Trump Has Become the Thing He Never Wanted to Be
Updated at 9:53 a.m. ET on March 8, 2023
One thing can be said for the proprietors of the MAGA Mall: They know their brand.
The right-wing-merch retailer’s setup was among the most impressive at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference—a gargantuan display of apparel and tchotchkes meticulously curated to appeal to every segment of the Donald Trump–loving clientele. There were the MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hats in “classic” red for those who prefer a timeless look, and the ULTRA MAGA 45 hats for the more trend-conscious. There were T-shirts with Trump as Superman and T-shirts with Trump as the Terminator and—because even the most patriotic T-shirt designers eventually run out of ideas—T-shirts with Trump as the Geico lizard. (You can save 40% off everything by switching to Trump.)
When I stopped by the booth on Thursday afternoon, I noticed a smattering of non-Trump-branded products in the mix and thought I’d spotted a clever angle for a story.
“How’s the Ron DeSantis stuff selling?” I asked two people running the booth.
“Oh, good, another one,” the woman mumbled. “You’re the third one to ask today. You media?”
I nodded, feeling somewhat less certain of my cleverness, and sheepishly confirmed that I was a reporter. She seemed to stifle a sigh. “Not great,” she said, gesturing toward a cap that read MAKE AMERICA FLORIDA: DESANTIS 2024. “It’s about 50 to one Trump.”
As I turned to go, I heard her add, “But, I mean, we have a lot more Trump stuff …”
It was a perfect microcosm for CPAC’s strange vibe in 2023. Billed as the conservative movement’s marquee annual gathering, the conference was once known for its ability to draw together the right’s various factions and force them to compete noisily for supremacy. In the 1990s, Pat Buchanan rallied paleoconservative activists against the Bob Dole wing of the GOP. In the early 2010s, Tea Partiers in Revolutionary-era garb roamed the premises while scruffy libertarians hustled to win the straw poll for Ron Paul. Yes, the speakers would say controversial things, and yes, presidential candidates would give sporadically newsworthy speeches. But more than anything, it was the friction that gave the proceedings their electric, carnivalesque quality—that rare, sometimes frightening sense that anything could happen.
This year, that friction was notably absent. Trump, who jump-started his career as a political celebrity with a speech at CPAC in 2011, has so thoroughly captured the institution that many of the GOP’s other stars didn’t even bother to show up. Everything about the conference—the speakers, the swag, the media personalities broadcasting from outside the ballroom—suggested that it was little more than a three-day MAGA pep rally.
The result: In my decade of covering the event, I’d never seen it more dead.
I wasn’t the only one who noticed. Eddie Scarry, a conservative writer and longtime CPAC attendee, tweeted that the conference had devolved into a parade of “peripheral figures, grifters, and aging Fox News personalities who show up like they’re rock stars. Not to mention, 80% of it remains a tribute to Trump. Who is that still fun for?” Sponsors grumbled to Rolling Stone that turnout had dropped off from past years. My colleague John Hendrickson, who attended on Saturday, wrote that the conference had a “1 a.m. at the party” vibe, and wondered if 2023 would be remembered as “the last gasp of CPAC.”
The relative dearth of Republican star power this year could be attributed to the scandal surrounding CPAC’s chairman Matt Schlapp, who was recently accused of fondling a male campaign aide against his will. (Schlapp has denied the allegation.) But in an interview with NBC News, one anonymous GOP operative said that top Republicans had already come to view the conference as a chore in recent years. “Someone said to me, ‘We all wanted an excuse not to go, and Schlapp gave it to us,’” the operative said.
The apparent decline in interest isn’t just about CPAC. It speaks to a serious problem for Trump’s 2024 campaign: His shtick has gotten stale. Which makes it awkward that so many party leaders continue to treat him like he’s still the generational political phenomenon who galvanized the right in 2016—the natural center of attention.
Writing last year in National Review, the conservative commentator Michael Brendan Dougherty noted that Trump’s appeal in 2016 resided largely in his image as a disruptive outsider who said shocking, outlandish things. To recapture that magic, Dougherty wrote, “Trump needs to re-create the iconoclastic thrill of supporting him, the empowering sense that he is an instrument for crushing the establishment in both parties.”
Instead, Trump has followed a different trajectory. His CPAC speech on Saturday night, like so many of his recent appearances, felt predictable and devoid of vitality as he rambled past the 90-minute mark in front of a not-quite-full ballroom. Trump, in other words, has become the establishment—and the establishment, by definition, is boring. He might as well attach an exclamation point to his campaign slogan and start asking voters to “please clap.”
Jack Malin, a freshman at Florida Gulf Coast University, traveled to CPAC this year for the first time, with a group of college Republicans. When I asked him what he thought of Trump, Malin talked about the transgressive excitement he felt as a high-school kid following the 2016 election. Trump got him interested in politics. But Malin is not so into Trump anymore. “I would say, as much as people love him, his four years have come and gone,” Malin told me. For 2024, he likes DeSantis, the Florida governor, and so do most of his friends.
As Malin spoke, I glanced past him at a crowd of onlookers that had formed around Donald Trump Jr., who was recording an interview with Steve Bannon. There was a time when these two men were seen—by critics and supporters alike—as dangerous provocateurs. Spellbound fans would hang on their every word; indignant journalists would live-tweet their speeches and interviews. Now their rhetoric about “deconstructing the administrative state” and “draining the swamp” just sounded like white noise. (As Trump and Bannon ranted, I watched some spectators turn their interest toward a baby and mom at the edge of the crowd.)
Nowhere was the general ennui at CPAC more palpable than in Exhibit Hall D, on the ground floor of the convention center in National Harbor, Maryland. In some ways, the scene was the same as in years past: nicely dressed conservatives perusing rows of booths set up by think tanks, lobbyists, and vendors. There were, as ever, exhibits for niche companies such as The Right Stuff, a dating app for Republicans, and Patriot Mobile, “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider” (for those tired of relying on godless liberals for Wi-Fi.) The aforementioned MAGA Mall occupied one corner of the room, competing with at least two other booths peddling Trump-branded paraphernalia. And a mock Oval Office—adorned with various photos of Trump—was available for selfies.
But there was something perfunctory and rote about all the ostentatious Trump worship. At one booth, a group called the Conservative Caucus was showing off an oversize scroll topped with the message Thank You for Your Service President Trump! (Followed by a disclaimer in much smaller print: Not an endorsement, just a BIG thank you!)
A friendly guy working the booth, Art Harman, told me proudly about how the scroll contained more than 100,000 signatures and ran 135 feet long when fully unfurled. Once we started talking politics, though, Trump seemed to slip from his mind. When I asked him who he thought of when he pictured the future of conservatism, he answered quickly: DeSantis.
“He’s a more youthful guy. He’s energizing people a lot,” Harman said, going on to extol the Florida governor’s many virtues. He paused for a moment to think. “He’s kind of the only one who comes to mind offhand.”
This article previously said Coppins visited the MAGA Mall booth on Friday, rather than Thursday.