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How CPAC went from launching the Reagan era to “Schlapp Inc. and the Trump grifters

Why did the annual conservative gathering seem so weird this year?

Its sponsors include multiple organizations founded by convicted criminals. Key speaking slots are filled with prominent election deniers. Many top Republicans are keeping their distance.

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the most troubled parts of the conservative movement were on full display.

“It has transformed itself into a Donald Trump-supporting group fully engaged with election deniers, culture wars and indicted guests,” said Al Cardenas, who led the American Conservative Union (ACU), which produces the event, from 2011 to 2014.

“It’s Schlapp, Inc. and Trump grifters,” said GOP strategist Dennis Lennox, who has attended CPAC since 2007, referring to CPAC and Matt Schlapp, the current head of the ACU, who faces his own legal problems.

Other sponsors include New Federal State of China, a lobbying group cofounded by former Donald Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who was convicted in July 2022 of contempt of Congress. Real America’s Voice, a network that broadcasts Bannon’s “War Room” program on which 2020 election falsehoods continue to prevail, is also a sponsor, with a large booth for broadcasting outfitted in red, white and blue signage.

From the ’70s to today

That history has made CPAC a major event in the calendar of Republican politics. Until recently, the conference drew top-tier Republican figures.

The list of GOP luminaries skipping this year’s event is just as remarkable as the list of headliners. Potential 2024 presidential candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former vice president Mike Pence declined to attend this year, as did House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and GOP Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

Within the walls of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, several attendees said the legal problems facing Trump and his allies were products of the media and a leftist government gone awry.

“The media stirs up so much chaos around [Trump] and then labels him the agent of chaos. But they are the agents of chaos,” Kevin Speight, a North Carolina physician, told Grid. “And if DeSantis says he’s running, they’ll do everything in the world to ruin him as well.”

“A bunch of carnies grifting”

This year, CPAC also faces controversy at the top. Schlapp, the chairman of the ACU and the face of CPAC, was accused in January of groping a staffer for Georgia Senate candidate Herschel Walker last October and is facing a civil suit in Virginia alleging defamation and battery. “As stated in court filings of February 9, 2023, the Schlapps deny the plaintiff’s allegations,” said Mark Corallo, a spokesman for the Schlapps. “We will not comment on matters currently pending before the court in Virginia.”

The controversy surrounding Schlapp, the transformation of CPAC into a Trump-focused event, and the high cost of attending the event in Washington have all contributed to waning attendance at this year’s event, said GOP strategist Lennox.

“I’m old enough to remember when you had debates at CPAC between the assorted tribes within the conservative movement over policies. There are no debates anymore,” he said. Now, “it’s a carnival. There is definitely a carnival atmosphere to it with a bunch of carnies grifting.”

The rise of Trump

Attendees and observers said the changing nature of CPAC is attributable to a phenomenon it helped create: the political rise of Donald Trump.

“The Republican Party is now the Trump Party,” said Todd Belt, director of the political management program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “And they haven’t shown that they can really break away from that yet. If you look at CPAC and think of it as being, really, the grassroots and driving force of the Republican Party, that has really been wholesale taken over by Trump.”

While the face of CPAC may be changing, it still reflects the same ideological strains that have always been there, said Lauren Lassabe Shepherd, an instructor at the University of New Orleans who has studied the modern conservative movement.

“We have people like Trump and the other charismatics in the GOP today,” she said. “But those people were always there before, even if they weren’t behind the podium. They were a major part of the crowd.”

Trump is expected to speak at the event on Saturday evening.

The Birch Society is back

“The idea that an organization who was literally expelled by the American Conservative Union, at its founding, from the conservative movement is an exhibitor — the John Birch Society … this would have been unthinkable five years ago,” he said.

Today, the John Birch Society describes its mission as “to bring about less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better world by providing leadership, education, and organized volunteer action in accordance with moral and Constitutional principles.”

A page on the John Birch Society website titled “Myths vs Facts” clarifies that the society is not hate-filled and that it opposed federal civil rights legislation because it “should have come from the states.”

Close observers see little chance of CPAC reverting back to its former self.

“We will see what evolves further from here — not good,” Cardenas, the former ACU chairman, said.

“Considering that they’re having very, very significant troubles at the top of their leadership, I would imagine that if we were to see a change in CPAC, it would probably dissolve and become something else,” said Belt, of George Washington University.

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