Every year since 1974, typically in late February or early March, the American Conservative Union has held the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). Attendees range from members of College Republicans and aspiring pundits to famous media personalities and politicians, sometimes as important as the president himself. This year promises to be no different, with both Donald Trump and Mike Pence on the speaker agenda, as well as many senators, congressman, journalists, activists, and more. As two CPAC enthusiasts put it, the conference “hosts the best and brightest of the conservative movement every year just outside Washington, D.C.”
To read the itinerary is to be amazed at the success of conservatism. Over the past few decades, it has gone from “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” in Lionel Trilling’s infamous 1950 description, to a full-fledged movement. It is one broad enough to accommodate an “array of speakers from across the conservative spectrum,” as the aforementioned enthusiasts put it, and prosperous enough that many leading Republican politicians, such as senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, and even Trump himself are willing to attach themselves to it.
The conservative movement has, in a sense, achieved its long-sought goal of becoming the predominant influence in the Republican Party. Some younger attendees might have trouble believing this was not always the case. The “Rockefeller Republicans” of yore, to name just one example, are a largely vanished breed. Conservatism triumphed over them through patient persistence and careful institution-building. Much of this has taken place across the country. But a great deal of it has taken place in Washington, D.C.
The ACU has always held CPAC in or just outside of Washington. The move outside the city proper is relatively new, and perhaps deliberate. President Trump was not the first Republican politician to claim to disdain the swamp, after all. But if CPAC’s organizers really wanted to emphasize conservatism’s distance from Washington, they might hold it much farther away.
Every presidential-election year, for example, the Republican Party itself usually holds its national convention away from Washington. It selects an otherwise geographically or politically significant locale, of which a nationwide political coalition has many. But CPAC’s organizers have deemed a hotel in D.C.-adjacent National Harbor, Md., “the place to be for conservatives across the country” — inadvertently revealing that, for all the attendees’ ranting against Washington culture, they have become a part of it themselves.
You don’t have to look hard for evidence that CPAC, which supposedly represents a conservative movement that has long prided itself on its outsider status, has become a kind of establishment unto itself. ACU chairman Matt Schlapp, for example, claimed this year that the conference he organizes is “really the start of the presidential campaign.” Given that Trump himself will speak there this Saturday, it’s not hard to guess whose side CPAC is on. Schlapp is implicitly conceding that railing against the Beltway will only get you so far; eventually, you have to try to take it over. Just as Trump now gets to tweet about his contempt for D.C. (or D.C.’s contempt for him) from the comfort of the White House, CPAC’s attendees get to bemoan Beltway corruption from a nearby hotel. Indeed, many of CPAC’s speakers live and work full-time in the Swamp, just like the people they oppose.
CPAC both reinforces the institutional infrastructure of conservatism in Washington and keeps it growing, thanks to the sheer number of political and media figures who attend the easy-to-reach conference. To quote the CPAC boosters once more, its power comes from “the happy hours, receptions, and dinners that take place alongside the conference,” events that “provide for once-a-year, unparalleled networking opportunities.” Networking is the quintessential D.C. activity. It’s easy to find eager strivers exchanging business cards at the kinds of Washington events many CPAC speakers claim to deplore. But CPAC wouldn’t dare to stop such things from happening on its own grounds, for they are one of the most important functions of what has become a Beltway power-broker on the right.
The prestige of the invited speakers, the coverage of CPAC in the media, and the networking that takes place there all attest to the power of the event as a Beltway institution. No amount of populist theater from invited speakers will change that. CPAC’s role will be made obvious to those who come from across the country — and from other countries — to attend. And it should already be obvious to those whose trips to CPAC in the late Washington winter are just a little bit shorter.