This time last year, the mood at the Conservative Political Action Conference could best be described as giddy as hell. Republicans were, at that point, spoiled for presidential candidates: Rand Paul won the presidential straw poll, with Scott Walker close behind. Ben Carson spent the event being trailed by his own literal, albeit tiny, parade of cheering, sign-holding supporters. People roared so loudly for Ted Cruz I feared for the rafters in the ballroom when he spoke. The vibe was clear: this time next year, a Republican will be sweeping his (definitely his) way towards victory.

And then Donald Trump happened. He’s bowled through the GOP like a urine-hued, gold-plated whirlwind, destroying every possible hope they had for any of their less-insane candidates. After years of attending CPAC, he abruptly dropped out this year, heading to Kansas instead. In part, that was because he likely knew he’d face protests and booing from the establishment Republican crowd, which he’s too emotionally delicate to withstand. But partly, he didn’t show because it simply doesn’t matter. Right now Trump is winning, and nothing that happened at CPAC could slow his momentum

Republicans attending this year’s CPAC responded with, more or less, a healthy dose of denial. Trump is going to disappear, somehow, several attendees said to me, maybe in a brokered convention situation, where, basically, some delegates at the Republican National Convention just nominate whoever they want, regardless of which way the states have voted.

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And Hillary Clinton? Well, she’s not a threat, people kept saying, over and over, because she’s about to be arrested at any moment.

“I would have voted for Jim Webb, but he’s not there anymore,” one young RNC employee told me. Between Cruz and Trump, he’d have to go with Cruz, he said. But if Trump was the nominee... he trailed off.

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“I have to vote my party,” he said, finally, and then literally bit his lip.

But Hillary Clinton getting indicted over her homegrown email server was “a real possibility” he added. So that would take care of her. (It’s certainly possible Clinton could face charges over Emailgate, and the FBI is interviewing at least one of her former aides, but the odds of her getting carted off in handcuffs before the election are pretty slim.)

We talked for a little while longer. I misheard a minor point the young man was trying to make and repeated it back to him to make sure I’d got it right. He got very angry.

“You media, you twist everything,” he told me, raising his voice. We were done talking pretty quickly after that.

But his was a popular viewpoint: we don’t have to worry about Hillary, because she’s going to prison. I heard that during the weird parties I went to, where I was assured her indictment was “around the corner.” (One of the parties was thrown by James O’Keefe of Project Veritas infamy, the other by Stephen K. Bannon, the executive chairman of Breitbart News. Both of them were unremarkable, unless you want to hear about young conservatives groping each other in a crowded bar, which you probably don’t.)

Ted Cruz joked during an interview with Sean Hannity that the general election might have to be “convened at Leavenworth,” since Clinton would be jailed there.

“I hope she likes orange pantsuits,” Hannity cracked.

“Well Sean, orange is the new Democratic blue,” Cruz responded, because that’s what jokes look like at CPAC.

Meanwhile, the speakers kept insisting that the GOP is also definitely not losing their battle to attract women and people of color. Alexandra Smith from the College Republican National Committee led a panel on “attracting the female youth vote,” which she said the GOP is doing a better and better job doing, by “applying language principles” and “testing winning messages” on healthcare, education and the economy.

“We’ve seen a real winning formula in terms of being able to transform the debate and make it our own,” Smith beamed. “We’re winning with everyone when we talk in a new language and an updated way about our principles.”

This kind of corporate-tinged motivational bland-speak is very popular at CPAC. It’s the Republican party as they wish to be seen: efficient, sanitized, poll-obsessed and cheerily on-message. It’s the literal opposite of Trump’s brutal, anarchic appeal, and it’s clearly stopped working, if it ever began.

Even though he was absent, Trump loomed everywhere: in Marco Rubio’s speech, where he warned against letting the conservative movement be “hijacked by someone who isn’t a conservative.” During the debate-watching party, Trump’s comments, especially about his giant dick, led to such a confusing mixture of cheers and boos that Gawker news editor Gabrielle Bluestone and I couldn’t tell what the hell was going on. Everything felt ragged and jittery and disorganized this year: the schedule kept changing. The speakers repeated their stump speeches with noticeably little verve (Ted Cruz has been making that Leavenworth joke since the fall.) And everywhere, there was a creeping sense that maybe things are really, truly fucked for the GOP this time.

There’s maybe no better example than NRA president executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre, who in the midst of his annual gun-humping address accidentally referred to Hillary Clinton as the president. LaPierre was talking about women and gun ownership, or trying to.

“No woman should be left to face evil with empty hands,” he roared. “To all of America’s women, you aren’t free if you aren’t free to defend yourselves. And if President Clinton—President Obama—let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

He tried again: “If Hillary Clinton or anyone else denies you that right, they don’t really care about you at all.”

Everyone clapped when they were supposed to. But the unintentional point lingered there, awkwardly, long after he left the stage.


A Trump cutout seen at CPAC, Photo: Simon Zachary Chetrit for Gawker