What CPAC Was Really About

The conservative conference was a window into the ideological staying power of Trump.

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - FEBRUARY 23:  U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up after addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2018 in National Harbor, MD. This was Trump's second year in a row addressing CPAC, the largest convention of political conservatives in the country.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up after addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center February 23, 2018 in National Harbor, MD. This was Trump’s second year in a row addressing CPAC, the largest convention of political conservatives in the country. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—There was much talk, throughout this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, about the supposed crisis of free speech—the purported epidemic of conservative speakers being oppressed, suppressed, threatened, and silenced not only on college campuses but, as the NRA’s Dana Loesch reminded attendees during her speech Thursday, within the mainstream press. “I had to have a security detail to get out,” she said of her loudly jeered appearance during CNN’s town hall on the Stoneman Douglas shooting last week. “I wouldn’t be able to exit that if I didn’t have a private security detail.”

If so, Loesch can now commiserate with National Review’s Mona Charen, who was loudly booed for criticizing the Republican Party’s selective indifference to sexual misconduct during one of the last panels of the conference. “I’m disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in or party, who are sitting in the White House,” she told a shocked audience. “This was a party that was ready to endorse—the Republican Party endorsed Roy Moore for the Senate in the state of Alabama even though he was a credibly accused child molester. You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.” The shouts in response to this and, minutes later, her denunciation of CPAC speaker Marion LePen—“I think the only reason she was here was that she was named LePen And the LePen name is a disgrace. Her grandfather is a racist and a Nazi”—led to her being escorted out by three security personnel.

This was one of the few pulse-quickening moments of a dull but subtly remarkable conference. Two years ago, Trump, fearing a chilly reception, skipped CPAC to campaign in Kansas. By the time he took the stage last year, his capture of the conservative movement was mostly complete. Evidence of a new brazenness—a willingness to say the quiet parts loud—was on offer during the Ronald Reagan dinner on Friday night, where CPAC’s communications director, Ian Walters, recounting the past several years of turmoil on the right, criticized the selection of former RNC chairman Michael Steele. “We elected Mike Steele as chairman because he was a black guy,” he said. “That was the wrong thing to do.” This remark passed entirely without comment from American Conservative Union chairman and CPAC head Matt Schlapp, who was standing alongside Walters on the mainstage as he made his remarks. Steele later confronted Schlapp about the comments during a radio interview. “I don’t know what gave Ian, in his role as the communications director, the comfort to think that he could go before this body and—I’ll put it direct—disrespect you as its chairman, disrespect attendees,” Steele said. “Did he somehow think this was somehow going to be acceptable to say?”

Well, why wouldn’t he have? The conference was gripped this year by a force even stronger than support for Trump—a revulsion at political correctness and offense-taking broadly speaking. The loudest applause of the event came not for Trump or Vice President Mike Pence, but for Ben Shapiro, who warned that the new political correctness on the left was “contributing to the downfall of the greatest civilization in the history of mankind.” Young conservative activist Charlie Kirk, for his work antagonizing the campus left as head of the group Turning Point USA, was rewarded with a slot interviewing the president’s son, Eric Trump. In another speaking slot, he wedded criticism of the cultural left to the conservative movement’s domestic policy agenda. “Oh, you might have had something bad happen to you a hundred years ago, therefore here’s all these government benefits and people should feel sorry for you,” Kirk said. This is how the “neo-Marxists,” he warned, intend to take down, again, Western civilization.

The neo-Marxists – they don’t believe in dialogue, they don’t believe in discussion. They believe in stifling the other opinion. But we still live in a semblance of a free society and because of that, it has paved the way for what I believe is going to be the greatest conservative revolution in American history that’s led by young people. That’s for freedom and for a principled approach to defend Western civilization. To say it’s OK to hear something you disagree with. Just because you’re offended doesn’t mean you’re right. That we actually need to be able to hear ideas that challenge our viewpoints. And on that basis, we’re going to run circles around the left. These are unhappy people. These are people that are not upwardly aspirational. They hate this country.

As has always been the case, the demons to be exorcised aren’t the ones that led to screams at Mona Charen in defense of Roy Moore, but the animating principles of liberals and leftists, particularly young minorities and women battling racism and sexism. The reactionary impulses behind criticisms of political correctness have been complemented, in Shapiro and Kirk, by an evangelical fervor—the promise of deliverance and victory over a fallen and wicked people in a cultural war that righteous people ought to wage. It was hard to escape the feeling, listening to them, that the rhetoric of opposition to political correctness is expanding to fill the vacuum in conservative cultural politics left by the collapse of the Christian right. Ben Shapiro seems less a “cool-kid’s philosopher” than the new Billy Graham, whose death, incidentally, was mentioned not even a handful of times from the main stage during the conference.

These kinds of shifts are ultimately what makes CPAC, despite its circus-like atmosphere, important to follow. It remains a critical part of the conservative movement’s infrastructure, too. Thousands of young people and potential donors are funneled into various organizations and causes. Young activists are trained; there is a well-attended job fair. The question of whether Trumpism and the forces it has unleashed on the right will have a shelf-life beyond Trump—of whether the chaos can be organized—will be settled, in large part, here. It ultimately depends on how well those changes take within the think tanks and campus groups and publications and nonprofits that fill their ranks and coffers from the conference’s annual attendees. Apart from the Charen flare-up, the transition so far has been largely seamless. The NeverTrumpers and whatever “principled” religious conservatives are left in the movement have self-deported. The kids, the Sheriff Clarkes and Gorkas, Hannity and company—CPAC is their party now. So too is the GOP.

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Osita Nwanevu is a Slate staff writer.