Op-ed views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
I am writing this while sitting on the CPAC “media room floor,” where there are not enough seats and the temperature is so hot even the reporters from the south were sweating. I am disappointed because I love CPAC and what they stand for, but 2023 was not up to snuff. CPAC was once the Mecca of conservative politics. An annual event that conservatives from far and wide travel to experience the who’s who and the what’s what of conservative politics. Unfortunately, CPAC 2023 failed to deliver to the incredibly high expectations they’ve set in the past. Some blame the looming unfounded accusations of sexual assault against Matt Schlapp, CPACs, founder. Others suggested a significant reduction in major sponsors this year, such as FOX and the NRA. The rest seemed to blame the location in DC. Although those specifics sure made a dent in attendance and sponsorship revenue, none of them explain why this year’s event was, to put it mildly, underwhelming.
Three components to an event like this must work seamlessly- logistics, the media, and the content (speakers and classes). Several reporters and attendees of the event, including myself, had a tough time getting credentialed, and the general admission attendees dealt with lines and crowds to merely pick up their badges. On top of that, the trade show floor was messy, disorganized, and small. None of the booths had anything exciting; it was a wasteland of washed-up conservative organizations holding on for dear life in the basement equivalent of a trade show floor. From an untrained eye, it was dull and messy; from a trained eye, logistical and operational balls were dropped several times over. To be fair, some of this could be the venue’s fault, not solely CPAC.
If you were lucky enough to get your badge and get out of the crowds’ scot-free, the next prominent hot spot is what they refer to as “media row,” which is a gross overstatement. In reality, it was a tiny hall of dinosaurs- Newsmax, Epoch Times, and America First News, and it got worse from there. The reporters all had similar combos of orange bronzer, aqua net lacquered hair, and non-tailored suits from the clearance section of Nordstrom Rack. The commentary was the same, as well as the talent. The complete lack of any up-and-coming talent, fresh faces, podcasters, YouTubers, and columnists painted a clear picture that CPAC is not interested in nurturing the younger conservative generations, which will and might already be detrimental to the CPAC legacy. The booths on the floor and row were paid spots, but CPAC, like all other trade shows, should have awarded spaces to fresh faces and brands. The little hallway of media had plenty of room.
Trade shows must innovate and have constant entertainment and stimulation for attendees. In the three days I attended, there were two places to be media “row” and one main speaker stage with different conservatives speaking throughout the day. There were excellent talks, but sitting in a large convention room all day listening to rotating conservatives doesn’t make you want to return year after year. The lack of technology, media, and pop-up events and activations was shocking. I searched high and low for Snapchat filters, cool insta-sesh pop-ups, and smaller mini content-specific classes, and I failed to find anything remotely interesting. “How to fight fake news” is not great content; it’s a decade-long tired narrative. As an attendee, I can’t imagine how disappointing it would be to walk up and down a tiny hall of washed-up reporters and the occasional “celebrity sighting” and then only have speakers to watch. There was nothing genuinely innovative that plays directly into the assumption that conservatives are dull, white older men who watch FOX news all day. Although the crowd did not reflect that, the event did. It looked and felt like my 75-year-old father designed the show.
The access to the “celebrities” was also grossly mismanaged. Most shows would have an area people could stand in line and meet and greet, maybe grab an autograph throughout the day. Instead, the celebrities were ushered into the respective media booths for an interview, and if you were lucky, you’d get to grab a picture or tell them how much you love them through people crowding all around. I imagine these personalities are huge draws for the show; you’d think CPAC would make that accessible to draw even bigger crowds and for the talent to promote their latest book, legislation, etc.
The most shocking part of the event was the amount of division perpetuated by the media and the attendees who continually peddled the irrelevant Trump vs. DeSantis debate. Both sides insult one another. As always, many Trump supporters would boo at a sneeze if it sounded remotely like DeSantis. On the other side of the party, the more traditional republicans flew their “never Trump” flags high. There were no messages of unity, strength as one, and defeating the democrats on any of the CPAC materials or themes throughout the show. The show was an event of us versus them within the conservative movement. Although this is my personal opinion if you’re genuinely looking to build the conservative movement, why not state the obvious- without unity, we will not win.
As always, America’s winners, Mike Lindell and Marjorie Taylor Greene spewed their incoherent ramblings and tore down other republicans. The My Pillow Guy dared to insult DeSantis, which again will be detrimental to our success. The last thing conservatives need is a divisive pillow inventor wreaking havoc on our movement. Of course, we also had the pleasure of hearing from the class acts of our party- Ben Carson, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Byron Donalds, to name a few. As inspirational and incredible as these people are, again, CPAC organized nothing for anyone to meet and greet. It was a genuine disappointment, and the dozens of attendees I spoke to agreed.
The bottom line is the once gold standard of conservative events has lost its sheen. In the political space, you can’t expect CES Las Vegas, but there is an excellent middle ground that CPAC could have achieved had it not done the same thing repeatedly, expecting the same level of success. We can look to the Comic-Con events as a great example. No industry can thrive without innovation, and CPAC proved that true this year. As a media member, I struggle because CPAC shows are positive, and I support the movement’s core. Although CPAC makes a positive difference, the conservative movements can’t grow with the same old leaders, the same attendees, and the same old media. This critique may get me banned from CPAC, but constructive criticism is the only way our movement can re-energize and attract new members.
A few easy changes and additions to the show could take CPAC to the next level—breakout rooms about new technologies or content creation for modern times. Content and learning in these events is how to add value to attendees, and most up-and-coming speakers will be no or low cost to the show. Social media, podcasts, and YouTubers must be the focus, while Sebastian Gorkas and Steve Bannons should go to the back. Hasbeens should not be at center stage. Insta-sesh activations throughout the event would create social capital and showcase young-to-young engagement, attracting new attendees- that is how social media keeps businesses going. Keep the big names on the main stage but open up other areas for unknown talent with something to offer, for example- how to grow your conservative audience through email marketing. How to make your conservative-based business work for you and judging by the exhibitor’s hall, they need it. Networking events would be a huge plus for people looking to grow their businesses or cross-promote products. Imagine an attendee comes to CPAC with a conservative widget, there’s a networking event, and they meet a media personality that talks about the device online. Millions of widgets are sold; that would be worth the time and the ticket, with little work needed from CPAC. One success story like that would create a huge demand for business people to attend. Networking is always a plus, but when there is nowhere to sit, no space in the media room, and a small hallway packed with people, it’s almost impossible to make lasting connections.
Seeing friends and catching up is always the highlight of any big event, which was the show’s best part. As a podcaster and writer within the “younger” conservative movement, there was nothing for me and the others like me. Whether or not any of them will cover the truth of CPAC’s lackluster is still unknown; however, the overall feeling within the media was a disappointment compared to previous events.
As much as it pains me to say it, this year e CPAC represented current conservative politics: disorganized, boring, and old. The 2023 CPAC may have created a void similar to the void CPAC once filled in the conservative space. This will be a void that younger, technology-focused, and conservative innovators will soon fill. We need these events to unite and to work hard together as more conservative media outlets fall. DirectTV dropped NewsMax, and whether or not you agree with their decision, it’s an example of how influencers, digital media outlets, and podcasts are still the future. However, we can’t support events that push the same old content with the same older people who have created this division- the reason we lose elections. Trade shows and events no longer work using the cut-and-paste formula we’ve seen in the past. Every event must be new, different, and exciting to keep people coming and staying relevant.
CPAC represents something special, and it is a place for conservatives to come together and teach, learn, and share what the conservative movement means to them. Additionally, CPAC is the only opportunity for isolated conservatives to immerse themselves amongst hundreds of other like-minded people. The power and influence of CPAC span the world, which is why I expect the events to reflect that.
My final note to CPAC- we are hungry for new fresh faces, technology, and innovation within the conservative movement. Please ensure the next event exceeds our expectations, or someone else will. I am looking forward to the next CPAC and expect greatness as they have shown in many years past.