As reporters milled around the back of the Potomac Ballroom at National Harbor just outside Washington, D.C., waiting for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference to begin, there was one thing on everyone’s mind: The WiFi wasn’t working.
“They know it’s out. They’re working on it,” a CPAC volunteer told a journalist, and then another, and then another.
It was a fitting beginning to an event struggling to remain relevant amid a rapidly radicalizing, fracturing conservative movement. There were rows and rows of empty seats at the conference, which runs through Saturday, and few newsworthy or memorable moments throughout the first day.
The lifeless atmosphere may be a consequence of CPAC’s internal turmoil, as the organization's chairman, Matt Schlapp, faces a report that he sexually assaulted a staffer on Herschel Walker’s senate campaign. He avoided a reporter’s question about the alleged incident in the hallway outside the main stage. Schlapp’s leadership is also under increased scrutiny, with massive staff turnover in recent years and an expected lawsuit from a former employee who says she was fired “in retaliation for complaining about a co-worker’s sexist and racist comments,” according to The Washington Post.
Most of the speeches and panels were forgettable, meandering, and filled with stale cliches even by the low standards of conservative political rhetoric. Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) made a joke about kale tasting bad. A panel featuring anti-LGBTQ activist Chaya Raichik of Libs of TikTok was littered with anti-trans comments. Schlapp opened the event alongside Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) with warmed-over comments about Russian collusion. Just outside the ballroom, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, recording his War Room podcast, insisted Trump won Pennsylvania in 2020. There were too many half-hearted criticisms of “woke” ideology to count. People booed when they aired a clip of Anthony Fauci.
The day’s headliner, The Daily Wire’s Candace Owens, gave a phoned-in speech anchored by the anti-trans rhetoric that’s ubiquitous among conservative commentators. Her hateful comments drew applause, but the performance was perfunctory, its banality belying the dangers facing trans people throughout the country. In that way, she was the perfect avatar of CPAC in 2023.
“You have men that are mutilating their bodies so that they can’t reproduce; you are having women that are mutilating their bodies so that they cannot reproduce,” Owens said. “You are having people that are confused, people that are taking so much medication after they realize, of course, that mutilating your own body does not change your sex.”
Overall, the first day left the impression that CPAC’s speakers and organizers were unable to find a message to excite their attendees, frequently relying on anti-trans bigotry just to keep the sparse audience’s attention. Indeed, if there is a single issue which seemingly every speaker and attendee here agreed on, it was that trans people are the enemy — an increasingly genocidal impulse that’s now common on the right.
Despite the weak start, it would be a mistake to write CPAC’s obituary. Some Republican heavy hitters are skipping this year, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is expected to run in the Republican presidential primary, former Vice President Mike Pence, and Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel. Unlike in previous years, the Republican National Committee isn’t a sponsor this year. Perhaps even more importantly, Fox News isn’t a sponsor either.
But Trump is scheduled to close out the event on Saturday, and new polling continues to place him over DeSantis in the primary. Former Brazilian President and proto-fascist Jair Bolsonaro is also scheduled for the final day. Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes was spotted outside the main hall as the day ended. None of the other conservative conference competitors to CPAC have dethroned it, yet. The politicians, right-wing media stars, and activists here are still dangerous, even if they’re also incredibly boring.