It’s the art that makes it real for me. The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — which starts tomorrow, you lucky ducks! — has made a point in recent years of openly displaying various artworks devoted to the 45th president of the United States. Here is Donald Trump astride a lion, astride a tank surrounded by cash fluttering through the air, astride a Great White shark in the sky, astride a velociraptor while emptying the clip on a machine pistol with a bazooka strapped to his back, and he’s always in the same blue suit. By the way, the velociraptor is carrying an American flag. By the pole. In its little velociraptor hands.
You can do precisely two things with the CPAC confab: Ignore it or endure it. I don’t come to work to ignore things, so endure it I shall, with deep gratitude for the art. You really have to see it to understand what I’m on about. The imagery itself could curdle milk, and the colors! Lurid enough to put Pennywise the Clown off his lunch. Ever see an evil clown monster gag? Yeah, like that.
I am grateful for it, because more than anything else within the absurd clockwork of CPAC, the art tells me exactly where I am and precisely who I am dealing with. Any gathering of minds that can create these canvas nightmares is a gathering to be wary of. It goes beyond cultish to a level of obeisant worship that beggars modern political context. Looking at it, the old rallying cry from Firesign Theater starts clanging in my head (“What is reality?”), and I am grounded again, once again certain that whatever this is, it ain’t reality.
If they show it on TV or the web, tune in to watch the attendees as they check it all out. Don’t look at the paintings, look at them, and you’ll probably see what I saw last year. Some awed tears — my initial reaction, too, but for separate reasons — and hushed voices, flush faces, eyes unfocused like dusty marbles, and smiles. Lots of smiles. I assume someone had to laugh at some point, but if they did, it wasn’t where these folks could hear it.
Taking place in Orlando, Florida, this year — Orlando: home to near-nonexistent COVID safety measures and destination for children worldwide! — CPAC isn’t where the snake oil salesmen gather to compare notes. It’s where they milk the snakes. Rep. Matt Gaetz, currently under federal investigation for various sex crimes, will be a featured speaker, as will Tulsi Gabbard for reasons passing understanding.
The honored speakers list is a murderer’s row of people who would motivate you to eat your own liver before getting stuck on an elevator with them.
Terrible people will labor in broad daylight to steal or disrupt the next presidential election. At least some of the attendees will be reminiscing with each other about how they sacked the Capitol building last year. Count on these people getting together at some point; the whole feel of this event is that of a deep breath before the leap. On Saturday night, Trump himself will come swooping in, and the whole Godawful thing will reach a crescendo that would leave Dante digging in search of the level he somehow missed.
Because they are Republicans, there must be high drama. CPAC is Trump territory, suffused with Trump’s people looking for a slice of that gigantic Trump fundraising hoard. There are cracks developing in the seemingly invincible veneer of Trump ‘24, however; Trump is in open conflict with Minority Leader Mitch McConnell over the fate of the party, and right there under the CPAC roof and in his own state, lead Trump rival Gov. Ron DeSantis will be making the scene in Technicolor.
DeSantis has only been granted a 20-minute speaking slot on Friday afternoon, a scheduling slight that is difficult to miss. Trump has been badmouthing DeSantis for weeks, while DeSantis has tiptoed around the man he would possibly replace on the 2024 Republican presidential ticket. If Trump uses his speaking time to re-hash the election he lost, and if he can’t help but to flip a few daggers at the current main challenger to his throne, it will be a spicy show for all. There is a lot of tension loose within the GOP, and CPAC has always been like a leaky keg of old dynamite. This year, that’s truer than ever.
And, like as not, somewhere in this year’s CPAC art gallery will be a portrait of Trump astride a bright red, snarling, furiously American Mack truck boiling the streets of Ottawa with smoke-swaddled tires. This painting exists, I know it in my bones. Artwork in adulation of authoritarianism is as old as pigment and sculpture, and highly effective before the proper audience.
That audience will be at CPAC this year, rubbing its fascist woes together in contemplation of abolishing democracy in the name of Supply-Side Jesus. Let the million lithographs bloom.