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Point of View: S.E. Cupp: The GOP knows exactly where it’s headed: CPAC 2021 is depressingly revealing

This week, CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference founded in 1974 — will lay siege to Orlando instead of Washington, D.C., amid a global pandemic that has, as of this week, taken a staggering 500,000 American lives. Hopes of mask-wearing and social distancing seem as likely as a panel on the return to fiscal conservatism. (I checked. There isn’t one.)

As a young, up-and-coming movement conservative, I attended this conference a number of years, spoke on panels, signed books and autographs, posed for pictures, did radio row. It was an opportunity to network, socialize and gain exposure, and I usually enjoyed it.

But it was always a little … weird. While the major stars of the party — even often sitting presidents like George W. Bush — would deliver important agenda-setting keynote speeches, the conference also attracted some of the fringiest elements of the right. We chalked this up to the party’s “big tent” philosophy of welcoming intellectual diversity and patriots of all kinds.

But over the years the fringiest elements became the more dominant ones, mirroring the morphing of the party itself into a far-right, nationalist, nativist, conspiratorial and Trumpian exercise in subtraction, not addition.

Mainstream voices both fell by the wayside and were pushed aside, as they either voluntarily skipped the event or were no longer welcome. Sen. John McCain, the presumptive nominee for president in 2008, earned cheers for his speech at CPAC that year. By 2018, President Trump’s unkind mention of McCain’s name elicited boos, and by 2019, far-right pundit Michelle Malkin had resorted to attacking his ghost.

What a difference a Trump makes.

And now, despite the hyperventilating over an imaginary “battle for the soul” of the GOP — a non-battle between Trump and folks like Mitch McConnell, who for years enabled him — the roster this year is utterly predictable. Rest assured, the party is not at all confused about who it is and where it’s going.

Speakers include Trump and kin; Team Insurrection co-captains Sens. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley; creepy GOP lingerer Jon Voight; ex-Cabinet luminaries Ben Carson and Larry Kudlow; and assorted stars of right-wing media.

The agenda is just as predictable, obsessed with culture wars and cancel culture, fear and loathing, resentments and grievances.

In short, it promises to be a delightful romp. Reportedly skipping this year is former Vice President Mike Pence, presumably because Trump’s incitement of an angry mob nearly got him killed. But perhaps I’m overthinking.

Ronald Reagan’s “City on a Hill” speech, delivered at the inaugural CPAC in 1974, is often quoted as one of his best, and as a nod to American exceptionalism. Except, that’s not really what the original quote, from Puritan writer John Winthrop in 1630, had in mind. It was a warning that being a figurative “city upon a hill” meant that “the eyes of all people are upon us,” and any mistakes of hubris from that lofty and visible perch would bring upon shame.

S.E. Cupp is the host of "S.E. Cupp Unfiltered" on CNN.