Fear and Loathing at CPAC.

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  • 03/02/2023

There is a certain type of MAGA male—roughly 23, looks like he was probably bullied in high school, he’s got a haircut that’s sharp and clean, and he wears a business suit and a red hat emblazoned with Trump’s slogan. I get it. When I was 13 and realized I was not an athlete, I knew I would have to find another way to get a date. So, I started playing guitar. Similarly, this MAGA kid (who despises identity politics) has embraced a particular conservative identity politics and made it his entire personality, and this is partly because he realizes that there is a certain type of girl who is attracted to this edgy style. These young men and women made up approximately 30% of the crowd that gathered in Dallas this week for the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).

This was my first CPAC meeting. I had long been curious about the event, and since I lived only a few hours from Dallas, I thought I might go up and meet some of the people associated with the various publications for which I write. The trip was very educational. In many ways, the event of CPAC matches the character of conservative movement these days: fragmented, incoherent, angry, monied, and hopeful.

As I entered the venue on Friday, it was immediately clear that it was an odd mix: some combination of entrepreneurs, well-dressed insiders of Conservative, Inc., and plebes in Trump regalia. Now, I’m a public employee who feels silly in a suit, I have mixed feelings about the GOP, and I prefer not to use my wardrobe to advertise ideology. So I showed up in my standard solid-black t-shirt. As I walked in the door, I heard one among a group of sophomores squeak, “Look at this dude! He’s just wearing a t-shirt!”

I wandered down to “CPAC Central,” a space adjacent to the conference hall and full of booths and vendors, it was immediately apparent that CPAC is a brand—this event, covered by the MSM as a deplorable meeting of the little-r resistance, is first and foremost a marketing opportunity. Block-chain voting technologies, data networks for “patriots,” and all manner of Trump paraphernalia were advertised or on sale. Some guy handed me a waterproof phone case that came with a “free trial membership of Fox Nation.” Another handed me an invitation to a bowling party. Of course, these things were only the accessories to the real commodity—an America-First conservatism that partakes of the same identity politics that it claims to oppose.

The prevailing mood of CPAC was a combination of a Bleed-American right-wing pep rally and an “all hands” corporate networking retreat. You are given a few options: mill about the grounds of the sprawling hotel and people-watch, buy shit at CPAC Central, or sit in the cavernous conference hall and listen to panel after panel (divided by videos which rightly lament cultural and political outrages of Weimar America). Of course, there is probably much deal-making going on “behind the scenes,” away from the prying eyes of people like me (a lowly freelancer, or, worse yet, a Tenured Member of the Academy) and the rest of the suckers who pay $300 to attend this carnival.

By Saturday, things were starting to heat up. Some of the MAGA kids in White Boy Summer shades and tropical shirts were stomping down the halls ranting about Neoconservatism and “anti-white hatred.”

As they chantedGroyper” (a nickname some very-online right-wingers use to identify themselves), I couldn’t help but think about Halloween. They were wearing costumes and chanting evil spells—not because these guys are particularly scary, but because they want to be scary. Since 2015, the media has made known the enormous threat that these types pose to “Our Democracy,” and, in raising the alarm, it has also taught a generation of disaffected youth a language by which to signify their edginess. (Isn’t it strange that, in 2021, suits on young men have become edgy?)

Why does our side always have the crappy costumes? Antifa looks ridiculous with their readymade armor (bike helmets, kneepads, etc.), but at least you know they mean business and won’t hesitate to put a fist in your face. They demand to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, our “insurgents” are wearing body paint and horns, and our CPAC attendees are sporting Uncle Sam top hats, boas, leather Project Veritas jackets, and Trump-themed bellbottoms. It’s hard for anyone to take these people seriously, so it’s a safe bet that this cosplay appears especially moronic to the leftists who are busy remaking this country.

[caption id="attachment_191433" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]CPAC 2021: Former President Donald Trump. CPAC 2021: Former President Donald Trump.[/caption]

At times, the conference seemed like a kind of recreation. There’s nothing wrong with recreation, per se. But recreational activity is what you do in your downtime, when there is no urgent work to address. CPAC’s name references “political action,” and it was difficult to see where it was happening.

Matt Schlapp is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC. As he and his wife were interviewed by the co-author of his forthcoming book, the interviewer used a sports metaphor to describe the state of the nation. In most games, he said, one cannot determine who will emerge victorious until the final stages of the contest. He then posed a question: if the fight to save America is thought of as a game of golf, which hole (out of 18) are we currently on? Honestly, I can’t remember whether Schlapp said the 16th or the 17th hole, but it was one of the two.

When the interviewer asked the audience the same thing, almost everyone agreed that we are quite late in the game. And this was where I glimpsed, with some clarity, the current situation for conservatives: if we’re really in a situation where the very fate of American liberty is at stake, and if we’re losing that fight, and if we appear to be running out of time for a comeback… well then, for God’s sake, why are we leisurely sitting at a hotel and recreationally discussing our dire straits while using metaphors of recreation?

With this in mind, I went back to my room and started drinking. I was going to The American Mind’s “Hot Gulag Summer” party that evening. It would have an open bar, but I knew I should probably be at least half-drunk when I arrived. (My intellectual mystique is amplified when I get loquacious.) I took some notes while I drank. The Biden administration recently published an insane pamphlet about how they plan to use every means necessary to neutralize the threat of “domestic extremists,” by which they mean “people who disagree with Democrats and dare to admit it.” It occurred to me that almost everyone at CPAC—both the harmless ones in the business suits and the harmless ones in the feather boas—would be classified as “domestic extremists” by their own government. The pamphlet sees the threat of domestic terrorism everywhere—but only the kind that targets minorities, groups like “persons of color, immigrants, Jews, Muslims, other religious minorities, women and girls, [and] LGBTQI+ individuals.” It studiously avoids any reference to Antifa or Black Lives Matter, two groups that contributed in key ways to the unprecedented violence that unfolded across the nation last summer.

It also occured to me that the real baddies—the demons of the liberal establishment’s imaginings—were curiously absent. Despite the media’s insistence that QAnon is a sprawling movement that will overthrow the government if they aren’t dealt with, I hadn’t seen or heard a single reference to Q in 48 hours. That should tell you something.

I got another beer and some whisky.

When the Uber picked me up to go to the hotel where the party was, I was a little more than half-drunk. A short-haired, rotund, tattooed millennial-in-a-mask was driving. I asked her if I could sit up front. She said no. As we drove, we passed a sea of American flags and Trump banners outside the hotel where CPAC was happening. “Ugh!” she said disgustedly. “What is going on here? What is wrong with these people?” I told her about the event and that I was one of “those people,” and that she was driving me to a party with tons of “those people.” It got weird after that. She apologized and assured me she has “lots of conservative friends.” “Good luck,” she muttered as I disembarked.

When I got to the party, I was surprised to see that most people were drunker than I was. I ordered a double whiskey. I talked to a number of people that night—some of them with names that readers of this piece would know, but I don’t kiss and tell. Generally speaking, though, the conversations I had shared some strange similarities.

Almost everyone agreed that leftist authoritarian statism is rapidly remaking the nation. Almost everyone agreed that Biden was probably an illegitimate president because of a combination of fraud, manipulation of election procedures, and the censorial psy-ops of corporate media and Big Tech. Almost everyone agreed that we are very late in our metaphorical tour of the greens. And yet, there was still an aura of optimism. After I switched to gin, one prominent commentator told me that he would not countenance any defeatism, from me or anyone else. Fair enough. I decided to walk back to my hotel at about 11 pm. It struck me that sometimes celebration can be a kind of commiseration. Hot Gulag Summer, indeed.

[caption id="attachment_191432" align="aligncenter" width="1920"]CPAC 2021: Former President Donald Trump. CPAC 2021: Former President Donald Trump.[/caption]

I woke up at 9 am the next day, ate some bacon, and then read a bit from the book of Revelation. My scholarly work this summer is focused on apocalyptic rhetoric: in particular, the secular apocalypse. After finishing an early lunch down the street, I tripped over the base of a road sign that was bent upward. I fell. Hard. My knee was all bloody, and my elbow didn’t feel right. I got to my feet and found my glasses over in the grass, put them on my face, and walked back to my hotel. I drank a beer as I washed my wounds and tried to decide whether I needed medical attention for the elbow. Oddly, there was no visible damage to it. It still worked, but certain movements were excruciating. Trump was talking around 4 pm. I mulled it over as I drank two beers, then decided to head back to the conference.

On the way, I encountered large groups of Trump supporters on the street corners, waiting to welcome the former president as he arrived at the venue. Flag-waving and rap music. A box truck drove by with a large screen on the side which displayed the final electoral tally for the 2020 election. (Owning the cons, I suppose.)

Inside, I entered the long line to pass through the newly-erected metal detectors and get into the conference hall. Some guy ahead of me in line was talking passionately to the people behind him. I looked at the side of his hat and saw a small, gleaming pin: “Q.” Good God, all weekend without the crazies, and now one finally turns up. I’m stuck behind him in a long line, listening to him jabber, while intently staring at my phone to avoid contact. He was explaining to some polite lady in a suit that one of the “worst kept secrets” of our sick era is that John Kennedy, Jr. didn’t die in that plane crash. Needless to say, he is alive today and played some role in the development of the COVID-19 vaccine.

After getting a seat, I sat and listened to about 2 hours’ worth of speeches until Trump took the stage. This wasn’t the first time I had seen him speak live. As a professional rhetorician and an oratorical stylist, I am interested in his delivery. But there are diminishing returns. Watch a few speeches, and you know exactly what you’re getting. After about an hour, my elbow was killing me. I left the speech partway through, and went back to my hotel. I ordered up some beer from Door Dash and started writing this.

CPAC (as Dr. Thompson once said of the Kentucky Derby) is decadent and depraved. But these are heady times on the political right. The stakes are high, and the sands are shifting. It feels like everything is up for grabs. It feels like we could build a movement. It feels like we’re doomed. In essence, the spiritual sensation is one of momentum—we’re moving toward something. Something important. I’m not sure anyone knows exactly what it is, but it’s in the air. The weird electricity we felt at CPAC extended from our shared recognition of the gravity of this particular moment in the history of the nation.

The Greek word from which we get our word apocalypse means “revelation”: apokalyptein. Apocalypse is fundamentally a genre—a particular way of talking about the end of things. An apocalypse is a telling, a testifying to a vision that reveals how the end will unfold. The people who set upon Dallas gathered to sing these songs for the doomed—“dirges in the dark,” if you will. Call it the 16th hole. The 17th. Call it whatever you want. We might not know yet what is to be revealed. But we’re about to find out.

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