Over the last decade, if you wanted to know where the Republican Party was heading you wouldn’t look to the conservative columnists in major newspaper. You wouldn’t look to the sitting legislators responding to the existing pressures of the base. You wouldn’t even look to Fox News, regurgitating a sanitized version of the material percolating on Breitbart and 4Chan.
No, you would go to the Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC. CPAC has often been treated as the fun carnival show of the conservative movement, a place for the Right’s biggest celebrities and grifting personalities to say outrageous things to juice the base and make controversial headlines. When called on their behavior there, conservatives like to say they’re just “having fun.”
But CPAC isn’t a sideshow. It’s the main stage of the conservative movement, predicting its future behavior in an era of widening asymmetric polarization. CPAC presaged the rise of the Party of Reagan over that of Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower. It heralded the scorched-earth confrontational politics of Newt Gingrich in the Bill Clinton era. It elevated George W. Bush at a time when the mainstream GOP still saw itself more in the mold of John McCain. It celebrated the Tea Party before GOP legislators had fully embraced it. And it promoted openly racist birthers and conspiracy theorists like Donald Trump at a time when the the mainline GOP was producing superficially anti-racist autopsies and promoting candidates like Marco Rubio and Spanish-speaking Jeb Bush.
So if we want to know where the Republican Party is heading today, we should pay close attention to CPAC. So what’s the theme now? Where is it going?
The answer seems to be doubling down on Donald Trump, white supremacy, insurrection and conspiracy theories.
One theme of CPAC this year is unwavering loyalty to Donald Trump, and an insistence that not only is there no conflict within the party over Trump, but anyone who suggests otherwise is a has-been or fifth-columnist attempting to subvert the movement:
CPAC’s speakers were staunchly behind Trump and the new Republican Party that emerged throughout his four-year tenure, and took direct swipes at the “establishment” wing of the party and Republicans who have come out against Trump…
“My name is Jason Chaffetz. I’m from Utah, and I am not Mitt Romney. If you’re looking for Pierre Delecto you need to go down the hall, go left and then just keep going left until … well, just keep going left. That’s where you’ll find him,” former Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz joked, referencing Romney’s burner Twitter account handle.
“If Liz Cheney were on this stage today. She’d get booed off of it. What does that say? The leadership of our party is not found in Washington D.C.,” said Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, jabbing at the GOP’s conference chair, who voted to impeach Trump.
Trump himself is set to headline the conference, whining about insufficiently groveling members of his own party and playing up his usual fantastical claims, even as a ridiculous golden statue of Trump (made in Mexico, by the way) wheels its way through the halls like a blasphemous idol.
There was also open defense of the effort to overturn the election based on the Big Lie that the election was stolen–the same lie that prompted the January 6th insurrection at the Capitol:
Hawley, who played a prominent role in objecting to the Electoral College results in Congress, received a standing ovation for referencing his opposition.
“I objected during the Electoral College certification, maybe you heard about it. I did,” he said. “I said I want to have a debate on election integrity, and what was the result of that? You know what the result was, I was called a traitor. I was called a seditionist, the radical left that I should be resigned and if I wouldn’t resign, I should be expelled from the United States Senate. Well, as I said a moment ago, I’m not going anywhere.”
But the most important takeaway from this year’s CPAC is the inclusion of openly white supremacist and white nationalist voices like Proud Boys leader Nick Fuentes, who called the Capitol insurrection “awesome” and advocated for openly white identity politics, saying that America would no longer be America if it did not center and empower white Christians:
“If [America] loses its white demographic core … then this is not America anymore,” the AFPAC founder told the crowd.
Fuentes went on to praise the Capitol attack, boasting about it leading to a delay in the certification of the election results.
“While I was there in D.C., outside of the building, and I saw hundreds of thousands of patriots surrounding the U.S. Capitol building and I saw the police retreating … I said to myself: ‘This is awesome,’” Fuentes said to the applause of the crowd…
“To see that Capitol under siege, to see the people of this country rise up and mobilize to D.C. with the pitchforks and the torches — we need a little bit more of that energy in the future,” he said.
It’s unconfirmed yet whether it was intentional or an unfortunate coincidence, but it seems at least symbolic that even the CPAC stage itself is shaped like a symbol adopted by Nazis and subsequent white supremacist movements.
All of it points to a grim future for the country if the movement currently animating the conservative movement holds majority power over the next decade. Defeat has not chastened the movement, but rather emboldened it. And if CPAC is the predictor it normally is, the next incarnation of Republican power will be even more aggressively racist and authoritarian than its predecessor.