Is CPAC Our Future?
I mean, I get it. The sights and sounds of this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) are eminently mockable. There was Steve Bannon accusing Fox News of stealing the election from Donald Trump. And Marjorie Taylor Greene lying that Ukraine President Zelensky demanded American “sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine.” And nearly 90 percent of attendees saying they would never again take a COVID vaccine. And Kari Lake calling Bannon a “modern-day George Washington” before she was picked the top choice to be vice president of the United States. And Lauren Boebert strutting and yelling on stage. And Brazil’s former President Jair Bolsonaro claiming his election was stolen. And MyPillow’s Mike Lindell . . . well, speaking at all.
So yeah, I get it. CPAC was, once again, a boiling cauldron of batshit-crazy stew. But we can’t let the laughter and the richly deserved mockery lead us to not take these people seriously, to dismiss them. To do so would be a mistake—the sort of mistake that put Donald Trump in the White House in 2016 and almost kept him there in 2020.
A reminder: We have two major political parties in America. We’re stuck with them for the foreseeable future. And if it wasn’t clear long before CPAC this past weekend, it ought to be clear now—the voting base of one of our two major political parties is completely radicalized.
With that in mind, here are two CPAC takeaways. First, the people who attended CPAC are not some loony far-right fringe of the party. They’re not—as so many “wise” conservative thinkers at the outlets that once defined the conservative mainstream have opined and prayed and hoped for—a temporary populist spasm that will go away. CPAC attendees represent the base of the Republican party. They are the party. They represent GOP party activists, the most committed, involved and engaged Republican voters. There was nothing “fringe” about CPAC this past weekend. This was mainstream GOP. The stolen election lies, the vaccine paranoia, the fearmongering about a “deep state,” the obsession with Hunter Biden, the cruelty toward transgender people, the bowing down to Putin, the demand that Anthony Fauci be behind bars, the authoritarian impulse to punish private individuals and companies deemed too “woke”—this is all quite literally the agenda of the current Republican-controlled House of Representatives. If you call CPAC attendees fringe, then you must call the House Republican Conference fringe.
It’s like when people still try to tell me that Marjorie Taylor Greene is GOP fringe. She’s not GOP fringe. She represents GOP base voters. She represents all the activists gathered at CPAC this past weekend. And she is arguably the most powerful Republican in Washington. Kevin McCarthy is speaker because of her, and Tucker Carlson received all that January 6th surveillance footage because of her. A “fringe” character would not have anything like that kind of power within the party.
Second, the Republican Party voting base has been radicalized. They no longer believe in truth, they’ve given up on democracy, they want to destroy their political opponents, and they want an authoritarian to give them back the America they long for. This radicalization was on full display these past four days. From ‘Joe Biden is not the legitimate occupant of the White House’ to ‘COVID was a hoax’ to ‘transgender Americans need to be eradicated’ . . . the lies, disinformation, misinformation, attacks on our democracy, cultish calls for an authoritarian, and utter cruelty—it was all there. This radicalism is not a bug; it is a core feature of today’s GOP.
So: One of our two major political parties is radicalized. That political party controls the House of Representatives and has a decent chance of taking back control of the Senate in 2024. It also has a very real chance of taking back the White House in 2024. And the man responsible for a violent attempt to overthrow an American election two years ago is the clear frontrunner for the GOP nomination.
As someone who comes from the Republican party base, I found the CPAC spectacle this past weekend less funny than scary. If all we do is laugh at and dismiss Republican voters, if we don’t take the problem seriously enough, Trump has a decent chance of getting elected again.
Donald Trump is a big problem. The millions and millions who support him are an even bigger problem. But the millions and millions who still don’t know how or why anyone could support Trump are the biggest problem. The base of my former political party needs to be defeated. And in order to defeat them, we need to understand them and take them seriously.
So don’t just laugh at CPAC and then look away. Pay serious attention to CPAC, too, and to what it means for the state of our politics.