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Which Will Die First, American Democracy Or CPAC?

[Feb 24, 2024: National Harbor, MD] The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) met last weekend at the Gaylord National Conference Center in National Harbor, Maryland for its annual meeting, bringing together conservatives from across the United States, and the world. Ten years ago, when I started covering this conference I saw mostly a libertarian crowd. Small government and low taxes were the key. Few social issues were really discussed. Anti-taxation extremist Grover Norquist was treated as royalty. I haven’t seen him at the event in years. These days, the now MAGA and increasingly Christian nationalist conference blames globalists, Trans people, immigrants, and Godless heathens for the death of America.

Trump reveals his catchy new campaign slogan at CPAC, National Harbor, MD. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts, 2024.


It’s the far right culture war that now rules CPAC; anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ (trans people were blamed for the death of Western Civilization this year) and anti-“woke.” The right-wing extremists no longer were just in the audience, they are now on stage. PizzaGate conspiracist Jack Posobeic, who spoke at the pro-gun Rod of Iron Festival, had a prime speaking spot on the main stage. In fact, the gun-cult festival in Northern Pennsylvania, organized by a Moonie splinter church, shared two other speakers with CPAC, the Second Amendment Foundation’s Alan Gotlieb and Salem Broadcasting’s Sebastian Gorka.

Sebastian Gorka at CPAC, National Harbor, MD. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts, 2024.


Normally Gorka’s documented ties with Nazi groups would be notable, but at CPAC 2024, actual 1930s-clothed Nazis were attendees. I documented them the first night of the conference, joining a counter-protest supporting the President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who calls himself the “world’s coolest dictator.” The Nazis also harassed journalist Amanda Moore by doing Sieg Heils over her. Moore, who was at the conference for The Nation magazine, saw her media credentials revoked, she then bought tickets as CPAC organizers told journalists to do, only to see those passes pulled from her as well.

It’s not the first time CPAC Chair Matt Schlapp — who has had multiple sexual harassment allegations made against him — has had to deal with difficult questions about a Nazi presence at CPAC events. In response to Moore’s questions, Schlapp quote-tweeted her, claiming “I love the Jewish people and Israel will exist until the end of time w my full support. The Bible reigns above and fascism should dissolve in the bosom of hell. Anyone who pushes Nazism is not welcome @CPAC” — despite the Seig Heils.

PA Congressman Scott Perry at CPAC, National Harbor, MD. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts, 2024.


Four Keystone State Politicians

Pennsylvania Congressman Scott Perry spoke on a panel entitled “The A Team: Freedom Caucus Fighters”. It was moderated by Newsmax host Ed Henry, and also featured Idaho Congressman Russ Fulcher. The questions and discussion mostly centered on congressional infighting, the border, and their attempts at an impeachment of President Biden. Considering that all of those things highlight the incredible failures of the Freedom Caucus at doing anything close to actual lawmaking, Congressman Perry seemed somewhat frustrated throughout.

Congressman Perry admitted that some in his party expected to have a larger majority in the House, but he knew that with the slimmer majority the Freedom Caucus would have an “outsized influence.” The first failure was the House Speaker vote debacle, then the spending bills and, of course, the failure to do anything with the border.

On Ukraine, Congressman Perry agreed in principle with an idea that former President Trump proposed earlier this week, that foreign aid should come in the form of loans, saying “the loan is the minimum standard, this bit where we just give billions and billions of dollars of American treasure away is unacceptable.” He also seemed to take a step away from other members of the Freedom Caucus that have embraced Russian President Putin, like Arizona Congressman Paul Gosar, who tweeted, “Ukraine is not our friend and Russia is not our enemy.”

Panel host, Ed Henry, made the leap to all but directly blame the Biden administration for the October 7th attacks in Israel, saying, “Former President Trump had the boot on the neck. And next thing you know, right before October 7th, Joe Biden and his team take the boot off and suppose it, $6 billion in sanctions relief.” The $6 billion has not been released to Iran, even though it was part of a prisoner swap deal. Regardless, Perry jumped on the opportunity to attach the attacks on Iran, and thus the Biden administration, making a point to use the words “aiding and abetting.”

Not too surprisingly there was no discussion of the January 6 insurrection and the accusations that Congressman Perry was “central to the planning of Jan. 6.”

Ashli Babbit’s mother, Micki Witthoeft, who has been participating in a regular vigil outside of the DC jail where convicted rioters are held, attended CPAC on Thursday. She was greeted by chants from the audience of “Free J6th.”

Pennsylvania’s York County District Attorney David Sunday gave a brief speech, essentially announcing his candidacy for Pennsylvania Attorney General to the CPAC audience on Thursday. While Sunday may be a relatively unknown figure nationally, he does serve on a prosecutor and law enforcement advisory panel for CPAC, and has been endorsed by the conference.

Sunday game a compassionate conservative-themed speech, saying that he understands “compassion and accountability.” He noted, “There are people that need to go to jail, but at the same time, it’s not everyone.” All the same, he shifted the blame of drug use to CPAC 2024’s biggest boogeyman, the border, asking, “as a DA what can we do when we have open borders?” According to many of the CPAC speakers this year, Americans have no ability to fight off Chinese fentanyl that’s been brought across by “illegal” immigrants via the Mexican border. However, according to the not exactly liberal CATO Institute, 86 percent of Fentanyl drug traffickers are overwhelmingly U.S. citizens.

2020 Election denial was still in full swing at CPAC, with multiple speakers mentioning different election conspiracies from Mexicans crossing the border to vote for Democrats to Mike Lindell’s election theft conspiracies. DA Sunday should be quite familiar with them as just last year he spoke at a FreePA and Lions for Liberty event where he shared a stage with Tony Shuppe of Audit The Vote.

Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidate Dave McCormick, like many at CPAC this year, also made sure to mention the scourge of fentanyl in the U.S. and its connection to border issues. Telling a story of his field trip to the Mexican border, he said, “You could look up on the other side of the Rio Grande and they would point to the cartel members up in the hedgerows pushing people across, and that fentanyl takes about 48 hours and the cartels have it in in northeastern Pennsylvania. Luzerne County is the worst county per capita in the country for fentanyl deaths.”

McCormick also spread the right-wing conspiracy that U.S. citizens overdosing on fentanyl is a plot formed by the Chinese to weaken America. McCormick, the former Under Secretary of the U.S. Treasury for International Affairs, stated: “If you were an adversary and you were sitting in Beijing or you were sitting in Tehran or you were sitting in Moscow and you were saying, how do we really mess with America, you’d invent something called fentanyl.”

On the final day of the conference, former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum was joined by Elaine Beck of Proverbs Media Group and CPAC host Mercedes Schlapp, wife of Matt Schlapp, for “The Bible Uncanceled” panel. Santorum argued that the collapse of American society started half a century ago, “And then it changed about 50 years ago. We took the Bibles out of the classroom. We started speaking much [sic] more secular.” What he was referencing is the 1963 ruling by the Supreme Court, Abington Township v. Schempp, which ended Bible readings in public schools.

Santorum went on to argue against the premise that the United States had a long held belief of separation of church and state, saying, “This secular language and talking about how we had a separate church and state. What does that mean? Well, separating church and state. No, no one was out there for 200 years or very few out there pushing for a state religion or everybody had to be a Christian or they had to be. What they were focused on was, again, the principles that were in this Bible, and what those principles demand responsibility and accountability to a set of laws.”

Not surprisingly, former Senator Santorum is selective with his American history.

The phrase “separation of church and state” is nearly as old as the country. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence wrote it in 1802 in a letter describing a need for a “wall of separation between the church and state.” The idea is even older, the founder of Rhode Island Roger Williams stated that there needed to be “a wall or hedge of separation” between the Church and government.

Former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, Rick Santorum at CPAC, National Harbor, MD. Photo: © Zach D. Roberts, 2024.


Over the last 2 years, there’s been a running theme throughout CPAC that heteronormality and traditional Christian family values are needed or else Western society as a whole will collapse. This year, multiple people blamed transgender people for the potential collapse of Western civilization. Santorum seemed to agree, arguing that if you don’t believe that you’re created by (his Christian God), “then you don’t matter. And rights can be taken and given away for you by a government that get[s to use it for it’s] own purpose.”

As many media outlets have noted, this year’s CPAC was not well attended. Even Trump’s speech did not see the numbers it has in previous years. The main conference ballroom was notedly smaller than last year, and chairs had to be hastily removed before speakers took to the stage, to avoid shots of row upon row of empty seats in the media. With Matt Schlapp and CPAC facing multiple potential lawsuits for sexual harassment from staff and the potential for the death of MAGA in 2025 if Trump loses, this may be the final year of this conference.

This article was first published in the Bucks County Beacon.

Zach D Roberts is an investigative photojournalist who covers far-right extremism and voter suppression in America. He covered the Unite the Right Rally in Chalottesville and his work there helped put four white extremists in jail. He co-produced Greg Palast's films The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Vigilantes, Inc: America’s Vote Suppression Hitmen (out Fall 2024). Roberts is a Palast Investigative Fund Fellow and Puffin artist grant recipient.

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