My very first experience with the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was in 2010.
Back then, I was the press secretary for the ranking Republican on the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA). Our message was simple: the American people deserved a transparent and accountable government. The message resonated and Darrell received a rock-star reception.
Up until that point, I had never tangibly seen how passionately the Republican base resented the waste, fraud and mismanagement in government. It was clear that a deep-rooted distrust in government institutions was a top-tier issue for the CPAC audience.
This was during a time when the Republican Party was deep in the minority in Congress and Democrats controlled both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Keynote speakers for the event included former Vice President Dick Cheney, then-Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, future Vice President Mike Pence and a Florida Senate candidate named Marco Rubio, who was dubbed “the event’s biggest star.”
Over the years, however, CPAC’s emphasis on rooting out corruption and waste would swing towards the fringe. Instead of trying to make government better, it seemed increasingly like the main goal was to cater to the extreme wing of the GOP, the wing that focused on social issues and embraced partisanship.
CPAC’s emphasis on rooting out corruption and waste would swing towards the fringe.
By 2014, I was experiencing CPAC from a very different perspective, not as an aide to Issa but as the media consultant for Breitbart News. The event’s most prominent speakers were Sens. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Mike Lee, former Governor Sarah Palin and Donald Trump. Breitbart News hosted an event presenting conservative radio host Mark Levin with the first ever “Citizens United Andrew Breitbart Defender of the First Amendment Award.”
2014 was a prologue for an even bigger shift to the right in 2015.
Breitbart reported exclusively on the new direction and leadership that would take CPAC in an even “more conservative” direction. The speaker program would include the return of Donald Trump and the inclusion of personalities like Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity.
This year, the second annual “Defender of Freedom Award” went to “Duck Dynasty’s” Phil Robertson, a man who was suspended from his popular reality show after comparing homosexuality to beastiality and claiming he had never once seen a black person unhappy in the South pre-Civil Rights movement. Breitbart also sponsored an event featuring the first CPAC appearance of former UKIP Leader Nigel Farage and a hearty toast to the memory of Andrew Breitbart from Ted Cruz.
Flash forward to 2018 and the CPAC line-up is virtually unrecognizable compared to what I first saw in 2010. Far right French politician Marion Marechal-Le Pen, whom Steve Bannon has dubbed a “rising star,” spoke an hour after Vice President Mike Pence. Closing out CPAC were Breitbart London Editor Raheem Kassam and xenophobic Brexit leader Nigel Farage. Another Bannon-ite and former Trump White House advisor Sebastian Gorka participated in a panel about global threats but made arguably bigger headlines for shoving a reporter and spewing expletives at him.
In 2012, Mitt Romney spoke about leading “with conviction and integrity” and that the election represented a “turning point for a new conservative era.” In 2018, President Donald Trump embodied that “new conservative era” by attacking a U.S. Senator battling brain cancer and calling his former political opponent “crooked” while leading the audience in cheers of “lock her up.”
Today’s Republican Party is foreign to me. And I think a lot of people who considered themselves a part of the conservative movement feel like in the past decade their party has been hijacked by an extremist nationalistic agenda.
I think a lot of people who considered themselves a part of the conservative movement feel like their party has been hijacked by an extremist agenda.
I left the Republican Party last year after months and months of soul-searching and self-reflection. It was not an easy thing to do. But ultimately, I knew that the extreme agenda and voices that have come to represent the Republican Party was not something I wanted to be affiliated with in any way, shape or form. I knew making such a change could disrupt every facet of my life — personally and professionally — and candidly, it did.
Watching this week’s CPAC, I hope every Republican is asking themselves if this is the political party that really speaks for them. If not, I hope they find the strength and support to break away from this madness. As the history of CPAC in this decade has shown, the Republican Party is only getting more and more extreme. This is a tipping point — which side do you want to be on?
Kurt Bardella is an NBC THINK Contributor, a columnist for HuffPost and member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is a former spokesperson for Reps. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., Darrell Issa, R-Calif., Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, the House Oversight & Government Reform Committee and Breitbart News Follow him on Twitter at @kurtbardella.