Author’s note: I have prepared this piece in accordance with the factual standards used by CNN and Buzzfeed. Any “fake news” is thus immune from criticism.
Shortly after the opening ceremonies of CPAC 2017 began, alt-right gadfly Richard Spencer tweeted: “Ronald Reagan is dead. We killed him.”
Like most everything Spencer says, this is an inflammatory and highly debatable remark. What is not debatable is that if the late 40th U.S. president had been on-hand to witness CPAC 2017, it would have made him want to kill himself. Indeed, perhaps the spirit of the Gipper felt compelled to register his discontent in exactly such a way, for just prior to CPAC 2017’s official beginning, an unnamed, well-dressed man reportedly jumped from the top of a parking garage, splattering his brains on the pavement. If CPAC 2017 is any guide, that poor soul can take refuge in one thing: he has more life in him than American conservatism.
To that end, experiencing CPAC 2017 from media row was rather like being given a press pass to a funeral where you are expected to watch the corpse decompose in real time. The only way to explain just how miserable the experience was is to do so chronologically, and so this particular account will proceed from bright and early Thursday morning straight through to the dismal end on Saturday afternoon—by which point, as Shakespeare once memorably put it about another subject, the conference had descended into “second childishness and mere oblivion; sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste [especially sans taste], sans everything.”
Even before CPAC 2017 got underway, the conference found itself in dire straits, having offered its coveted keynote address to possibly the only conservative pundit with a target audience under the age of the Rosetta Stone. I refer, of course, to Milo Yiannopoulos. However, this particular experiment with relevance was abruptly canceled when it emerged that Yiannopoulos had expressed ideas about sexuality similar to those of Camille Paglia, except that he’d actually lived them at the age Paglia actually suggests should be the true age of consent, and had expressed his displeasure with the experience by outing multiple pedophiles in print. Since the American Conservative Union has a strict policy against giving child abuse victims a platform because they might make CPAC 2016 speaker Josh Duggar feel bad about himself, Milo’s speech was swiftly canceled. Further, having banned Milo, the ACU also apparently felt it had cleansed itself of the need to apologize for Denny Hastert, and so the conference was allowed to proceed.
As part of its ongoing effort to pretend that Donald Trump did not place a distant third in CPAC’s straw poll back when it mattered, the conference began with an appearance by Kellyanne Conway. But this time was different. Unlike previous CPACs, when major public officials simply gave speeches, this time all Trump administration officials (except the president himself) were brought in for “interviews” with sympathetic journalists. Conway was interviewed by Fox News contributor Mercedes Schlapp, who somewhat oddly made a habit of following up her softball questions with “Will Matt still have his job if I challenge you on that?” Conway, when she replied to this query at all, usually did so simply by remarking what a nice organization the ACU was and what a shame it would be if anything happened to it. It was hard to hear this response, though, because the audience became deafeningly ecstatic every time Conway so much as sneezed.
The conference now having opened with all the bright eyed and bushy tailed energy of the nearest roadkill, one of the more interesting elements of the day commenced: a botched attempt to define conservatism in opposition to the so-called “alt right,” an odd spinoff of the Occupy movement that prefers occupying the minds of every liberal journalist to squatting in actual physical locations.
To set up the coming denunciation, Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn was given the task of explaining the history of conservatism, which took longer than expected because Arnn kept tossing decoder rings off the podium mid-speech, explaining these were “for the Straussians” before going back to explaining why conservatism was not broken and did not need to be rethought in the slightest. Or as Russell Kirk once said, wink wink wink wink.
Once Arnn had departed the stage, with the event’s dignity fleeing behind him in terror, ACU board member Dan Schneider began the anti-alt right segment by entering to the sounds of Pink raising her glass to all the “nitty gritty dirty little freaks”—at which point irony climbed to the top of the parking garage and threw itself off, too. Schneider began demonstrating systematically to his audience that he had slept through his high school lessons on the French Revolution. Specifically, despite the fact that the political terms Left and Right originated from the pre-revolutionary French assembly’s practice of seating defenders of the monarchy on the Right, and defenders of revolutionary politics on the Left, Schneider somehow claimed that support for authoritarian government places one on the Left, that being on the Right had always meant standing for “liberty” (no word on “equality and fraternity”), and called the alt-right “Left-wing fascists.” As part of its effort to prove that CPAC was on no account fascist, the ACU then refused to allow any of the conference’s events to run on time.
This precipitated the hasty exit of Richard Spencer, who complained that calling him a fascist was all well and good, but this McCarthyite smear that he was left wing has no place in a free society, and by the way, Do You Recall How the ACU Invited a Pedophile?
Unfortunately for Spencer, the ACU did not take kindly to this uncomfortable bit of public dissent, and he was booted out of CPAC. Fortunately for Spencer, his fall out the door was broken by practically every camera and microphone in the building.
And Now a Word from Our Sponsors
Having now conclusively established that not just anyone could have the privilege of shilling for ACU donors, the ACU permitted the stage to be taken by a representative of a scam “health sharing ministry,” who spoke for the rest of the day, or so it seemed to those assembled. Afterwards, Ted Cruz and Mark Levin then took the stage in their best hair shirts, flogging themselves and muttering “Make America Great Again,” while performing increasingly disgusting shows of affection toward a portrait of Judge Neil Gorsuch. Cruz, who at one point mouthed “straw poll,” and began quietly weeping, was clearly suffering from relevance withdrawal symptoms. Fortunately, he did manage to get a brief hit when he hinted that a second Supreme Court vacancy would be arriving this summer. The conference had to pause here because the sound of Anthony Kennedy swearing at the top of his lungs from across town was drowning out what everyone was saying.
There then followed a panel (the title of which, unfortunately, is not made up) called “FREE Stuff or FREE Dom.” It was supposed to speculate on the cause of Millennial affection for Bernie Sanders. Upon the panel’s conclusion, donations to Bernie Sanders skyrocketed from every Millennial forced to sit through it. Apparently discouraged by this reception, the ACU then produced a panel asking “Who started World War III?” a question that was decisively answered by acting Federal Trade Commission Chair Maureen Ohlhausen, who explained that World War III was started by people who disagreed with Qualcomm’s position on patent law. The ACU breathed a sigh of relief at this, as Qualcomm’s latest check finally arrived in the mail.
Only two more events of note (if you can call them that) occurred on Thursday. First was the appearance of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who, like Conway, was interviewed by a friendly journalist—this time CNN’s Kayleigh McEnany. McEnany, obviously trying to get on her interviewee’s good side, began by asking DeVos, “Wasn’t it wonderful that Jeff Sessions forced you to sign off on that transgender bathroom policy that you disagreed with?” at which point DeVos asked if the ACU could possibly get Elizabeth Warren to interview her instead. McEnany apologized, saying she had wanted to ask DeVos about ending the Obama Education Department’s “Dear Colleague” letter setting up college rape kangaroo courts, but that the Milo incident had shown the ACU was too afraid of any mention of premarital sex to care if young men’s lives were ruined for engaging in it. As such, this particular topic, somehow, did not come up at all.
Bannon Takes Center Stage
This was all just prologue for the main event on Thursday: the joint appearance by White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, who were interviewed together by a very nervous looking Matt Schlapp.
Schlapp’s nervousness can most likely be chalked up to the fact that Bannon had once hosted a panel at CPAC called “The Uninvited,” designed to showcase voices of conservatives who CPAC had not previously seen fit to invite. Schlapp hastily explained that he didn’t like this idea, and that now “we’re all part of the same conservative family.” Bannon replied, “I know, and that’s why it’ll be Milo feeding you your own excrement on this stage next year.”
Bannon then proceeded to delight the audience by talking over Priebus for the next hour, all while explaining that Trump was going to govern the way Ronald Reagan actually governed, rather than the way ACU donors like to pretend he governed, with the added benefit that he’d do some of the things conservatives are supposed to care about, like dismantling the administrative state. The thought of such a horrible thing happening caused every neoconservative journalist in the press pool to begin wailing, gnashing their teeth, rending their garments, and declaring that unless we invaded 10 more countries and let 20 times as many American soldiers die for no particular reason, it would be proof that fascism had arrived in America. Shortly thereafter, every active duty CIA and FBI agent googled “How to block Bill Kristol’s number,” while Louise Mensch explained on Twitter that Vladimir Putin had killed John Lennon.
All kidding aside, the genuinely ecstatic reception Bannon received at CPAC (compared with the muted reception for figures like Cruz and Levin) did send a message: Trumpism, even when defined in the intellectualized fashion Bannon laid out, was exponentially more popular among CPAC attendees than the True Conservatism ™ for which CPAC supposedly exists to speak. By the time the conference ended, this truth would be brutally obvious.
In fact, it became unmistakable on Friday, when none other than President Donald Trump himself arrived to speak. Unlike Vice President Mike Pence, who spent the previous night delivering the same speech he’d delivered in Cleveland last July, albeit with a White House staffer having run it through Microsoft Word’s “find and replace” function to change “nominee” to “president,” the commander-in-chief came with new material. So after CPAC forced the audience to wait for 30 awkward minutes because they just wanted to remind everyone that only left-wing fascists do things on time, the president got his opportunity to show just how thoroughly CPAC was his turf now.
Trump Speaks; Media Loses Their Minds (As Usual)
He succeeded before he even started talking, as the number of people who swarmed into the Gaylord National Convention Center’s Potomac Ballroom caused every fire marshal in Washington, D.C. to suffer a nervous breakdown. Trump’s speech, meanwhile, caused every member of the Washington press to suffer a nervous breakdown, as Trump spent the first few minutes of it breaking entirely with political precedent by actually daring to speak unflattering truths about them. Many media figures intoned solemnly in response to this that for anyone to speak unflattering truths about an industry whose business model relies on them speaking unflattering truths showed a complete breakdown of the democratic process. Several cameraman suffered anxiety attacks from observing so many standing ovations for the president in glorious High Definition, and commenced photoshopping Nazi salutes into the crowd.
About the rest of Trump’s speech little needs to be said, as outside the media attacks, it hewed fairly closely to established themes. What matters is that while the president spoke, for those few shining moments, the conference had the feel of a political movement with a future. However, all great things must end, and so the president walked offstage, the room emptied, and the cruelest omission of all was made: the lights were kept on. Granted, the corpse of CPAC’s relevance did give a slight involuntary twitch when British politician Nigel Farage took the stage, but by that point, everyone could see that outside of giving a platform to the president, his administration, or to people sympathetic to his administration, CPAC and the ACU no longer had any discernible purpose. Thus, the rest of Friday passed in a complete stupor.
Slouching Toward Irrelevance
Alas, the corpse of CPAC and its brand of Reagan LARPing True Conservatism™ was not officially buried until Saturday, with the results of the CPAC straw poll. About this, no jokes are necessary. A few numbers should drive the point home: From those in attendance, President Trump received 86 percent approval, of which 56 percent strongly approved. This alone would not have been cause for concern, except for the fact that 80 percent of attendees also believed Trump was “realigning the conservative movement,” with such Trumpian moves as his strict immigration policy, the much-maligned travel ban, and even his continued prolific tweeting all receiving high marks. In other words, the conference that for so long has been the official gathering place of those tied to a version of conservatism frozen in amber, saw President Trump taking a hammer to that amber and their audience cheered. The conservative movement had observed Trump and judged him worthy of a level of support likely not seen since the days of Reagan himself.
This is good news for Trump and, indeed, good news for “conservatism” as a system of thought. But for CPAC, the ACU, and the “checklist conservatism” that the ACU profits from so greatly in establishing its bona fides? For them, this is the kiss of death.
To have their own audience ecstatically accede to the process of realignment deprives the conference and the purity-obsessed culture of pre-Trump conservatism of even the slightest claim to relevance. A Communist Party USA conference held in 1991 would have had more claim to historical awareness. Seeing that the power of Trumpism has dwarfed entirely the power of movement conservatism, ACU donors interested in getting close to power in the GOP will likely recognize as much and put their money toward Trumpian causes rather than blowing them on traditionally conservative ones. The infrastructure of the previous conservative movement will only survive to the extent that it can adjust to this new reality.
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.