Time was when the Conservative Political Action Conference was a libertarian romp, overrun with shiny-looking young white people bused in from area colleges to express their love for Ron Paul, the former congressman from Texas, in the annual CPAC presidential straw poll. Paul, who was last decade’s favorite crazy grandpa, inevitably won.
On Saturday, when President Donald Trump addresses the conference, he will find himself at one far different than the CPAC he first addressed in 2011—one pretty much made over in his own image.
When Trump took the CPAC stage eight years ago, he stirred up a ruckus by declaring that there was no way that Ron Paul could ever win a presidential election. In response, the Paulite college contingent loudly booed the New York real estate tycoon, but the comment itself put Trump on the political map. Old-school conservatives were less enamored of Paul than the youngsters, and Trump proved he wasn’t afraid to stir the pot. Today, CPAC 2019 looks pretty much like a Trump campaign event, gathering the important voices of his base around the hot-button, fear-based issues emerging as the campaign’s messaging themes: abortion and guns, with some red-baiting tossed in for good measure. Other right-wing grievances, such as the false claim of widespread voter fraud and LGBTQ rights, will also be addressed, of course. And there will be cries of “Fake news!” along with fantastical tales of censorship of conservatives, too. There’s a little something for everyone.
A “set of curated speeches” in the first hour of Thursday’s opening session, was emceed by Scott Walker, the recently defeated former governor of Wisconsin, was titled, “What Makes America Great.”
On Friday, Vice President Mike Pence—a favorite of the overlapping Religious-Right and Koch-network factions of the Trump base—will address the conference, with the president bringing his star power on Saturday. It’s been a tough week for Trump, having failed at getting a denuclearization deal with North Korea while his former personal attorney, Michael Cohen, delivered devastating testimony about his former boss at a Wednesday hearing of the House oversight committee. Some fire and fury on these topics may be in the offing.
American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp, who oversees the conference, is a big Trump supporter, having jumped onto the Trump train in 2016, “as Mr. Trump closed in on the presidency,” according to The New York Times. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, works in the White House as director of strategic communications. He’s a former lobbyist for Koch Industries; she’s a former board member of the National Rifle Association, a major CPAC sponsor. She’s also vehemently opposed to marriage equality and transgender rights.
Below we list some of the notable figures appearing on CPAC’s main stage this year. Our categories offer only a loose guide; many on the CPAC roster could be cross-referenced by two or more of our descriptions.
—Adele M. Stan
MAGA Hucksters, Conspiracy Theorists, All-Around Extremists
Charlie Kirk & Candace Owens are Turning Point USA’s president and communications director, respectively, and they both have speaking slots at this year’s CPAC. An organization targeting college students through campus-based chapters, TPUSA has raised gobs of cash from wealthy GOP donors on the promise that their memes and stunts are convincing young people to adopt a GOP frame of mind. The nonprofit is a partnering sponsor of this year’s CPAC, and it’s hosting a party on Thursday night called “Americafest” that will feature a mechanical bull. Owens recently caught flack—both from press and from within the organization—for her remarks that the real problem with Adolf Hitler was that he tried to take his vision of Nazi Germany global (instead of, you know, doing that Holocaust as a purely domestic operation). TPUSA is an organization rife with internal division, and is something of a magnet for activists with extremist beliefs, including white nationalism and anti-Semitism.
Glenn Beck is a former alcoholic and shock jock radio host who transformed himself into one of the most influential voices within the conservative media, thanks largely to his platform on Fox News. When Beck left Fox in 2011 and launched his own The Blaze network, his public profile may have dimmed, but the constant stream of conspiracy theories he promoted never waned. In 2016, Beck spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign, repeatedly declaring that Cruz had been raised up by God to save America, and endlessly mocking Donald Trump and warning that Trump was dangerously unfit for office. But since Trump has been in office, Beck has changed his tune and now says that he’ll gladly vote for Trump in 2020.
In her capacity as president of the anti-choice Susan B. Anthony List, Marjorie Dannenfelser once signed on to a letter urging Republican primary voters to “support anyone but Donald Trump,” declaring that “as women, we are disgusted by Mr. Trump’s treatment of individuals, women, in particular.” But once Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, all such concerns were shoved aside, as Dannenfelser quickly became one of Trump’s most vocal defenders and advisers, who now make regular appearances in the Oval Office, where she serves as “Trump’s anti-abortion whisperer” and guides the president in his efforts to restrict women’s access to reproductive healthcare.
Jerry Falwell Jr.
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr is listed on CPAC’s program along with another famous son, Donald Trump, Jr. They’ll apparently be appearing live from a CPAC stage at Liberty. Falwell isn’t a pastor—that’s his brother Jonathan, who leads his famous father’s church. Jerry Jr. took over Liberty University, which he has built into one of the largest private universities in the country, thanks largely to federal student loan money the university rakes in from a massive number of online students who get the same degree but don’t require the same infrastructure. Falwell is reportedly paid nearly $1 million per year. Falwell is among Trump’s most ardent Religious Right supporters. During a low point in the 2016 campaign, after the release of a recording of Trump bragging about groping women without their consent, Falwell brought Ralph Reed to campus to tell students that Christians had a duty to vote for Trump. Falwell kicked off the year saying there was nothing Trump could do that would endanger his support. While boosting Liberty’s curb appeal with things like a year-round ski mountain, Falwell rules with an iron fist. When a Christian activist critical of Falwell’s pro-Trump sycophancy planned to meet and pray with students, Falwell threatened to have him arrested if he stepped foot on campus. Student editors at the campus newspaper were purged and stripped of scholarship money for making Falwell unhappy.
Like Dannenfelser, Concerned Women for America’s Penny Nance also signed on to the 2016 letter denouncing then-candidate Trump as unfit for the White House, only to likewise do a complete 180 and morph into one of Trump’s most vocal defenders. Nance has been rewarded with access to the president and even dinners at the White House. It was once rumored that Nance was going to be named Trump’s ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, though she insisted that she did not want the job and instead chose to remain at CWA, where she had used her clout to wage campaigns in support of Trump’s nominees to the Supreme Court, with the goal of ultimately outlawing abortion.
Lila Rose is a right-wing activist who began her anti-choice activism when she was still a teen, working with conservative provocateur James O’Keefe to infiltrate Planned Parenthood offices and film undercover videos designed to embarrass the organization. Rose eventually struck out on her own, launching the group Live Action, which continues to carry out such surreptitious operations. Rose has also become a popular speaker at Religious Right and right-wing events, where she has declared that she wants to see the government criminalize abortion and stop “promoting” contraception and even once proclaimed that as long as abortions remain legal, they should be performed “in the public square.”
During his two terms in the U.S. Senate, Rick Santorum was a Religious Right favorite, who often led the charge in opposing reproductive rights and LGBTQ equality. After losing his bid for re-election in 2006, Santorum became a conservative commentator and Christian movie producer while continuing to lead the fight on culture war issues, warning time and again that things like marriage equality would lead to sibling marriages, “man on child” and “man on dog” marriages, the criminalization of free speech and “the destruction of our republic.” Santorum attempted to capitalize on his standing among evangelical voters by promising to enact the Religious Right’s agenda when he ran for president in 2016, but that bid failed and Santorum now serves mainly as a conservative commentator and Trump defender for CNN.
Other Stokers of Manufactured Grievance
Hans von Spakovsky
Hans von Spakovsky will be appearing on a Heritage Foundation-sponsored panel on “protecting the Integrity of elections.” Von Spakovsky was a key player on the embarrassing and short-lived “commission on election integrity” that the Trump administration convened to generate evidence to back Trump’s ludicrous claims that he lost the popular vote due to massive voter fraud—and to create justification for voter suppression efforts. When the commission was in its planning stages, von Spakovsky complained that it might include Democrats or “mainstream Republicans” who were not ideological warriors on election issues.
On the commission, he promoted a Heritage Foundation study purporting to show widespread voter fraud; the Brennan Center’s analysis of the Heritage data reported that it “confirms what numerous studies have consistently shown: Voter fraud is vanishingly rare, and impersonating a voter at the polls is less common a phenomenon than being struck by lightning.” In 2017, von Spakovsky publicly speculated that a California jury acquitted an undocumented immigrant charged with murder because “it’s very possible that there were people who weren’t U.S. citizens on that jury.” He has questioned the legitimacy of Robert Mueller’s investigation, suggesting that the idea of collusion in the 2016 election was “imaginary” and asking last year whether the probe was “really a taxpayer-funded effort to overturn the results of the 2016 election and out the duly elected president from office?” Von Spakovsky was embarrassing himself before Trump became president: In the summer of 2016 he waged a bizarre campaign against the confirmation of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, saying that the selection of the first African American and first woman to hold the position was a concession to “political correctness”—and saying that Hayden’s extensive library experience didn’t qualify her for a job that must be held by “a man of letters.”
Tim Huelskamp is president of the Heartland Institute, which has previously peddled its climate-change-denialism at CPAC. In January, Huelskamp suggested that the polar vortex meant people shouldn’t trust warnings about global warming. (For context, as late as 2014, Heartland argued, “The public health community’s campaign to demonize smokers and all forms of tobacco is based on junk science.”) Huelskamp is a former member of Congress from Kansas who was defeated by a primary challenger in 2016. He had been part of a group of Catholic leaders and activists who backed the presidential candidacy of Ted Cruz. Huelskamp was noted for his strident anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, which included a charge that pro-equality Supreme Court justices were trying to “rewrite the Constitution” and insulting Jesus Christ himself. Progressive Americans, he complained, were intent on “ramming their views down the throats of Americans.” Huelskamp appeared in a 2015 anti-gay “documentary” by anti-abortion activist Janet Porter.
Elected Capitol Hill Sycophants and Supporters
Reps. Jim Jordan and Mark Meadows
Fresh from the spotlight of one of the most stunning congressional hearings of all time, the two shook off the derision they earned from commentators for their questions to former Trump attorney Michael Cohen during Wednesday’s hearing by the House Oversight Committee, the two House Freedom Caucus hardliners will engage in a discussion, moderated by American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp, on the dangers of Marxism purportedly at America’s doorstep in the form of the Green New Deal.
Rep. Devin Nunes
The winner of last year’s Defender of Freedom award at CPAC, Nunes, in his former role as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is known for advancing the “deep state” conspiracy theory alleging that the intelligence community and the FBI had it in for Trump since before the 2016 presidential election. Before bestowing the award on Nunes at the 2018 CPAC, ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp said, “The Obama administration did not keep us safe, instead they… went after team Trump.” This year, Nunes will be interviewed by Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton, who has seen his own pundit star rise by advancing the same dubious story. Fitton is now a fixture on the Fox News and Fox Business channels.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers
A member of the House Republican leadership, Cathy McMorris Rodgers faces a tough election back home in Washington state, in part because some of Trump’s policies—such as cuts to health care—are unpopular. According to the Washington Post’s Mike DeBonis, Rodgers finds herself “walking a fine line between her district’s conservatism — it voted for Trump by 13 points — and refraining from an outright embrace of the president himself.” (She voted with Democrats against the president’s emergency declaration.)
At this year’s CPAC, she’ll be burnishing her anti-choice credentials, appearing on a panel with HUD Secretary Ben Carson titled “The Heartbeat of Humanity.” The two will be interviewed by Penny Nance of Concerned Women for America. (See profiles of Carson and Nance, respectively under headings “The Best People” and “Professional Moralists.”)
Sen. Lindsey O. Graham
Time was when Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, granted Trump no quarter, calling the New Yorker a “kook” and “unfit for office.” But now that he’s up for re-election before an electorate that likes the president, Graham has become Trump’s new pal. In an interview with The New York Times’ Mark Liebovich, Graham chalked up his change of heart to his need to “be relevant.” No doubt he’ll display that “relevance” on the CPAC stage.
The Best People
Former White House Adviser Sebastian Gorka
Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser and Hungarian fugitive, will be one of the first speakers to address CPAC as the general session kicks off on Thursday morning. He’s acting as the opener for Turning Point USA president Charlie Kirk, who will be followed by a guy who sells pillows to people who watch Fox News. Since leaving the White House, Gorka has fashioned himself as a Trump-loyalist talking head, appearing on right-wing news media and he’s currently hosting a radio show on the Salem Radio Network. Gorka is easily swayed by Twitter trolls and his attempts at building an independent media audience typically appeal to the lowest common denominator of Trump supporter, propping up conspiracy theories and ranting on about the seemingly single book he’s ever read: “The Art of War.” At last year’s CPAC, Gorka got in the face of Mediaite reporter Caleb Ecarma, whom Gorka previously challenged to a duel after Ecarma mocked Gorka for having a dinky four-cylinder engine in his Mustang.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who appears to have conducted some questionable personal commerce in the recent past, will appear in conversation with Bill Hagerty, the private equity investor who is the U.S. ambassador to Japan. This morning, National Public Radio and the Center for Public Integrity reported that Ross had failed to divest of the assets he’d promised to ditch by the date he promised Congress he’d do it—and appears to have lied about it.
NPR’s Carrie Johnson and Peter Overby report:
One of his assets, a tranche of stock in investment management firm Invesco Ltd. worth between $10 million and $50 million, went up in value by seven figures during his delay divesting it, a previous Center for Public Integrity investigation found.
Before joining the Trump administration, Ross served as vice-chair of the Bank of Cyprus, a fact that has drawn the attention of investigators and journalists for the bank’s ties to Russian oligarchs. During his tenure there, The Guardian’s Stephanie Kirchgaessner reported, Ross presided over the sell-off of the bank’s Russia-based assets to a bank presided over by an oligarch with ties to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.
The conversation will be moderated by Pete Hegseth of Fox News.
Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta
If Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta has gotten some bad press lately for concealing a plea deal he made during his tenure as the U.S. Attorney in Miami with the politically-connected pedophile Jeffrey Epstein for his victimization of as many as 100 underage victims, that won’t faze the CPAC audience, who likely believe that it’s all fake news. Despite calls for Acosta to resign since a federal judge ruled earlier this month that Acosta had improperly concealed the plea agreement, he remains in Trump’s cabinet.
National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow
With a career that has spanned stints in government, on Wall Street and on TV, Larry Kudlow knows all kinds of people—some very fine people, if you will. Take that time he accidentally invited a known white supremacist to his very private birthday party—at Kudlow’s own house. After the ensuing uproar, Kudlow claimed that he had no idea that Peter Brimelow hung out with the likes of Richard Spencer and spoke at white nationalist gatherings. I mean, he just seemed like a nice guy. (Even Brimelow and friends weren’t quite buying it.)
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway
The message-crafter who coined the phrase, “alternative facts.” What more do you need to know?