CPAC, now going on just outside the Beltway in National Harbor, Maryland, has changed along with the conservative movement, believes Vox’s Matthew Yglesias. Old-school CPAC, Yglesias contended in a Wednesday piece, was philosophically driven, populated by the sort of activists who “helped [Ronald] Reagan mount a primary challenge to incumbent President Gerald Ford.” It was “a meeting to hash out an agenda.” In the past fifteen-plus years, however, it has become “to a substantial extent a live version of the conservative entertainment experience that one could also get on cable or on the radio.”
These days, CPAC headliners don’t even have to be right-wingers. Exhibit A: Donald Trump, who, Yglesias suggested, had only two qualifications to give a featured speech at the 2011 gathering: he was “an enormous celebrity” who’d “signaled affinity for the conservative lifestyle with his embrace of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory.”
Trump’s CPAC speech of six years ago, Yglesias related,
was not by any means a paean to the principles of free markets and traditional family values that, on an ideological level, had defined the conservative movement for decades. Instead, Trump had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand with a very familiar message -- the United States of America used to be great and now was not great but could in the future be great again…
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Trump’s message…reflected the reality that…conservatives were an identity group now -- one that leaned older, whiter, and less educated than the population at large and that was filled with a keen sense of nostalgia for the good old days.
On Friday morning, Trump will speak at CPAC. It’s a contrast from last year’s event, from which, Yglesias noted, he “backed out of speaking…under threat that his speech would be protested by conservative regulars…The Trump boycott of 2016 represented a vestigial effort to bring back the CPAC of yore.”
Yglesias remarked that with Trump in the Oval Office, “key GOP-leaning interest groups are thrilled, of course, because [he] can give them the tax cuts and business-friendly regulation they crave. But CPAC, the ACU, and the conservative movement as a whole have always been about more than that kind of transactional interest group politics. Once upon a time, that was ideological rigor and principle. More recently it’s provocation, street fighting with liberals, and identity politics for aging white Christians. And in Trump, the CPAC faithful finally have a politician who embraces the values of conservative mass-market entertainment as the core of his politics.”