When I think of CPAC and what Matt Schlapp has transformed the annual gathering of conservatives into, I sympathize with those who think that new creative teams have taken and warped popular properties into something twisted and awful that goes against the spirit of the franchise they loved so much.
I discovered CPAC when I was fifteen. It was Conservative Nerd Nirvana beamed from Washington to my home in Montana via C-SPAN. So many great speakers discussed conservative ideas and issues. I’d watch as much coverage as I could. CPAC a proud history going back to the 1970s. I thought it would be wonderful to be able to attend one day.
I grew up, got married, and began to work jobs incompatible with spending Thursday and Friday glued to the TV. So my CPAC consumption waned, but I still watched online videos of the best speeches.
I was invited to speak at an event that dubbed itself the CPAC of the West in 2008. Schlapp’s predecessor David Keene spoke and had helped the organizers choose speakers. The result was almost as good as I’d imagined CPAC being with most panels focused on conservative policy and offering a variety of solid speakers.
Mitt Romney came, as this wasn’t an era when organizers of conservative events got in the habit of warning Romney their attendees were unstable people who would do him violence. Yes, we had people with different viewpoints show up at the same conference, and everybody lived!
Other conservative leaders came. I got to sit at the same table as Grover Norquist, the longtime leader of Americans for Tax Reform. He got through the meal without acknowledging my existence. I wasn’t miffed. I was impressed at being actively ignored by Grover Norquist.
Still, I wanted to attend the actual CPAC. Then, a subtle shift began under Schlapp’s leadership. CPAC started to highlight the sensational, salacious, and grittier elements in the conservative movement and play to an angry audience. The speaker two years ago who implied that Michael Steele only became RNC Chairman because of his race was playing to that new audience.
Thankfully, there will be another conference in Washington, DC. A one-day event billed as the Summit on Principled Conservatism will be held on February 29, the last day of CPAC. The event features many #NeverTrump folk among its list of speakers. It has come under fire with the contradictory message that #NeverTrump folk are a menace that undermines the President and also completely irrelevant losers.
I don’t agree with every speaker on their list. As I’ve detailed before, #NeverTrump conservatives should not back the Democrats in 2020. I would disagree with the speakers who take that stance, and no doubt other speakers could be nitpicked. However, given Nigel Farage and Seb Gorka are appearing at CPAC, advocates of that event don’t have room to judge. Some exceptional speakers are coming to the Summit. National Review’s Mona Charen and Ramesh Ponnuru are worth the cost of admission alone.
The conference organizer is Heath Mayo, a young man who organized the entire event on a volunteer basis. He responded online to criticisms the Summit has received. Among the many ridiculous charges has been that the event grifts attendees. The one-day Summit costs $10, around 3% of what CPAC charges, and all the speakers are appearing on a volunteer basis. Yes, those who have books might sell a few copies on Amazon, but that’s about it as they’re not going to be hawking books at the event.
Mayo does a good job explaining the purpose of the conference:
This is not a Summit about who we support or oppose — it’s a Summit about what we believe. The conservative movement is currently in the throes of an identity crisis that is largely a result of personality-driven politics. The crisis is so severe that few can even tell you what conservatism stands for anymore.
This is why criticism that some of the speakers are not conservative is off-base. It’s an open question as to what conservatism means anymore. Does it mean bowing and scraping to President Trump, embracing nutty conspiracy theories, not caring about deficits? How about feeling disgust, anger, and fear towards a refugee family that has been through hell and has survived to make it to this country? Or how about race-baiting and then gas-lighting people when they call you out for it?
That is the brand of conservatism CPAC is selling today, and it isn’t right, healthy, or sustainable. For that reason, the Summit may serve a valuable purpose as part of an essential process for the future of conservatism. It’s important to approach the Summit with an open mind. The event might turn in to a fiasco and give naysayers the satisfaction of saying I told you so, but I won’t judge it in advance.
Such a cynical approach is part of what’s wrong with politics these days. Mayo has made a good faith effort to bring together a variety of people to have a conservation, including people who support the President and those who oppose him. Good faith merits giving the benefit of the doubt in return.
I won’t be attending due to the difficulty and expense of air travel from Boise to practically anywhere. However, I will be praying for the Summit to have a positive outcome. It will not solve all the problems that conservatism faces but perhaps it may lead to some steps in the right direction. That’s more hope than I could hold out for this year’s CPAC.