The Truth About CPAC

My experience at CPAC 2024.

By Isaac Willour


Several days ago, I returned from a trip to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington D.C.. CPAC was formed in 1974 as a mobilization device for the then-fledgling conservative activist movement. Ronald Reagan delivered the keynote speech at the event. In the following years, the conference would host prominent (and in many cases controversial) conservative voices, including Pat Buchanan, Newt Gingrich, George H.W. Bush, and many, many more. Half a century later, CPAC has become the epitome of the political bankruptcy represented by a swath of the American political right—and an example of the kind of damage that loyalty to celebrity over principle can do to once-serious institutions. Here’s the full breakdown.


Observation 1. It’s a ridiculously small event.

Even a decade ago, CPAC was a major force in conservatism. The conference featured appearances from the biggest conservative orgs in the business, including the Heritage Foundation and the Leadership Institute. Long story short—none of them remain in CPAC’s 2024 iteration. The first floor of the Gaylord Hotel in Washington D.C. looked more like a run-down, once-fun county fair (and trust me, whatever county fair you’re thinking of is probably bigger).

The second floor, featuring media row and CPAC’s main speaker stage, wasn’t much better—the vast majority of seats in the main auditorium remained empty for basically the entire conference (except for the Trump speech and OH WE’LL GET TO THAT). The numbers don’t lie—CPAC’s simply not a big deal anymore. Part of it’s the scheduling, part of it’s the prices, part of it’s the fact that the conference represents the Republican Party’s increasingly detached hardcore base. That last one is especially obvious when you look at the people who’re still showing up, which takes us to…


Observation 2: CPAC’s for old people.

As a voter under 25, I was in the distinct minority (and not just in the way I usually am). Most attendees appeared to be over 50, which is all well and good until you realize that CPAC mirrors the interests of the majority of its attendees. Which takes us to…


Observation 3: It’s not all a scam, but it’s wearing a scam’s outfit.

This matters—I am not kidding you when I tell you that the conference has a lot of the elements of a Facebook scam. What organizations were left at CPAC?

  • The John Birch Society, conspiracy theorists from a bygone age.
  • Strive, Vivek Ramaswamy’s anti-woke capitalism business that’s just doing so well since its founder decided to run for president
Those are the more normal ones.
  • Woke Tears Water, the super anti-woke water that you can buy at $19 for a 6-pack and definitely doesn’t just look like Dasani with a sticker over it (the vendor offered to give me a sample and was promptly reprimanded by a CPAC staffer because, and I am not making this up, they’re not allowed to sell it).
  • The VibraPlate, a vibrating plate you stand on that allegedly fixes everything from sexual performance to weight gain and also conveniently costs $4,000.
  • A Trump hammock that costs $1500. 

Notice a trend here? None of these things are mainstream or the kind of things that successful people are trying to sell. They’re commodities, conspiracies, gag gifts, scams, and the sort of thing that offers the buyer nothing of consequence. Aka Facebook scam material. 

And that’s the deeper message of CPAC—its primary marketing angle is its unbreakable Trump focus, the implicit premise being attend this conference, buy this thing, and you’re giving the middle finger to the establishment. The true believers who attend CPAC are, wittingly or otherwise, being sold a lie. Namely, that buying into Trumpism (and the ‘ism’ there is very deliberate) is the virtuous path, compared with the godless, communist, woke, RINO ways of the sheeple who aren’t nearly awake enough to realize the wisdom being spewed off the CPAC stage. 


Who’s To Blame?

Let’s be very clear here: this is the organizers’ fault. Don’t mistake my criticism of CPAC with contempt for many of the perfectly normal people who simply believe that Trump’s the lesser of two evils. I’ve been guilty of such contempt in the past. There’s no excuse for thinking this way about my fellow Americans (and Christians, in many cases to boot). I truly believe that many of the people I talked to, who paid good money and traveled from all around the world to be at CPAC, have no animus and maybe just believe in Trumpism a bit more than is healthy. 

I can’t say the same about the loudest voices from the CPAC stage. Mike Lindell knows exactly what he’s doing. Kari Lake knows exactly what she’s doing. CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp knows exactly what he’s doing (although given his sexual assault allegations, he really didn’t need to call CPAC a “wonderful and intimate” place from the stage). Lou Dobbs knows exactly what he’s doing when he parrots Trump’s narrative about the 2020 election.

History will judge those people, along with their strange orange master. Only time will tell how harshly.


The Bleak Truth

CPAC isn’t a healthy place. This level of devotion to a single man and the narrative he preaches about the world (always with himself in the center) is not the mark of a healthy country or body politick. We’re fast becoming a politically bankrupt country—and we have moments where it happens quickly. Perhaps more damningly, however, we have a thousand little gradual moments where we slip closer to dysfunction. It’s always interesting to get a front row seat to moments like that.

This article was originally published in edited form at The Unafraid on Substack. Read it in full here.


About the Author

Isaac Willour is a marketing fellow at the Institute for Faith and Freedom and the editor-in-chief of Checkpoint News.  He is a corporate relations analyst at Bowyer Research. Willour is also an award-winning journalist, with work featured at USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and C-SPAN. He tweets @IsaacWillour.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the writer alone. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grove City College, the Institute for Faith and Freedom, or their affiliates.