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Vibe Shifts

The Sad, Desolate Scenes of CPAC 2023

At the most famous annual gathering of America’s conservatives, the chairs are empty, the energy is low—and everyone seems a little bit defensive about it.

Kent Nishimura/Getty Images
An attendee yawns amid a sea of empty chairs, following a speech by Donald Trump Jr. at the 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference.

“It’s so great to see everyone here, and it’s so great to see a packed house, too!”

It is approximately 11:15 a.m. in Washington, D.C., and investigative reporter Sara Carter is lying. The house is never crowded this early on the first day of CPAC, but even by those standards the Potomac Ballroom looks grim. The camera responsible for providing close-in crowd shots that CPAC likes to work into its livestream footage is working hard to stay away from the deserted wasteland of chairs in the rear two-thirds of this auditorium, but there’s nothing it can do to disguise the gap-toothed emptiness of the front section. I am beginning to understand the reasoning behind yesterday’s tersely worded email that expressly forbade reporters from “roam[ing] in the Potomac Ballroom”—but they might want to reconsider: This anemic crowd needs all the extra bodies it can get.

This is my fourth CPAC, a biyearly gathering of conservative groupies, donors, political operators, long-shot candidates, and packs of teenage boys in crisp suits who wander the hallways in packs and talk to no one else. Get an autograph from Lauren Boebert, snap a selfie with Steve Bannon, listen to speech after speech about how the Democrats are coming for you and everyone you love. It’s a bacchanal, it’s an indoctrination session, it’s Comic Con for politics nerds.

Or at least, that’s what it usually is. But this year, CPAC feels like none of those things to me—or rather, those things feel as empty as those seats. The vibes are off.

The sense of emptiness extends beyond the seats, a fact not lost on CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp. “There’s a lot of chatter in the media over who’s here or not here,” he told the crowd less than 15 seconds into his opening speech. These are the very first words spoken on the event stage, and the insecurities are palpable.

Some of that aforementioned buzz is slightly silly. The New York Times pointed out the absence of Pence, McCarthy, and the party’s Senate leadership, as though any of those people would be welcome in these halls. Mike Pence quietly canceled his appearance at CPAC 2021 right around the time the event confirmed Trump as the keynote speaker and has wisely kept his distance ever since. A few weeks ago, Marjorie Taylor Greene called for McConnell’s removal from the Republican Party. McCarthy is tolerated, but only because he bent the knee. This is no country for old backslappers.

Other absences, however, are more surprising. Two years ago, Fox Nation was a major sponsor of the conference; attendees received a free yearlong streaming service membership and a tote bag full of branded swag. This year, the cable news giant is nowhere to be found: It’s not on sponsorship signs, not in CPAC Central, not even in Broadcast Row, where Newsmax and Real America’s Voice now dominate. Other, more esoteric outlets include Proverbs Media Group, Lindell-TV, and a telegram channel called Frontline Flash. The l in “Flash” is a lightning bolt that looks nothing like an l, and the resulting visual—Frontline F🗲ash”—elicited an enormous double take from me.

Also missing in action: Ron DeSantis, who has instead opted to attend a closed donor event in his home state of Florida with the Club for Growth. This 800-pound fundraising gorilla scheduled its event over the exact four days as CPAC itself: shots fired. Participation in one does not preclude participation in the other—presidential hopefuls Nikki Haley and Vivek Ramaswamy plan to attend both events. Nonetheless, the Club for Growth has thrown down the gauntlet against both the American Conservative Union and Trump himself, who was not invited to its party. It’s the end of an era. After six years of lockstep unity behind the Golden-Haired One, a war has begun for the future of the party.

When a party begins to bifurcate, my first temptation is to search for some kind of ideological narrative, and at first glance one seems to be congealing: While Trump addresses the people, DeSantis, who possesses degrees from both Harvard and Yale, hobnobs with the political elite. Ever since they called Arizona for Biden, Fox News has teetered at the edge of Fake News; Newsmax, the closest thing to a replacement so far, sits further to the right. In Fox Nation’s tooth-rottingly obsequious documentary on DeSantis’s life, a Ghost of Republicans Past heaped effusive praise on the man many consider Trump’s most dangerous rival. “He’s been a really effective governor,” Jeb Bush said. “I think it’s time for a more forward-leaning, future-oriented conversation in our politics.”

Meanwhile, on the CPAC stage, president of Concerned Women for America Penny Nance gets biblical. “The Old Gods, Ba’al and Moloch, the god[s] of death, are moving in,” she says. “We are seeing it now, and it’s satanic.”

“Show us what Mitch McConnell has given us!” Steve Bannon screams Friday afternoon as the crowd applauds rapturously. “Show us what the Murdochs, a bunch of foreigners, have given us!” Earlier that day, Marjorie Taylor Greene elicited an enormous standing ovation when she announced her Protect Children’s Innocence Act, which would make it a felony to provide “anything to do with gender-affirming care” to minors.

But an extremist/moderate split does not explain the third glaring absence of CPAC: Turning Point USA. In 2021, it too was a major sponsor; in 2023 it’s nowhere to be found. No swag booth, no “socialism sucks” buttons, no speech by Charlie Kirk. Steve Bannon gave a speech at AmericaFest 2022; Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared there in 2021. Nor does it really explain DeSantis’s absence, regardless of his new friendships: This is the man who recently ended Disney’s de facto self-governance and placed a board of five handpicked zealots to oversee the company’s tax district; this is the man who passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and passed legislation allowing endless challenges against inappropriate or “pornographic” literature in school libraries. His politics fit onto the CPAC stage just fine.

So what gives?

No one wants to go on record about the vibes. The Fake News Media has never exactly been popular at CPAC, but our relations are at a nadir. Apart from denying credentials to the Daily Beast, CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp has largely failed to follow through on his declared desire to “go a little bit Hungarian” on the press this year, but the general idea of the media as a weaponized arm of liberal left-wing Communists permeates the atmosphere. At a certain point, I stop cold-approaching and start striking up conversations where I introduce myself, make it clear that I am a journalist, then meander slowly and casually to a discussion of the event itself.

I am sitting at the Belvedere Lobby Bar in the Gaylord Convention Center with a mediocre yet overpriced glass of red wine and a rotating group of millennials. The bar overlooks the atrium: tropical plants and fountains that extend to an enormous glass wall that affords an incredible view of the Anacostia River. The river is gray. The sky is gray. A wan gray sun tries and fails to shine: a stain of light across the sky, the memory of warmth.

The general consensus is that moving CPAC back to Washington, D.C., from Orlando was a mistake. “Who wants to go to D.C.?” one woman remarks. “Nobody wants to come to D.C.” Everything feels sluggish and low-energy. “It’s the swamp air,” someone else says later that evening.

The bad turnout doesn’t help the vibes at all, nor do the absences. I ask about Turning Point USA. “They don’t really fuck with each other,” someone says. “They’re trying to be the new CPAC, and I think they will be.” Everyone agrees that AmericaFest, Turning Point USA’s December conference in Phoenix, was much more fun, and I am forced to agree. At that event, speakers emerged onstage to thundering bass, a light show, and often pyrotechnics. There it was: a bacchanal, an indoctrination session, Comic Con for politics nerds. “[CPAC] feels a lot more professional,” the man continues. “This is like inside baseball.”

CPAC always has that feeling, but it’s never been this joyless—at least, not in my experience. No cardboard Donald Trumps in CPAC Central, the tabling and merch room; no golden Trump statue for photos. The swag has lost its swagger. The MAGA Mall, usually an ostentatious warren of bejeweled American everything, is reduced to a single long table. It isn’t even displaying its golden gun purses this year.

Frankly, what inside baseball there is on hand seems pale by comparison as well. If the Ronald Reagan Dinner is any indication, a lot of donors are in Florida with DeSantis and the Club for Growth. The gala, which costs nearly $400 a plate, has always sold out far in advance. This year, CPAC pushed a text encouraging people to buy tickets the day of the dinner, and footage of the event shows—you guessed it—many empty seats.

There is something absent in these speeches as well, especially compared to 2022: fire, urgency. Lurid tales of “mutilation” and the specter of gender-affirming care elicit reactions, of course, as do promises of House investigative committees. But it feels deflated. This is old hat. We’ve heard about Hunter Biden’s laptop. The Chinese Spy Balloon is played out. Covid has stabilized; masks and mandates are over, for better or for worse. The Ukraine war grinds on without end, the border situation remains a situation, fentanyl is killing people. People are upset about these issues, of course, but the only solution on offer is snarling House committees and jokes about liberal tears. Nobody seems terribly energized by any of it.

“There’s no longer a gathering storm,” Steve Bannon told the crowd: “The storm is here!” Nah. It isn’t, not really. Last year at Orlando and then at Dallas, these speakers spoke in voices full of fire and brimstone. The Democrats, newly in power, had touched off the Marxist apocalypse. In response, CPAC’s bully-pulpiteers promised the total annihilation of their enemies after the “big red wave.” None of it happened. The Republicans barely gained control of the house and, worse, the predicted apocalypse never really arrived. Prices are still high, but stabilizing. The border is no worse, the fentanyl epidemic is no worse. The federal debt is still high. The world feels as gray as the D.C. weather. For the people in love with Trump’s adrenaline-fueled politics, that might be worse than fire and brimstone.

Bannon surely knows this. He does what he can to conjure the End Times energy. Here it comes: imminent economic doom due to the debt ceiling and funding Ukraine; World War III due to Iranian and Chinese machinations. But his real vitriol is reserved for the “elites” and for the betrayers, specifically Fox News. “[Fox doesn’t] respect you. Read the depositions,” he says, referring to the recent bombshell testimony that Fox hosts knew the election was not stolen and pushed the narrative anyway. “They have a fear, a loathing, and a contempt for you.” This is war—it’s always war with Bannon, one way or another. “‘We need unity, we need unity,’” he says, imitating Fox News. “We’re not looking for unity, we’re looking for victory!” The crowd roars to their feet.

It’s not the only feud, another attendee pointed out to me, and he’s not wrong. You can’t take two steps without running into either vicious infighting or complete catastrophe. The Daily Wire versus Stephen Crowder. Project Veritas in shambles. News articles about Matt Schlapp, the longtime face of CPAC, all feature at least a paragraph about the male Herschel Walker staffer who alleges that Schlapp nonconsensually “grabbed [his] junk and pummeled it at length.” Fox versus Trump, DeSantis versus Trump, the Club for Growth versus the American Conservative Union … it’s infighting all the way down.

In 2016, Donald Trump remade the Republican Party in his own image. He was more than a party leader, he was God-emperor, creator and destroyer of worlds. For six years, the GOP has known just what to do and just where to go: Back Trump, get on the train, and enjoy the ride. The possibility of a DeSantis run was very abstract last year at this time. Before that “red wave” fizzled out, it was possible to imagine with crystal clarity the way 2024 would go: the debates, the media histrionics, oceans of liberal tears, then victory. It’s all a blank slate now. The primaries will be ugly, the outcome no longer predetermined. The Republicans are a flock without a shepherd, a party used to marching orders that finds itself suddenly still.

No leader. No galvanizing cause. No hope. No wonder these seats are empty.