Adapt or die.
Such, I would argue, was the ultimatum faced by the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) after last year. As I explained in serious, but not literal, detail at the time, the conference’s adherence to checklist conservatism gave it the appearance of a corpse still twitching with fragments of consciousness.
So moribund was CPAC 2017 that it began with a literal suicide. So, at the time, did conservatism itself appear bound for self-destruction, if it was not already there:
In short, if CPAC 2017 is to be taken as a microcosm of the pre-Trump conservative movement, then it can only be said (with apologies to Monty Python) that the movement in question is not merely pining for its past: it has passed on. This movement is no more. It has ceased to be. It has expired and gone to meet its maker. It’s a stiff, bereft of life. It rests in peace. If it hadn’t given itself over to astroturf, it would be pushing up the daisies. Its metaethical, metaphysical, and political processes are now history. It’s off the twig. It has kicked the bucket. It has shuffled off the mortal coil. It has run down the curtain, joined the choir invisible, and commenced preaching to it.
This is an ex-movement. And soon, perhaps, CPAC will be an ex-conference.
What a difference a year makes. Fast-forward to this year and, judging by the agenda of the 2018 CPAC, the ex-movement part remains not only true, but accepted by the organizers themselves. The ex-conference part, on the other hand, does not look likely, because miraculously, CPAC has chosen to adapt, and adapt drastically, at that. What else can one make of a conference that two years ago invited Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and today rolls out the red carpet for Marion Le Pen, niece of Front National leader Marine Le Pen; that invites Nigel Farage for a repeat performance, but neglects Mitt Romney?
The answer, of course, is that CPAC knows where the Right is headed, both at home and abroad: that is, toward a nationalist, or (arguably) Occidentalist stance. The American Conservative Union (ACU), which organizes CPAC also knows that it cannot afford to be on the wrong side of this shift in the ideological winds. If they want to continue to preserve the illusion that their conference speaks for the Right, they must somehow get out in front of the march up from globalism. Speaking as a stringent critic of their refusal to acknowledge this shift last year, I am compelled both by good faith and by genuine relief to give them an “attaboy” for it.
Of course, not everyone is so enthused about the ACU’s choice to plant its feet so far from the slough of despond that is pre-Trump conservatism. In particular, the nattering nabobs of NeverTrump have complained loudly that CPAC made room for the likes of Le Pen (and almost made room for Milo Yiannopoulos last year), but has no space on its agenda for anti-Trump pundits. I admit to finding this complaint more than a little confusing, as one of the conference’s headliners this year is none other than Ben Shapiro, a man notable mainly for his inability to give Trump anything more than a qualified endorsement for anything. The conference also features speakers such as Gary Johnson, who actually ran against President Trump during the general election of 2016, not to mention Katie Pavlich, Andrew McCarthy, and Ben Domenech, all of whom were contributors to National Review’s infamous “Against Trump” issue.
What I suspect irks NeverTrump about such people, however, is that most of them have shifted into the so-called “anti-anti-Trump” camp, or into simple Trump neutrality. Johnson is an exception, though I suspect that given NeverTrump’s almost exclusively neoconservative ideological makeup, they hardly see him as a fellow traveler, particularly given his opposition to pointless wars. In other words, without Johnson, CPAC’s invited Trump-skeptical people are objectionable to NeverTrumpers because their skepticism is not hardline enough. They are not prepared to follow the logic-defying vacillations of the ungrateful bastards determined to find something wrong in everything Trump does, no matter how much they would otherwise agree with it. When NeverTrump implores CPAC to invite anti-Trump speakers, they probably have people like John Schindler, or Jennifer Rubin, or Evan McMullin in mind.
And you know what? I agree with them! CPAC should invite such #NeverTrump pundits to speak.
How can I say this? Well, I implore the hypothetical pro-Trump reader to hold off the “sellout globalist cuck” comments for just a moment, and hear me out.
Let me take you back to an earlier CPAC—specifically, CPAC 2010, where speaker Ryan Sorba issued a full throated condemnation of the conference for inviting GOProud, a now defunct Tea Party-friendly alternative to the gay friendly Log Cabin Republicans. Sorba’s complaint was, essentially, that in doing so, CPAC was encouraging sinners—an argument that would have been right at home at CPAC during the Bush years, but which no longer held currency at a time when the conservative movement was re-embracing its libertarian wing in opposition to Barack Obama. In short, the audience didn’t want to be lectured on the impurity of GOProud: if gays were against socialism, they were conservatives just like everyone else.
The result? Sorba couldn’t even finish his speech. He was booed off the stage after taunting the audience (“The lesbians at Smith College protest better than you do”), GOProud was invited to succeeding conferences without incident (and, in fact, invited Donald Trump to his first CPAC the following year), and the libertarian bent of Obama era conservatism was solidified more completely by that moment than a thousand speeches by libertarian politicians, writers, and activists could have done.
Which brings me back to NeverTrump. Those arguing for aggressively anti-Trump speakers to gain a speaking slot at CPAC are protesting that the conference organizers are afraid to permit them to speak, for fear that their persuasive abilities may work on the audience.
Stop laughing for a moment and consider: the more likely explanation is that ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp’s refusal is born of mercy more than of fear. He knows that last year’s CPAC straw poll showed overwhelming support for Trump among the attendees, well before Trump had managed to get Neil Gorsuch confirmed, or eviscerate the regulatory state, or push through the most consequential tax reform in 30 years. The odds of them souring now are somewhere between zero and Jeb Bush’s chance of ever being a credible presidential candidate again.
Given this, how long into a speech would the hypothetical NeverTrump speaker get before being treated like Sorba? A minute? Two? Schlapp, probably out of a desire not to alienate any anti-Trump friends, is no doubt anxious that we never find out.
Those of us on the Trump train should not be so afflicted. Let us show the world that it is not only CPAC, but the right itself, that has rejected NeverTrump. Let those who still fear the potential influence of NeverTrump’s legacy writers watch them immolate that influence on live TV. Mr. Schlapp, let NeverTrump speak.
…If they can.