CPAC 2023 Is Low Energy
As it entered its third day near Washington on Friday, CPAC 23 wasn’t exactly a ghost town — but it had the feel of one where uneasy residents are starting to question why the railroad isn’t passing through anymore.
Who wouldn’t be interested in panels like “The Biden Crime Family” or “True Stories of January 6th: The Prosecuted Speak”? Who could resist the allure of Donald Trump Jr. asking audience members to look under their seats for hidden golden-wrapped tickets to a reception with his dad? It turns out: a lot of people, including a slew of the sponsors and speakers who’d been happy to grace the ultra-conservative conference in recent years.
CPAC — which for most of a decade has served as less a strategy post for the conservative movement than a venue for MAGA celebrities to broadcast their allegiance to Donald Trump — is hobbled from within and without. Matt Schlapp, the evangelical chair of CPAC organizer the American Conservative Union, is facing a lawsuit accusing him of fondling a male GOP operative. (Schlapp in court documents has denied the accusation.) Previously considerable sponsors like the Republican National Committee, right-wing social network GETTR, and Fox Nation have pulled out amid reports of CPAC staffers pushing discount tickets on congressional aides.
Some high-profile conservative leaders like Mitch McConnell have shunned CPAC for years. But Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Trump’s foremost competitor for the Republican nomination in 2024, is conspicuously absent. Fellow candidates Nikki Haley and Mike Pompeo spoke on Friday to a half-empty chamber, raising the alarming prospect Trump’s own speech on Saturday might not be an overflow crowd.
A stone’s throw from D.C. in National Harbor, Maryland, the reduced floor space was largely dedicated to CPAC’s new big spenders: names such as Newsmax, Christian mobile provider Patriot Network; Proverbs Media Group; Falun Gong-affiliated media group The Epoch Times; and New Federal State of China, an anti-CCP group founded by Steve Bannon and exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui. In the exhibition hall, where around 80 stands failed to fill the entire room, tables of MAGA merch appeared to be going unsold and vendors’ moods were glum.
Sany Dash manned the booth at the USA Trump Store, where rhinestone-covered purses shaped like guns and flags go for $200 to $500. She lamented the showing was “not as the best as it has been in the past. Definitely nowhere close to that.”
“I love the fact that we’re supporting CPAC but unfortunately the attendance is just not there this year,” Dash added.
Advantage Gold, a CPAC supporting sponsor which pitches retirees on converting their 401ks and Roth IRAs to precious metals, was feeling the low turnout. Justin Greenberg, a representative at the booth, admitted that from what he’d heard “this is a little more low energy setting and numbers.”
Attendee Michael Mikulewich, who identified himself as from Florida and New York, floated various ideas as to why momentum eluded the conference this year. Those included the weather, lengthy booze lines, and unwelcoming locals. “Texas, beautiful. Orlando was beautiful. Here, it’s raining and depressing,” he said, adding, “There’s one bartender but 350 people. So if that doesn’t give you a message as to what Washington is telling you, D.C. is telling you, then that’s it for the story.”
His primary takeaway from the sparse audience, Mikulewich said, was “We won’t come here and support Democratic states and cities.”
Other attendees said they thought Trump’s scheduled appearance on Saturday would reinvigorate the conference. Some didn’t acknowledge a problem at all.
Steven J. Allen, the vice chairman of the Conservative Caucus, said he’d been coming to the conference since its origins in 1974. He blamed low turnout on “fatigue” from the 2022 midterms and the proliferation of CPAC events in other states like Florida.
“I’m fine with it, at least for me personally,” Allen said. “I don’t see enough of a difference to be concerned at all.”
While CPAC shored up its numbers by welcoming an array of far-right speakers this year — like conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec and Chaya Raichik, the homophobic and anti-trans campaigner behind Libs of Tik Tok — it’s still trying to maintain the pretense of standards.
On Saturday, Schlapp tweeted livestreamer Nick Fuentes, the self-declared incel who helms the white supremacist “Groyper Army,” had been kicked out of CPAC. Fuentes getting booted is an annual event now, but it’s a touch more surprising this year, given the conference’s dire need of paying customers.
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