The New Republican Battle Cry

What “awake, not woke” reveals about the GOP

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, looks on as he takes part in a panel discussion at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Marco Bello / Reuters

About the author: Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

The right-wing media personality Candace Owens wants to warn the conservative movement about horny bears. In fact, she’s been waiting for five years to relay a factoid she promises will unlock everything.

Strolling the stage at Orlando’s Rosen Shingle Creek Resort, Owens finally has her chance to address the true believers who have come to the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. And she’s going to seize that moment. Nature, she says, is not the pleasant place that the woke media elites down the road at Disney would have you believe.

“Male bears actually kill their cubs,” she tells the audience, which doesn’t quite know how to react. It’s just like humans, she adds. “When female bears give birth and are nursing their cubs, they cannot go into heat.” And here comes the really “weird” part, she announces: “If a nursing mother loses her cubs, the lactation will stop and she will once again become receptive to breeding. So male bears kill their cubs for sex. Really, that’s what it comes down to.”

Okay, it turns out, it’s not just like humans. But the point is that mama bears will fend off horny dads to protect their cubs. And that’s just what conservative women are doing. They are fending off the likes of Anthony Fauci, who wants to inject their kids with “never-ending doses” of COVID vaccines, who instruct parents to put “a filthy cloth over the mouth of your innocent child,” and who teach students “to judge one another on the very basis of their skin.”

In Owens’s description, the woke elite have pedophiliac tendencies. They are “sexualizing” children by asking kids to think about their gender identity. It’s a variation of a theme that I keep hearing as I move from event to event at CPAC. Ben Carson, who was Donald Trump’s secretary of housing and urban development, describes the progressive gestalt as “child abuse.” Granted, his examples don’t quite seem to match the force of his metaphor. In preschool, “they have these books about these worms. They say the worms can be male or female. They make the worms seem like really cool individuals. What are they doing? They’re planting seeds.”

The obsession with woke child abusers echoes the theology of QAnon, which holds that a powerful cabal of pedophiles runs the country. In fact, another panel features the social-media conspiracy-monger Jack Posobiec, who enthusiastically touted Pizzagate, even livestreaming his own visit to the Washington, D.C., restaurant at the center of the conspiracy.

At CPAC 2022, the alt-right has become the right, and the fringe is now mainstream—and that’s exactly as the establishment intended it.

The brains of that establishment is Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist who has worked for Koch Industries, Comcast, Verizon, and other corporate interests. He is the chair of CPAC and the impresario of the four-day event, and he has scheduled himself ample time in the program. Now he’s onstage to explain the sort of good works he likes to perform. But before he starts, he has a question for his flock.

“Have any of you been canceled?”

He pauses briefly—apparently his question was not rhetorical. Thousands of conservatives have gathered in the arena-size ballroom—blond women dressed in Fox News formal, men in suits and cowboy hats, a few stray biker beards. Much of the room responds to Schlapp, shouting “Yes!”: They have been canceled.

Once upon a time, it was anti-communism that knitted the movement together. Today, even as a new cold war breaks out, anti-wokeism is the glue that adheres the social conservatives who want to ban critical race theory, the populists who hate Big Business, the libertarians who still just want to drown the government in the bathtub. The slogan hovering over the room is Awake, not woke. Nearly every speech includes a denunciation of the grand inquisitors of cancel culture.

For Schlapp, the story begins with his wife, Mercedes, who served as the Trump White House’s director of strategic communications. Earlier this year, having left her job with the turn of administrations, she began receiving teary late-night calls from former young Trump-administration staffers. In Schlapp’s telling, these idealistic souls happened to be in the White House on January 6, going about their daily duties. Then came the terrible House Select Committee, investigating the events of that day. There was no good reason to call these wholesome kids to testify. But that’s the way the commissars of cancel culture work.

Now Schlapp and Senator Bill Hagerty of Tennessee, an old Jeb Bush supporter turned “America First” devotee, are raising money to pay for lawyers to represent these poor kids through a group Schlapp founded called the First Amendment Fund. There is an element of autobiography in Schlapp’s crusade. He is one of the most unwavering Trumpists in Washington. And like those innocent kids, his association with Trump, not to mention his comments slagging Black Lives Matter, have cost him. Once-lucrative clients now want nothing to do with him. He, too, has been a victim of the cultural Marxists, who won’t let a conservative make an honest buck these days.

As I watch Schlapp explain how his fund protects the staffers from cancellation, I can’t help but think he is setting a trap for himself. In the past, CPAC’s mission has been to stoke the enthusiasm of a conservative movement that exists independently of any politician. At times, as I squint at the stage, I can see Schlapp trying to fulfill that role. He’s succeeded in banishing Trump’s signature obsession, the unfounded theory that Democrats stole the presidential election, from the programming. (The task of beating that drum is left to Mike Lindell, the MyPillow guy, who tirelessly stalks the halls giving interview after interview—but is never invited onstage.) Indeed, there are hours when the name Donald Trump doesn’t pass the lips of any of the speakers.

There are pragmatic reasons for drawing a little distance from Trump. In the coming midterm elections, Republicans are poised for huge political gains—to benefit from rising inflation and spiking gas prices, frustration over the coronavirus pandemic, and disappointment with the Afghanistan withdrawal. The only plausible obstacles to victory are the ones that they might place in their own path. For the purposes of reclaiming congressional majorities, there’s no need to tie themselves to the polarizing figure of Trump. Better, the organizers of this year’s event seem to have decided, to dwell on the sense among movement conservatives that they are being persecuted by ascendant progressivism.

“Awake, not woke,” however, poses its own problems as an ideological platform. It is true that Glenn Youngkin, now the governor of Virginia, demonstrated that a variation of the slogan can carry a blue state. But he was a stolid denizen of an investment firm with fanatical self-control who cannily used the culture wars to his political advantage. When CPAC speakers talk about the perils of cancel culture, they are attacking Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff, but they are also defending their own right to scream incendiary statements. Throughout its history, the conference has been a place for politicians to prove their ideological purity. Today, they accomplish that by deliberately offending, by shouting the verboten with relish. By adopting their crusade, Schlapp has limited his ability to play the role of gatekeeper. Instead, he’s doomed himself to providing a safe space for conspiracists and racists.

Fortunately, an outsider seems like he might be able to charm the crowd into some common sense. Donald Trump’s English sidekick, Nigel Farage, the original figurehead of the Brexit movement and a fellow traveler in the international struggle against the globalists, is the quintessential CPAC celeb, a beloved minor hero in the “America First” cinematic universe who is crushed by selfie-seekers in the hall.

But before he can get to the uncomfortable stuff, he wants to reassure the crowd that he is one of them. “It’s just as well that CPAC isn’t being held in Canada at the moment,” he bellows. Indeed, it would be odd for the American conservative movement to hold its annual gathering in Vancouver or Montreal in any year. But never mind, he’s here for the punch line: “Well, Mr. Trudeau has become the most authoritarian …”

There’s a smattering of boos and Farage feigns alarm. “You must all be half-asleep. It’s clearly been a long day. I said, Justin Trudeau.”

He flashes an exaggerated expression of relief as the crowd begins to emit sounds of displeasure worthy of the man it has deemed the Maple-Leaf Mussolini. By dispersing the trucker protests in Ottawa and Windsor, the Canadian prime minister has assumed a position alongside Hillary Clinton in the pantheon of CPAC villains.

After Farage launches into a condemnation of America’s staunchest historic allies—Canada, Australia, New Zealand—he needs to deal with the awkward matter of his past affinity for one of the nation’s present enemies, Vladimir Putin.

Many other speakers at CPAC have tried to pivot away from their own record on the subject. Days after praising Putin as “savvy,” former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the conference, “We’ve seen a Russian dictator now terrorize the Ukrainian people.” But Farage’s backtracking is unique. The thing was, until recently, he thought Putin’s demands were awfully reasonable. “He wanted to get back, at least I thought, to get back the Russian-speaking areas [of Ukraine].” In other words, Farage was cool with a partial invasion of Ukraine. Unfortunately, Putin went further. “I’d always thought we were dealing with someone who was logical,” he pleads. Well, it turns out he was wrong about that. In the end, though, it was all Joe Biden’s fault, anyway.

But Farage is only now getting to the hard truth. Without mentioning Trump, he’s prepared to challenge one of the ex-president’s sacrosanct positions.

“Does it make sense for the Republican Party to go on talking about the stolen election?” His question elicits cries of “yes” from the crowd.

“You may say ‘yes’ in this hall because you’re political activists and you understand what happened. Remember, most voters are busy with their lives.”

The crowd is listening politely.

“This message of a stolen election, if you think about it, is actually a negative, backward-looking message. There’s a better, more positive message the Republican Party needs to embrace and it’s this: ‘We’re going state by state, vote by vote, to make sure that America has the best, the cleanest, the fairest election system anywhere in the Western world.’”

As he leaves the stage, the crowd applauds, and it’s possible, for a moment at least, to entertain the idea that Schlapp was right not to make the 2020 election a conference theme. Perhaps the true believers care less about Trump’s grievances than their own.

The last time I attended CPAC was in 1999, back when it was held in a drab room in a Crystal City, Virginia, hotel. Maybe then somebody bothered with placing American flags behind the podium. Certainly, there were no swirling spotlights coming from the ceiling, no slick advertisements for Dinesh D’Souza documentaries playing between speakers. To get a small crowd with good energy, college kids were bused into town. It was like a middle-school play compared with the Super Bowl halftime show that CPAC has become. The diminutive head of the Family Research Council, Gary Bauer—Gary Bauer!—won the straw poll that year, making him the movement’s favorite contender for the 2000 presidential election. I remember standing in the back of the room listening to Bill Kristol hold court. Now I imagine what the guys wearing I Stand for the Flag, I Kneel for the Cross T-shirts, who circle the resort on Harleys with Trump flags fluttering behind their hogs, would say if the Never Trump pundit made an appearance.

Last year, CPAC migrated south because there was nothing more anathema than following the public-health dictates required by authorities in Maryland, where the event was scheduled to be held. It moved to Florida, the new spiritual heartland of the movement, where Governor Ron DeSantis was building his anti-woke utopia.

Of course, that also moved the event closer to Mar-a-Lago, and whatever impulse existed to keep Trump at arm’s length from this year’s gathering never had the force of genuine conviction. Earlier in the week, Trump announced that he would appear on Saturday, not Sunday. The schedule bent to his desire. It’s his presence that fills the seats, that attracts the media, that makes the enterprise run. On the morning that he is to address the conference, a line snakes along the outside of the hotel. A stand selling Trump merchandise appears in the resort. (Among the wares: a five-volume collection of Trump’s tweets, the ultimate in right-wing samizdat.) Red baseball caps suddenly sprout on heads.

That afternoon, Barry Goldwater Jr., the son of the original patron saint of conservatism, wanders the hotel. He has his father’s obstreperous chin, and it’s as if an apparition has descended on the hall. But the ghost of conservatism’s supposedly more honorable past is here for the main event, like everyone else.

For the first three days, one speaker had followed another in quick succession. But the program stops so that a crew can reconfigure the stage, lending it the trappings of a campaign rally. The decibel level of the hype music increases. Word spreads that Trump was in the building, eating McDonald’s in a holding room with high rollers and faithful foot soldiers, like Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida.

As he enters the room, every phone flips to its side so that it can capture the moment in landscape mode, even though most in the crowd are witnessing a performance they’ve seen many times before. Trump has been coy about his intentions for 2024. But there has been enough chatter about his potential successors that he feels the time has come to crush their hopes. “We did it twice and we’ll do it again,” Trump blares. “We’re going to be doing it again, a third time.” His intent is unmistakable and it brings the crowd back to its feet, arms punching the air. Lest anyone get any ideas, the movement is his, and his alone.