The Conservative Political Action Conference always generates an enormous amount of media coverage each year and with good reason. Outside of party conventions, it’s rare to have so many members of congress, wealthy activists, and big-name pundits all in one place for a weekend. The paying attendees are also often part of the fun as they dress in strange costumes and set up strange exhibits. Invariably, the event is a magnet for many of conservatism’s kookier characters.

This year’s convention was no different. While the event took place in Florida instead of its usual place in suburban DC in an attempt to evade Maryland’s coronavirus restrictions, the speakers and activists seemed just as home as ever, including former president Donald Trump who made his first public appearance since being evicted from the White House in January.

While it often acts as a stage for those willing to make a scene, CPAC is often a sort of trial-run for aspiring presidential candidates to see if they can figure out how to rev up the right-wing base. That aspect was even more significant this year since Trump has not indicated whether he’d run against President Joe Biden in 2024 and the Republican Party has a bevvy of elected officials like South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis who would love to inherit the MAGA mantle.

In the past, CPAC was often a place for intra-right debate, one of the few locations where libertarians, corporate shills, Christian supremacists, and Dr. Strangelove types could gather and debate. Agreements were rarely reached but the conferences often served as a place to hash out differences that were papered over during the previous general election campaign. This approach meant that men like Rand Paul and John McCain would receive a platform alongside the iconoclasts and firebrands such as “Duck Dynasty” personality Phil Robertson, pundits like Tucker Carlson, and controversialists like Ann Coulter.

The wide differences among the speakers also meant that the attendees were also quite different from each other as well, ranging from home-schooled high schoolers and libertarian college students to elderly men dressed in American flag paraphernalia. While attendees still viewed conservative values as central to CPAC, there was division and disagreement. Questions of who should be allowed in the big tent of conservatism often arose, most famously with the right-wing LGBT rights organization GOProud which saw itself banned from the conference in 2012 and 2013 in response to demands from Christian Right organizations.

But the debate club atmosphere that once prevailed at CPAC has been firmly banished under the leadership of Matt Schlapp, president of the the conference’s sponsoring organization, the American Conservative Union. 

CPAC 2021 organized itself around two specific ideas. First was the Bill of Rights. Across all three of the days were an assortment of speeches and panels that engage with the first ten amendments in the Constitution. The second was seven separated panels, each engaging with a particular question of election integrity. Each of these subjects can be quite wonky and inundated with policy discussions. 

But for any viewer who may have been unfamiliar with CPAC, three common threads trailed through almost every speech and panel in Orlando.

  • Freedom: This is the critical value behind everything conservatives do. If America ever lost freedom, then it was lost entirely.
  • Faith: While CPAC does not claim to be an organization oriented toward the religious right, numerous speakers advanced the idea that Democrats are trying to extinguish Christianity in the United States.
  • Freaking out the Libs: While some politicians may push for reform or compromise, the only coherent narrative about the political Left was how terrible it was and how much the Right needed to beat it.

At the center of the convention was a simple question; will the GOP be Trump’s party after losing? Reporters often heard from Republican members of Congress off the record that many of them were excited to move beyond Trump. CPAC would be one of the most significant opportunities to push back and test whether that thesis was correct.

Unfortunately, CPAC’s leaders laid out the evidence months before the conference was on the public radar. 

 CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp has consistently vocalized his support for the president and the election fraud claims that saturated much of conservative media. He even spent time on the ground promoting these things. A cursory glance over the schedule revealed the intention to challenge the election and affirm almost every conspiratorial claim about November 6th (barring Dominion due to its ongoing lawsuits.) 

And much of the establishment seemed to affirm the same. Ted Cruz, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan, and many other members of Congress confirmed on-stage that Donald Trump was the leader of the party. However, none of them appeared to voice support for election fraud claims. But as Trump came on stage as the final speaker of the conference, it became clear what mattered. Despite the former president stepping down from his role, he was unwilling to consider the notion that he had lost the election fair and square. And if his supporters say otherwise, that may affect their odds of re-election.

While CPAC has attempted to present itself as a united pro-Trump front, 2021 seemed to allow the problems to seep through. This week, CPAC removed the Black musician Young Pharaoh after Media Matters revealed a long history of anti-Semitic conduct and conspiracy promotion.

But the young “Hotep” activist was far from the most controversial CPAC attendee this year. That distinction belonged to Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) who had already made a name for himself supporting far-right militias and allegedly claiming that the United States is already in the midst of a civil war.

Gosar was revealed on Friday night to be a surprise speaker at America First PAC, a white-nationalist alternative conference organized by far-right pundit Nick Fuentes and his group of college-age “Groypers,” the reborn alt-right movement that is rapidly infiltrating campus conservative organizations. In speech delivered right after Gosar’s, Fuentes said he believed the “energy” of the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection was “awesome” even as he insisted that he did not endorse violence or vandalism.

Despite having spoken to a group of Holocaust deniers the night before, Gosar was given the stage at CPAC on Saturday to speak on immigration, a subject that’s of great importance in Arizona. Before the conversation became substantial, Gosar stated, apropos of nothing, that he denounced all forms of “White Racism.” 

In a follow-up interview, Gosar explained to the Washington Post that he was referencing the AFPAC event and that he had accepted the Fuentes invite because the alternative conference represented a “group of young people that are becoming part of the election process, and becoming a bigger force.”

“You don’t accomplish anything by isolating,” he added, insisting that he, too, did not endorse violence.

Despite his denunciations of racism, however, within hours of his interview with the Post, Gosar tweeted out support for the America First Movement, even going out to meet again with Fuentes in the parking lot of the Hyatt hotel where CPAC was being held.

Gosar is no stranger to sharing false claims. In 2020, He appeared several times at the “Stop the Steal” protests, even going as far as to collaborate with Steal organizer Ali Alexander. Gosar was also the first member of Congress to falsely accuse leftist “Antifa” activists of causing the Capitol riot.

The Arizona GOP seemed to show little interest in challenging Gosar after the controversy. The party’s official Twitter account, which has a history of controversial pro-Trump content, immediately tweeted out an ambiguously worded message of support for “America First,” the name of Fuentes’s organization but also a top slogan of Donald Trump.

While the conference fixated on why the Right rules and the Left drools, there were two overarching messages that the American Conservative Union wanted CPAC participants to take away with them. The first was to dismiss the notion that there is a Republican civil war. Nearly every person on-stage was at great pains to say that they supported Trump.

Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) made it clear in his speech on Friday that any notion of internal conflict in the party is “foolish and it’s ridiculous. We have serious work to get done. We don’t have time for that.” He didn’t bother mentioning Trump literally reading off the names of several elected Republicans that he wanted deposed for daring to go against him for encouraging domestic insurrection.

CPAC speakers were also very intent on telling conservatives about the importance of blocking HR 1, the election-law bill which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

The legislation, known officially as the “For the People Act,” was referenced consistently during the election security segments as one of the biggest threats to election security. The bill, which must pass through the Senate, would create federal guidelines designed to supercede state and local laws for absentee voting, in-person voting, campaign contributions, and mailed ballots.

Speech after speech and panelist after panelist assailed HR 1 as a significant threat to voter integrity and impressed upon the audience that without laws making it even more difficult to vote, Republicans couldn’t ever hope to win the presidency again.

What might have been a conference featuring a rousing series of discussions about how to build a Trumpism without Trump or a post-conservative GOP ended up as an incoherent mess. Republican elites know that they have to do something different in order to have a long-term future, but they also know that the religious and racial bigotry that were so pivotal to the Trump coalition in 2016 cannot be easily excised. In the end, making it harder for Democrats to vote and falling over themselves to praise a one-term president are the only thing they can agree on.