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CPAC Was Right at Home in the Land of Make-Believe
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CPAC Was Right at Home in the Land of Make-Believe

That Donald Trump lost the 2020 election was just so much fake news for panelists and attendees.

Greater Orlando, Florida, hosts several of the most visited theme parks in the world. At the Magic Kingdom you can dress up like a princess, pretend you’re a pirate, or just act like you’re a kid again. Universal’s Islands of Adventure lets diehard Harry Potter fans pretend they’re students at Hogwarts. At Epcot you can visit Future World or make-believe re-creations of other countries. At the Canada Pavilion, for example, you can let your imagination whisk you away to that fantastical land of romance and adventure to the north.

So, it’s somewhat fitting that the Conservative Political Action Conference decamped down to Orlando this past weekend. The official motto of the confab was “America Uncanceled.” But if you actually followed the conversations, the real theme was the stuff of make-believe: imagining a world where Donald Trump really had won the 2020 election.

On the official agenda there were seven separate “Protecting Elections” panels and two “Save Our Elections Call Center” sessions. Other panels included: “Shining a Light on the Left’s 2020 Shadow Campaign,” “Fraudulent Elections in South Korea and the United States—Lessons Learned and Warnings for the Future,” and “The Voter Files: The Truth Is Out There: Ask Your Questions to the Election Lawyers.” Needless to say, the question for this audience wasn’t whether the election was stolen, but what to do about the fact that it was—and where to place the blame for the cover-up.

All this make-believe was necessary because, as former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said prophetically in 2017, CPAC would become TPAC, or “Trump PAC,” and it has.

The one thing Trump and his biggest fans will not stomach is the suggestion that he’s a loser. Moreover, as Andrew Egger notes at The Dispatch, “there’s ostensibly nothing modern conservatives hate more than a loser—Sen. Mitt Romney, after all, was once a CPAC darling too.”

The combined need to salve egos—on the stage and in the audience—and protect the new TPAC business model made questioning Trump’s “victory” as productive as telling the Harry Potter fans down the road that their $55 magic wands aren’t really magic.

To this crowd, Trump won and anyone who says otherwise is peddling fake news. The real fake news, however, is the idea that the CPAC crowd is actually opposed to cancel culture. They oppose—often with good reason—left-wing cancel culture. But Trump himself is among America’s foremost would-be cancelers. And pro-Trump cancel culture is alive and well, as countless efforts to censure Trump critics attest.

Matt Schlapp, the leader of CPAC, often says things like, “Open discussion of legitimate points of view is what separates conservatives from the left in America.” But he saw no reason to acknowledge Trump’s defeat, never mind that Trump shouldn’t define conservatism or the Republican Party. And conservatives who might speak up on the alternative facts—the truth in this case—weren’t technically “canceled,” they simply were not invited. (One invitee, Young Pharaoh, was actually booted because of anti-Semitic tweets.)

In his closing peroration before the faithful, Trump ran through many of his greatest hits and recycled the usual fake evidence that he won, except for claims about Dominion voting machines being rigged. Apparently losing an election isn’t nearly so reality-affirming as a potential billion-dollar lawsuit.

He also took time to call for the cancellation of every Republican who voted for impeachment or conviction, including “the warmonger” Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming. “Get rid of them all,” he demanded. The clear message: Unity in the GOP is defined by blind loyalty to him and his lies.

CPAC has never been the political bellwether its promoters claim, but at this stage in the 2024 presidential cycle it’s the best we’ve got. It doesn’t tell us what will really matter in the years of jockeying ahead, but it does tell us what very ambitious politicians think is important. And, going by the speeches, it seems that rumors of a GOP civil war are greatly exaggerated. In a civil war, at least two sides need to show up. This looked more like the victorious Bolsheviks trying to round up the last of the Mensheviks.

Speaking for many, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas declared, “Donald Trump isn’t going anywhere.” He’s right, of course. As always, Cruz would rather bend the knee to the man who attacked his wife and accused his father of being involved in President Kennedy’s assassination than stand and fight.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.