CPAC Day 1

Former HUD Secretary and neurosurgeon Ben Carson signs books at CPAC Texas, August 4, 2022. Photo by John Griswold



The Hilton Anatole in Dallas, named for the developer’s favorite Copenhagen restaurant, was the Reagan-Bush campaign headquarters during the Republican National Convention in 1984. In 2021, and now in 2022, it was/is the site of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

The conference hotel has a “Zen…and vacay” theme, according to an electronic sign, with lots of Asian art and iconography on display. Before eight a.m. a few early arrivals walked past a six-foot Buddha on their way to registration; later they had to pass a statue of Chairman Mao, and Chinese ceramic elephants with GOP decorations, to get to the exhibition hall. Outside, one of the screws from the Lusitania lay in the garden. It was an odd mix.

Donald Trump and many other figures of the current iteration of the conservative movement will speak at the CPAC conference, and a visitor might be forgiven for expecting to also see the oddness of super-fans in full regalia, which the media and roving talk-show comedians like to show from MAGA rallies, because it looks cultish. This did not seem to be that crowd.

Sure, there were half a dozen middle-aged women in spangled-flag cowboy hats and flag-decorated boots at a long table at breakfast under the atrium. They began to move as one to head out for a session but stopped to shout, “Hi Mike, we love you!” at My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell. There was also a vocal group of five men and women wearing flag-decorated cowboy hats and yellow T-shirts that spelled out “TRUMP” in the general session in the afternoon. Otherwise, conference attendees did not seem to be on that trip, as they used to say.

I have found myself using Sixties phrases lately, because our politics have made them timely again. Many of the people at this conference looked like Heavies, for instance, another word from that time. Heavies, in this context, looked variously like ultra-professional organizers in terrific moods; people not unfamiliar with money; men conferring on procedural plans in hallways and bringing baptism into it; or just everyday people seriously dedicated to their cause, which means something like life or death to them. Committed, maybe, is the word.

An audience of about 200, standing room only, filled a meeting room this morning for two hours. (Of thousands at the conference, almost no one wears a mask.) Many were older, even elderly, people listening and taking detailed notes on activism, mentorship for Gen Z officeholders, and (especially) election training for poll workers and poll watchers. A young group of three students crouched on the stairs next to the door were speaking softly to each other until one of the older audience members barked, “Shut up! We’re trying to listen!” as others shushed them.

Two speakers in the general session, trying to curry favor, asked how many in the crowd were from Texas. Maybe more than 80% raised their hands and hollered with pride. Still, it took dedication, time off work, travel, and considerable expense to get here. Not the least of it is the heat—so heavy itself that it has saturated the ground, until even the cold water tap in our motel runs hot enough to brew tea.

The mass of people attending the conference are neither famous figures nor policymakers in the movement. Instead they are those who will work tirelessly to help it gain power. The famous know this; all their speeches reminded attendees of what was at stake in the midterm and presidential elections, and pleaded with them to vote. Several speakers made another call to action, to “reach out and grab 50 friends and family and be sure they vote,” as one put it. That is, to become influencers in their own social circles. Going by the enthusiastic response, I would bet the conference-goers will.

The famous figures in the afternoon general session today, the main event, included Texas Governor Greg Abbott (talking about countering the government on business regulation and immigrants); Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who “spoke from the heart” and used so many Bible references he sounded like a preacher in Sunday School; Viktor Orbán, who flirted with the crowd and positioned himself as the head of “the Texas of Europe” and a model Christian nationalist; Sean Hannity, who nearly sounded like the intellectual spokesperson for the movement; former HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who was signing children’s books earlier in the expo hall; and Representative from Ohio Jim Jordan, given a “100%” rating on his scorecard by the American Conservative Union, which hosts the conference.

If that sounds like an odd mix of different personalities, it was, but the speakers drummed it into the crowd: You may have had a favorite candidate in the primaries who has lost, and we may believe in different aspects of conservatism, but now is the time to pull together to beat the Democrats, liberals, progressives—the “socialists” who are against us.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.