to a struggling mall to get in their daily steps are the same ones still converging at CPAC to celebrate Trump. The Orange Julius may be gone, but there’s still plenty of kiosks peddling the Orange Donald.