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A Conservative Festivus

The time has come for an airing of grievances.
by Jim Swift
February 20, 2019
A Conservative Festivus
American Conservation Union Chairman Matt Schlapp and his wife and political commentator Mercedes Schlapp. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

If ever there were any doubts that the conservative movement has yielded completely to its “grifters and frauds” faction, the announcement of the 2019 CPAC lineup last week put those to rest.  

What’s a thoughtful righty to do? Heath Mayo, a Texas-born, Boston-based consultant, took to Twitter. And in doing so, he started a movement of his own.

The tweet highlighted CPAC’s “big-name” speakers: Candace Owens, Charlie Kirk, Seb Gorka, and Jeanine Pirro. He added more in another tweet, “lest you think I cherry picked”: Diamond & Silk, Nigel Farage, James O’Keefe, and Michelle Malkin.

“It’s not clear to me what the point is, anymore, of CPAC,” Mayo said in a phone interview. At pre-Trump CPACs, he said “You would have policy discussions with serious folks who disagreed vehemently, but that considered themselves conservative. It was a debate about ideas, you know, and not ‘let’s get together and do a chant for Sheriff Clarke.’ I think that’s what folks are missing.”

His critical tweets caught the attention of Matt Schlapp, the grand poobah of the CPAC circus:

Schlapp was previously best known as the male half of “Washington’s Trump-Era ‘It Couple’,” as the New York Times described him and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp. Now he spends most of his time cheerleading CPAC’s lackluster speakers.

That’s what worries Heath Mayo about CPAC: personality over principle. “I don’t think the national debt is going to get much airtime at the Gaylord, honestly. That’s part of why I have no interest in going, really, and a lot of people don’t have interest in going. It’s because we know the script. We know what’s gonna be said, and it’s going to be very personality-based. There are not a lot of arguments that are going to be made, not a lot of disagreements. ”

Half jokingly, Mayo threw an idea out there:

Thanks to its longevity, its deep-pocketed sponsors, and the machinery of College Republican chapters, CPAC has never really hurt for attendees in the last 15 years. So its journey down the grifter path seems to Mayo like a conscious choice by CPAC.  

So why not just skip the circus and meet at a bar with like minded folks? Mayo’s tweet about meeting off-site took off, too. A flurry of replies and DMs prompted Mayo to put up a sign-up sheet on Twitter, which quickly attracted a couple hundred names. “It feels like it struck a bigger chord than I was certainly anticipating” Mayo tells me.

What surprised Mayo is that people in other cities were interested in having get togethers, too. Eight of them, in fact, so far: Washington, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Miami, Dallas, Austin, and Los Angeles.

Mayo wants to emphasize that is not a replacement for CPAC but its own new thing.

“Folks are gonna have to buy their own beer. If it’s 10 people, great. If it’s 50 people, great. If it’s 100 people, we’ll move outside and figure out something. This is a few days old. It’s not gonna be a Corvette of a production, this is just gonna be a blue collar Ford truck and folks can come get in if they want to.”

There are no plans for formal speakers. He tells me the event isn’t about people “plugging their podcast” or “driving clicks to their website.” The way he envisions it is that part of the way through, the organizer will clink his or her glass, say a few words, and then turn it over to the folks in the room to share what brought them there. An airing of grievances, like a conservative Festivus.

“We need to figure out where our principles went.” Mayo said. “Why it is that we have a president that is end-running Congress, doing things by executive order and running up the national debt, and everyone on the right is sort of kind of going silently into the night.” At the end of the day, Mayo wonders, “is it the people that are driving our party, or the principles?”

Next year, of course, CPAC will likely be even worse with Trump gunning for re-election. Will Mayo be planning the second annual gathering of Principles First conservatives? Unlikely, he tells me. If others want to start planning something in 2020, he’s happy to let them.

But for now, Heath Mayo is hoping a few people might join him and others for a chat about what their party has become.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.