CPAC 2023 Preview: Pitchforks and Propaganada

Image from promotional video for 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference

The schedule and speakers list for this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference make it clear that the gathering will be dominated by the undemocratic and unprincipled power-seeking strategies for which former President Donald Trump and the MAGA movement are known.

Lying About Elections, Undermining Democracy

The choice of Kari Lake to keynote the event’s gala, the “Ronald Reagan Dinner,” makes it clear that CPAC will continue to promote damaging false claims about voter fraud. Trump’s refusal to admit that voters rejected him in 2020 fueled the violent attempt to stop Congress from affirming President Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Following in Trump’s footsteps, Lake has refused to accept her defeat by Arizona voters in last year’s governor’s race. Instead, she inflames supporters with bogus claims of election fraud, filing lawsuit after rejected lawsuit seeking to overturn her loss. Right Wing Watch reported that this month Lake took her complaints to two programs hosted by far-right broadcasters who have called for violence against political opponents. On one, when the host claimed that conservative Christians are being provoked to unleash “violence or bloodshed,” Lake responded, “I don’t know how much longer the people can take it.” As we saw on Jan. 6, 2021, this strategy is dangerous for democracy.

In addition to Trump himself, other speakers include Trump family members, right-wing funder and promoter of debunked election conspiracies Mike Lindell, MAGA strategist Steve Bannon, and far-right “Pizzagate” promoter Jack Posobiec.

Previous CPAC gatherings have celebrated authoritarian strongmen leaders like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Brazil’s former president, Jair Balsonaro, whose supporters attacked government buildings after his defeat. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, a right-wing legislator, will speak at CPAC this year.

‘Parents with Pitchforks’: Limiting the Freedom to Learn

Right-wing political leaders are aggressively restricting freedom in the name of attacking “wokeness,” which they have invoked to restrict honest teaching about racism, purge library books that feature Black and LGBTQ characters, and deny access to essential health care for transgender people. This is an expansion of the cynical right-wing strategy launched during the Trump administration to vilify “critical race theory” and then slap the label on anything right-wing activists didn’t like.

One strategy in the war on “wokeness” is stoking racial resentment and grievance among conservative white voters. Before last year’s election, a group run by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller ran digital ads denouncing “anti-white bigotry” and falsely claiming that the Biden administration “put white people last in line for COVID relief funds.” Miller, an architect of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies with a documented affinity for white nationalism, is listed as a CPAC speaker.

One Thursday CPAC segment dubbed “Parents with Pitchforks” includes Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, whose boss Gov. Glenn Youngkin has just launched an investigation of the AP African American Studies class attacked by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Another segment on “Sacking the Woke Playbook” features Sen. Tommy Tuberville and former acting attorney general Matt Whitaker, who once insisted that all judicial nominees should share his “biblical view of justice.”

Christian Nationalism

Also likely to be promoted at CPAC is the increasingly aggressive Christian nationalism espoused by religious-right activists and promoted by far-right politicians like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and North Carolina’s vehemently anti-LGBTQ Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who exclaimed in 2021, “As for this not being a Christian nation, yes, it is! If you don’t like it, I’ll buy your plane, train, or automobile ticket right up out of here.” Both Greene and Robinson are listed as speakers at this year’s gathering. Scholars have documented that white evangelicals are the group most likely to strongly embrace Christian nationalism, and those who do are more likely to support authoritarianism and political violence.

A ‘Principled’ Alternative?

A group of non-Trumpist conservatives has organized an alternative to CPAC, which they call the Principles First Summit. In a Substack column promoting the summit, organizer Heath Mayo denounced the evolution of CPAC in the Trump era, saying “What once set a budding movement’s standards for principles and character is now a showcase of its worst ills.” CPAC, Mayo wrote, “actively applauds a conspiratorial fringe of our politics completely unmoored from ethical constraints and moral commitments.”