Reaching the Climax at CPAC

A superfan at CPAC Texas 2022 waits for the speech by Donald Trump. Photo by John Griswold



Protestant services this morning at the Hilton Anatole marked the end of CPAC (the Conservative Political Action Conference ) Texas 2022, which was held in Dallas.

The conference itself appeared to be meticulously planned, technologically adept, and smoothly run. Nearly everyone who spoke at the general sessions thanked Matt and Mercedes Schlapp, hosts and organizers of CPAC.

But all participants had their role to play in the lead-up to the main event of the conference: the appearance of Donald Trump, who spoke in the final slot on Saturday, the last full day. Other speakers played various roles, eg, from (verbal) hockey-style goon to wonkish policy explainer. Partisan interviewers on “media row” helped repeat and disseminate the messages to segmented audiences. Exhibitors in the hall sold memorabilia and services, both of which amplified the movement, not to mention the very idea of entrepreneurship and capitalism. And of course there were the attendees themselves, who paid $50 (students), $300 (general admission), or up to $7,000 (Gold Ticket), but were told constantly by famous figures they had all the power in the building and even the nation. This was true, to the extent that the entire conference existed to bolster the foot soldiers of the movement and get them to vote in the midterms, with Donald Trump cast in the role of their king, who would appear to them before the battle.

On Friday, the second day of the conference, the lineup had included My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell (who has started his own conservative streaming platform, called Frank); Rick Scott; JD Vance; Marjorie Taylor Greene; and Jack Posobiec. Ted Cruz spoke in standup comedian mode and was not bad at it, to the degree that he had pacing and delivery and did not always stoop to the country-sly humor the crowd took delight in at other times. (On Thursday, Ben Carson explained that humans evolved to have frontal lobes, and that Republicans used them to be rational, unlike the left, which made many in the crowd guffaw.) Cruz looked like someone with degrees from Princeton and Harvard.

Saturday’s lineup shifted as the day went on, but with the exception of Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, speakers were lesser lights often grouped in panel discussions, until late in the day. It was a different crowd, anyway. The emotional temperature of the place shot up on Saturday, and the ballroom that held thousands of chairs for the general sessions started to actually fill for the first time. Attendees dressed up more. Metal detectors went up at the entrance, and the line was long.

By 11 am, people were trying to reserve their seats, with a T-shirt or pamphlets, for Trump’s appearance, scheduled for after 5:30, and there was a lot of jostling, intent/disassociated looks on face, and one minor racial incident, when a young Black man sat in a spuriously-reserved chair, and an old White man tried to shove him physically out of it. Yelling, accusations, excuses, further accusations, and apologies of sorts, erupted.

Ushers came around to say that any seat empty after 3 pm would be filled, and that if someone exited the ballroom they might not be readmitted. Secret Service and other security became more visible, and someone distributed dozens of MAGA hats and T-shirts for free. Boebert shouted a speech, followed by Glenn Beck in a plaid shirt and cowboy hat, and Kari Lake, the former news anchor who got Trump’s endorsement in the Arizona Republican gubernatorial primary—and won. The speakers had been chosen, no doubt, for these slots in order to whip up the crowd. CPAC officials reminded the audience to get excited and show enthusiasm. Groups of people were moved to the VIP section, so it would be full of energetic, attractive people, many of them in Trump regalia.

Trump’s speech was not surprising to the degree that he hit his usual topics: eg, denying he lost the 2020 election and denouncing the “unselect” January 6th Committee. Election security (paper ballots) was key next time, he said, along with American energy independence and Second Amendment rights. He retold the story that physician Ronny Jackson “loved looking at my body,” a sly homophobic joke, and thought it better than any other president’s body had been.

I did sense a bit of self-deprecation that seemed new, and he did not ramble as badly as he sometimes has in long speeches. Trump and others were even more blatant about leaving behind the recent Republican past: at his mention of the Bushes, the crowd booed, eg, and Kari Lake acted out driving a stake through the heart of the McCain legacy. Trump also mocked Liz and Dick Cheney.

Trump brought up other new(ish) ideas (to me). He blamed Russia now for the “Russia Russia Russia hoax.” He insisted twice that he tried to call out 10-20,000 troops to put down the January 6 insurrection and asked someone at his feet to corroborate that. He verbally sketched a plan for concentration camps for the homeless and said he was very much in favor of executing drug dealers.

Above all, the speech was meant to give marching orders—go vote, and be an influencer to others to vote—and talking points, especially the idea that those in the audience were “we, the people,” who would “take back what is ours.”

Nigel Farage had said earlier in the day that the audience in front of him might be “the most important group ever assembled,” which elicited gasps of pleasure in the crowd. Trump echoed this by saying they belonged to “the most important movement” in American history, maybe ever in the world, and that the “fake news” who persecute him at every turn—he hit the line again: “enemies of the people”— never even bothered to challenge him on that because they knew it was so true.

His ending was scripted and had rhetorical rhythms, which he delivered with his head cocked and eyes sideways to the teleprompter.

I will write more on CPAC in future, after I have further processed what I saw there. In the meantime, please enjoy some photos from the conference at The Common Reader’s Instagram page. I am going to go have some breakfast, take in a museum, and get some rest before driving back through the hot heart of our country.

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.