Conservatism is dead in this GOP

The speakers, authors, columnists and scholars who used to populate panels at CPAC are gone, replaced by Trump sycophants, wannabes, quacks like the MyPillow guy and sordid groups like white nationalists, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers.

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Spectators cheer wildly as former President Donald Trump finishes his speech during CPAC at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, Florida, on Feb. 28, 2021.

Spectators cheer wildly as former President Donald Trump finishes his speech during CPAC at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, Florida, on Feb. 28, 2021.

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

The Conservative Political Action Conference, better known as CPAC, falls every year around my birthday. In fact, I turned many of my 20s and 30s while nerding out at the Omni Shoreham hotel in Washington at panels with people like Fred Barnes, Bill Kristol and Jonah Goldberg.

I went because it was, put very simply, a gathering of conservatives where movement conservatism was on full display. Debates over fiscal responsibility, the debt and deficit, national security, anti-protectionism, even the gold standard were all hashed out in panels and speeches and breakout sessions over bad boxed lunches and chicken dinners.

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Sure, there were always some fringy elements — down in the merch center, there were plenty of tricorn hats and your odd conspiracy kook or two — but mostly it was an earnest attempt at defining the conservative agenda for the following year.

Things have changed since then, needless to say. Two things happened, really. The Tea Party swept in with its agitated populism, turning what started out as a focus on reckless government spending and bank bailouts into a new focus on culture and class divides. Then, having lit an angry, anti-establishment match, Donald Trump came along and threw gasoline on the fire.

Conservatism and the principles and philosophies that underpin it slowly disappeared along the way, co-opted and then fully replaced by Trumpism — defined loosely as: whatever Trump said last.

That made CPAC, a conference about conservatism, a bit awkward. Not just because Trump and not conservatism took center stage, but because conservatism was nowhere to be found on the agenda.

Conservative leaders like Mitt Romney, once the keynote speaker and Republican Party nominee for president, were actually uninvited by the American Conservative Union, the group that runs CPAC.

The conservative speakers, book authors, columnists and scholars who used to populate panels were gone, replaced by Trump sycophants, wannabes and quacks like the MyPillow guy. Sordid groups like white nationalists, Proud Boys and Oath Keepers were seemingly welcomed with official passes and access.

Panels on the debt and deficit are now pushed aside to make room for more owning of the libs. Last year featured one called, “My Pronouns are First Place and Winning: Protecting Women’s Sports.”

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This year is more of the same manure. Loony Rep. Lauren Boebert is on a panel called “The Moron in Chief.” There’s also “Lock Her Up, FOR REAL” and “Put Him to Bed, Lock Her Up and Send Her to the Border.”

Visitors who want the full experience can pay anywhere from $300 to as much as $7,000 for three different panels on “wokeism,” including “Fighting Woke Inc,” “Awake Not Woke” and “Woke Inc.”

There’s one called “Domestic Terrorists Unite: Lessons from Virginia Parents.” And “Sorry Stacey, You Are Not the Governor.”

And don’t forget “How to Talk to Your Neighbor without Starting a Backyard Brawl,” which is led fittingly by “a political activist identified as a former top strategist for an anti-Muslim group.”

None of this has anything remotely to do with conservatism, of course, a fact that’s frustrated those of us who’ve watched the Republican Party and right-wing media stars pretend it does. There’s barely anything left of conservatism inside the GOP, and it certainly isn’t animating its stars or its voters anymore, not as much as culture wars and owning the libs.

Case in point, former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, once a Democratic candidate for president, is a special guest at this year’s CPAC — not because she’s conservative, but because she sufficiently and regularly dumps on the left, buying her cost of entry.

It seems as though the right may finally be starting to drop the charade. This weekend, ACU chairman Matt Schlapp confessed to Steve Bannon, “The conservative movement, which I don’t use, I call it the American movement, ’cause that’s all it is, we are no longer conservatives, we are Americans who love our founding.”

To put that statement in sharp relief: The chairman of the American CONSERVATIVE Union, who runs the CONSERVATIVE Political Action Conference, whose website states boldly, “We define conservatism,” and whose group calls itself the nation’s “oldest conservative grassroots organization,” and who rates lawmakers on scales of liberal-to-conservative, and who tells supporters to sign up for “conservatism in your inbox,” and “Join the conservative fight,” says “we are no longer conservatives.”

Listen, you’ll get no argument here. But this is a breathtaking admission, that in order to service the overweening ego of Donald Trump and satisfy his rabid and impressionable voters, the once-leading conservative organization is simply jettisoning the conservatism.

Of course, conservatism will carry on without Mr. Schlapp. It will outlive him. It will exist as a set of values whether he “uses” it or not.

But there’s no question it’s dead within this current Republican Party. Who will resurrect it is the important question.

S.E. Cupp is the host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN. Follow her on Twitter @secupp

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