Is CPAC Still Whack?

The biggest conservative conference of the year used to be welcoming to libertarians. What about this year?



Politics just ain't that fun anymore. They're insane, sure, but not fun.

This is what I'm thinking as I work up the courage to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), held annually just outside of Washington, D.C. The event, sponsored by the American Conservative Union, officially started today and thousands of conservatives are out in force. CPAC started in 1974 and there was a time in the Aughts when it routinely reached out to libertarians and even groups such as the ACLU. Over the years, Reason people, including myself, have spoken on panels there. But that was then and this is…a weird political moment where the Republican president is chumming it up with a North Korean dictator while his former personal lawyer and fixer is testifying about his boss's alleged high crimes and misdemeanors before Congress. And the House is rejecting the president's emergency declaration about a Southern border crisis. These are not normal times, so is there any reason to expect CPAC to be an island of normalcy? Probably not, especially given some relatively recent highlights of the conference.

A dozen years ago, in 2007, CPAC gave its first-ever Jeane Kirkpatrick Academic Freedom Award to Matt Sanchez, a Marine reservist who had gotten harassed by college socialists while tabling for ROTC on the campus of Columbia University. The organizers didn't know it at the time, but Sanchez had appeared in a number of gay porn films with titles such as Jawbreaker and Montreal Men. To their credit, when it came out they rolled it with just fine (so did conservatives more generally; Sanchez went on to write for National Review and Fox News).

In 2011, CPAC's then-organizer, the writer and novelist Lisa De Pasquale, worked with Andrew Breitbart and Ann Coulter to bring the gun-owning lesbian singer Sophie B. Hawkins for a self-consciously "Big Gay Party" sponsored by the Republican gay rights group GOProud. "I'm liberal in bed, conservative in the head," she told Reason at the time. That ended up being De Pasquale's last CPAC rodeo. During her time running the show (she started in 2006), she told me today on the phone, the reigning ethos was to grow the crowd every year and bring in new groups that might bring fresh blood to the broadly defined conservative movement. More recently, she said, it seemed to be less about a big tent and more about a tighter definition of conservativism.

Between 2010 and 2015, the libertarian-leaning father-son duo Ron Paul or Rand Paul won every CPAC presidential straw poll except for one (in 2012, Mitt Romney took home the honor). 2015 was in fact a helluva year: CPAC gave the Jeane Kirkpatrick award to Duck Dynasty patriarch Phil Robertson, who believes that AIDS is God's "penalty" against the very same homosexuals who partied at CPAC just a few years earlier. By 2016, Matt Welch and Todd Krainin were asking "Is There Anything or Anyone for Libertarians at CPAC?" In keeping with "Betteridge's law of headlines," the answer was no. In 2017, CPAC not only disinvited Gamergate troll Milo Yiannoupoulis after an old interview surfaced in which he may have defended pederasty, current organizer Matt Schlapp said that the one-time Breitbart hand was actually a libertarian and not conservative at all (in fact, Milo is vocally anti-libertarian.). Also in 2017, President Donald Trump graced the stage at CPAC, denouncing "globalists" in the most bone-headed, nativist way possible. "There is no such thing as a global anthem," pronounced Trump while arguing that nobody can simultaneously be an American patriot and a citizen of the world.

This isn't to say that CPAC isn't still capable of throwing some meat in the general direction of libertarians between rave-up denunciations of socialism and anti-anti-racism by social-media sensations Diamond & Silk CPAC. As Reason's Joe Setyon reported, one of today's speakers at the conference was CNN's Van Jones, who was there to talk about criminal justice reform. "Matt Schlapp and I disagree on so many things," Jones told Setyon, "but we respect each other, and we listen to each other…and we also do agree on criminal justice reform."

That's the sort of ideological surprise I'm going to be searching for while asking attendees and presenters how they feel about Donald Trump and the future of the conservative movement. Trump has only been in office for a couple of years but he has redefined what it means to be a Republican in substantial ways. The Party of Lincoln used to be in favor of immigration, free trade, the FBI, and endless war. Nowadays, not so much. Ostensibly small-government senators such as Ted Cruz, who just a few years ago denounced Barack Obama as a tyrant for issuing an executive order shielding some immigrants from deportation, are refusing to say whether they will join just 13 Republican House members in voting to terminate the president's phony-baloney declaration of emergency. During Michael Cohen's testimony, many Republicans shouted themselves hoarse while taking pot shots at the convicted liar but didn't really undermine his claims, either. Conservatives may not be especially fond of libertarians these days, but it's far from clear what they believe in anymore, except for defending Donald Trump no matter what. It will be interesting to find out what they're thinking.