Why CPAC’s Last Chairman Is Staying Far Away From This Year’s Big Trump-Fest

With the event’s Trump-heavy lineup, emphasis on voter fraud, and lack of ideological diversity, former chair Al Cardenas wants no part of it.
February 24, 2021, 6:50pm
President Donald Trump hugs the American flag as he arrives to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC 2019, in Oxon Hill, Md., on March 2, 2019.

With Donald Trump as the headliner, a speaker lineup stacked with Trump acolytes, and seven separate panels on “protecting elections,” this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference is looking like a carefully crafted pro-Trump lovefest.

It all seems designed to push the ex-president’s lie that the 2020 election was rigged. And CPAC’s former leader wants no part of it.

Al Cardenas, the former chair of the American Conservative Union (CPAC’s parent organization), told VICE News he expects Trump to issue “a laundry list of demands for loyalists” and use his Sunday speech—the first public one since he left office—to air “a number of grievances.” He warned that anyone who promoted Trump’s voter-fraud lie would further damage democracy. And he lamented the lack of ideological and racial diversity in this year’s CPAC lineup.

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“Disrespecting the outcome [of the 2020 election] is disrespecting the rule of law, and it weakens our democracy,” Cardenas said. “Anyone who continues to claim the election was rigged … is in essence creating a sense of doubt in America that your vote counts, and that, in my opinion, is destructive.”

Cardenas worries about the risk of further violence following the Capitol attacks last month.

“I’m hoping these domestic terrorist groups are not incentivized by elected officials, and I’m hoping everyone understands the danger of what certain words mean to people,” he said. “These groups have proven before that they’re willing to undertake violence to prove their point.”

Cardenas won’t be at this CPAC, even though the Orlando event, which starts Thursday, is being held just hours from his home in Miami. 

“I’m not comfortable doing that, I’m not comfortable saying the positive things that one should be expected as [former] chairman,” he said when asked why he wouldn’t attend.

Cardenas ran the ACU from 2011-2014, chaired the Florida GOP when Jeb Bush was governor, and served as a senior adviser on Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign. He’s never been a Trump fan: Cardenas says he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 or 2020, and hasn’t been back to CPAC during the Trump era. 

And while he said he’s “made it a point not to be negative about CPAC” and refuses to criticize his successor, Matt Schlapp, whom he recruited to join the ACU’s board of directors, Cardenas made clear that this year’s CPAC was a far cry from the event he sought when he was chairman.

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“There's been an evolution since I left,” he said. “I don't think there's an appetite for debating conservative philosophy nowadays. And, you know, I wish there was.”

Loyalty rewarded

There will be little, if any, pushback against Trump at an event formerly known for its free-wheeling approach to conservatism, where speakers once reveled in conflict and controversy. 

Ten former Trump Cabinet members, ambassadors, and former senior White House officials will speak. Donald Trump Jr. got a prime spot. 

Four of the eight GOP senators who objected to certifying Joe Biden’s election victory were given speaking slots, including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, while just six of the 42 other GOP senators who voted against the anti-democratic effort will appear. Not a single one of the GOP lawmakers who backed Trump’s impeachment will speak, including conservative Sens. Ben Sasse of Nebraska and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, both of whom have addressed multiple past CPAC conferences. But almost every one of Trump’s House ringleaders will speak, including Reps. Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar of Arizona, Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Jim Jordan of Ohio.

“To Matt Schlapp’s credit, getting President Trump to address CPAC in his first major speech since he was defeated is a big deal. And big stakes are usually negotiated in advance. And my sense is that those who were invited to CPAC were blessed by President Trump or his staff,” Cardenas said.

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A few CPAC regulars won’t be there this time around—most notably former Vice President Mike Pence, who addressed the group every year of the Trump presidency (and many before that) but declined an invitation.

The morphing of CPAC

Schlapp was one of Trump’s most consistent and outspoken defenders throughout his presidency, and had close ties throughout the administration. His wife, Mercedes, who was the White House director of strategic communications before taking a senior role on Trump’s 2020 campaign. Under his chairmanship, CPAC has morphed from a chaotic carnival of conservatism into just another pep rally for Trump. And since the election, Schlapp has loudly pushed Trump’s lies about voter fraud.

As chairman, Cardenas generally took a big-tent approach, inviting establishment politicians to speak as well as iconoclasts and firebrands of various stripes. During his time, he made sure speakers on both sides of the debate on issues like immigration, drug policy reform, and the Iraq War got speaking slots. CPAC was always known for courting controversy and featuring people who’d make incendiary remarks. While its penchant for controversy remains, the gleeful contrarianism of the past appears to have been largely stamped out.

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And CPAC was indeed a big tent—one that at times bordered on a three-ring circus. Hordes of young libertarians clashed with the religious right. Breitbart conservatives (and, before his death, Andrew Breitbart himself) would side-eye more centrist Republicans as they sought to make inroads with the GOP base. Fringe activists of all stripes would gather in nearby bars and hotel rooms, fraternizing and networking late into the night. 

But while there were some purges—CPAC banned the pro-LGBT conservative group GOProud as a sponsor in 2012 and 2013 after letting it sponsor the event in previous years after a boycott threat from religious right groups—the confab was anything but ideologically pure. And Cardenas, who is Cuban-American and of Lebanese descent, had made an effort to boost the racial diversity at the event.

CPAC’s lineup this year is heavily white—and the conference lost one of the handful its scheduled Black speakers when they had to disinvite rapper Young Pharaoh over a long string of anti-Semitic remarks. 

“I do hope that we have more minority representation in the future. I was looking at the list of speakers for this year. And you know, based on the percentage of minorities who increased their votes for President Trump, I thought we'd see more,” he said.

CPAC had plenty of controversial speakers during Cardenas’ time heading the organization—including Trump, on multiple occasions. But Cardenas said the controversy wasn’t the problem. The lack of ideological diversity was what he took issue with.

“I don't regret having invited speakers that were provocative, like Ann Coulter... The goal was to say, hey, let everybody address the students that are there, the young people and, and everyone else, and let people make up their minds where they were at personally,” he said. “When you present it as an intellectual challenge, then it's constructive for people. When you present things as doctrinaire and driven primarily by an authoritarian oversight, ‘that’s what you believe or you’re out,’ that's where you have a problem.”

This story has been updated to reflect Sen. Marco Rubio's addition to the CPAC schedule.