DALLAS — “I’m more of a red-meat conservative, and this feels like popcorn and cotton candy.” That was how one attendee of CPAC—who refused to give his name and identified himself only as “Joe America”—characterized his time at America’s largest gathering of right-wing activists this past weekend. “This feels like a Trump crowd.” This season’s CPAC took place at the opulent Hilton Anatole in Dallas last weekend, with regular tickets costing nearly $300 a pop. Attendees were promised a heavy dose of culture warmongering and the opportunity to be in the same room as their favorite culture warriors.
The ambience often felt a little like MAGA Disneyland. Attendees had shelled out significant amounts of money to to revisit their favorite storylines—Trump being the true winner of the 2020 election, Anthony Fauci masterminded coronavirus as part of a plot to derail Trump’s presidency, the Capitol riot on Jan. 6 was a set-up, and so on. And much like beloved characters Mickey Mouse and Cinderella pop up for grip-and-grin photos at America’s favorite theme park, glossy, coiffed MAGA VIPs such as Rep. Matt Gaetz, Kimberley Guilfoyle, and Steve Bannon would materialize among the plebeian masses to snap selfies and shake hands with fans wearing light-up cowboy hats.
But in the auditorium, under signs saying “FIRE PELOSI” and “AWAKE NOT WOKE”, CPAC attendees were getting a dose of angry rhetoric and told repeatedly that they were at war with their fellow Americans. (This rhetoric has only intensified since CPAC, after the FBI searched Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property Monday, sparking calls for “civil war” from some prominent MAGA and far-right personalities.) The event was bookended by two strongmen: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, and the “MAGA King” himself, former President Donald Trump. Orban (fresh off the heels of a controversy in which he delivered a “pure Nazi” speech back in Hungary, according to one of his longtime advisors) treated the crowd to a spiel of unapologetic Christian nationalism and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric in a prime speaking slot on Thursday, the first day of the convention.
“We are at war,” former Trump advisor Steve Bannon told attendees on Thursday evening. “A political and ideological war.” He also described President Joe Biden as an “illegitimate, imposter” and warned the crowd that they were living in an “authoritarian state.” “This is truly a battle between those who want to save America and those who want to destroy her,” Republican nominee for Arizona governor Kari Lake told the crowd. “That’s where we are at the moment. My question to you is: Are you in this fight with us?”By Saturday afternoon, the crowd was buzzing with excitement ahead of Trump’s speech. People started lining up to get into the auditorium at 3 p.m., hours before he was due to talk. Uniformed members of the Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting gang, made an appearance at the convention that day.
“You are the loyal defenders of our heritage, our culture, our liberty, and our constitutional god-given rights,” Trump told the crowd to rapturous applause, as he proceeded to brag about approval ratings, peddle election lies, and rile up the crowd. “We are confident that the tyrants we are fighting stand little chance,” he said. “Because we are Americans, and Americans kneel to God and God alone.” Meanwhile, in the exhibition space, vendors were leaning heavily into culture wars and national divisions. Two vendors were selling their own takes on a “Stop the Steal” board game. In one of those games, with the tagline “Get your Hoax on - Lie… Cheat, .. and still win”, players make their way around the board Monopoly-style, and are asked to answer questions revealing key “facts” about the 2020 election.
Brave Books, a right-wing children’s book publishing company founded last summer, seemed to be a particularly big hit with the crowd. Its debut book remains its “most controversial,” employees told VICE News. It’s titled Elephants Are Not Birds and is meant to teach children “gender reality.” The star of Brave Books this year was Kash Patel, who is among those former Trump intelligence and Homeland Security staffers whose missing text messages from Jan. 6 are now the subject of a congressional investigation. Patel, in his post-Trump career, has penned a children’s book titled The Plot Against the King. The story is about a witch from Arkansas named “Hillary Queenton,” who along with her subjects, spreads lies that “King Donald” cheated to ascend to the throne. Patel, who was also selling socks at his booth that featured Marvel’s “The Punisher” logo and his name, was doing photo ops all weekend at the Brave Books booth but ultimately declined to speak with VICE News.
Also on offer was an entire alternate ecosystem of services that cater specifically to “patriots.” Patriot security systems, a patriot mobile provider, patriot cryptocurrency. There was even a “CPAC Metaverse,” which was meant to showcase how people could attend the convention via virtual reality headset. While CPAC itself was chaotic, crowded, and at times, hostile, the metaverse version was tranquil and welcoming.
In the metaverse, I was warmly greeted by a CPAC staffer who ushered me into the auditorium. There, a diverse crowd of attendees sat, socially distanced. Walking around the CPAC Metaverse, you had an opportunity to engage with other attendees. Disagreements didn’t result in name-calling but rather a percentage sign telling you how closely you were aligned in your political views. But the most controversial feature of real-world CPAC was the January 6 cage, assembled in a far corner of the exhibition hall, next to the booth operated by #WalkAway, a social media campaign founded by “former liberal” Brandon Straka, which encourages Democrats to abandon their party for the GOP.
Straka, who received a light sentence of home confinement for his role in the Capitol riot in exchange for extensive cooperation with the FBI participated in a panel Rep. Biggs, titled “Rise of the American Gulag” in which he berated the right-wing congressman and the rest of the GOP for failing to do enough to help January 6 defendants. After that panel, Straka changed into an orange jumpsuit and a MAGA hat, and starred in a bit of political theater involving the cage. CPAC attendees were given headphones with the word “Silence” on them and invited to listen to audio testimony from Jan. 6 prisoners. Straka meanwhile sat inside the cage and sobbed, writing things on the chalkboard like “Where is Everyone?” Members of the crowd wept and threw money at him. On Friday afternoon Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene appeared, led through the crowd by security and let into the “jail cell.” She hugged Straka, sank to her knees, and prayed along with the crowd who were gathered around the cage.