At CPAC, the Culture War Matters More than Politics or Policy

Even for conservatives who believe in individualism, group identity trumps all.


Nick Gillespie, Reason

It was good to run into the Albanian Americans selling the "Fake News" hats after a long day at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the country's largest annual gathering of people who identify as part of the right.

They were in their 20s (I guess, I forgot to ask) and two of them were brothers who were actually born in Albania and were able to come to America as asylees after the collapse of the communist regime in the 1990s. The other one was an aspiring screenwriter who had been an atheist liberal, a Bernie Bro, in fact, not so very long ago. Now he was a Roman Catholic. They all identified as conservative and were skeptical about libertarians. "It feels like a cop-out," said Kristian Nika, the only one comfortable enough to let me use his name. "That laissez-faire stuff, just letting people do whatever they want." He shrugged as he said it.

Still, they were amiable enough and the hats, which cost $10 a pop, weren't selling that briskly, so they had some down time and were happy to talk. Unlike most of what I encountered during the day, especially from the mainstage speakers, they weren't doctrinaire even if they had strongly held opinions. "I hate Trump," said Kristian, "I don't think he has a good moral character." He said the way the president let Kim Jong Un off the hook for the death of American student Otto Warmbier was screwed up (he used a more colorful term). But he didn't really disagree with him on policy so much, though he was surprisingly in favor of immigration for the most part. We don't need a wall, he said, maybe a fence, but probably not even that.

The former Bernie Bro was more emphatic that immigration was a problem, but even he wasn't that exercised by it all. He defined his conservatism mostly around a sense of family and that work or economic life shouldn't define the whole of one's existence. You want to be successful and ambitious, he said, but you need to keep things in perspective. They all lived in the Bronx and they disliked Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who they called "that Queens lady" because she lived in that borough for a time. But the Bernie Bro had harsher words for Sen. Kristen Gillibrand because she was a "corporatist" who recently made a big stink about rejecting PAC money but nonetheless hauls in a lot of Wall Street contributions.

All three of the Albanian Americans agreed that politics has less and less to do with specific proposals to change this or that law and much more to do with identity and culture. They were selling Fake News hats, after all.

The second day of CPAC supported the idea that politics, at least at CPAC, is really about culture.

There was far less on the program about specific policy ideas and more about creating a shared cultural identity. Glenn Beck kicked the day off by invoking the resurgence of socialism among Democrats and emphasizing that capitalism is predicated upon equality under the law but inequality of outcomes that generate wealth so that the richer take care of the poorer. He didn't talk much at all about Donald Trump and later told me that what he worries most about is that conservatives are neither deeply enough wedded to free markets nor concerned enough about technological change that is going to forever change employment. Most people, he said, whether on the right or the left aren't thinking enough about the future. He said it's as if we're stuck in the 1950s, with no sense of how technology has made all sorts of new possibilities open up but also sorts of potential issues. He wasn't talking nuclear bombs or climate change, he was talking about what happens when people don't have to work for a living anymore. He admitted to me he had no clear answers.

Talking w @glennbeck abt technological disruption and the failure of conservatives to offer an alternative future that gives hope.

A post shared by Nick Gillespie (@gillespienick) on Mar 1, 2019 at 10:52am PST

Candace Owens, the communications director at Turning Point USA, didn't suffer from a lack of confidence, about the future or anything else. She echoed the dictum made famous by Andrew Breitbart (who died on this day in 2012) that politics is downstream from culture. "The right gave up on culture," she announced from the mainstage, thus allowing the left to win the black vote. "The left have invested, infected, infested culture at every level." She didn't give a presentation as much as run through a series of greatest-hits slogans. The left (a catch-all term all the speakers used to designate anyone who was not self-consciously a conservative Republican) wants to give blacks a hand-out and not a hand-up. Black people need to stop idolizing LeBron James and start idolizing "Condoleezza Rice and Dr. Ben Carson." If conservatives and Republicans got good enough on dunking on liberals, there would be a "Blexit" or black exit from the Democratic Party. "We have to fight the cultural war," she insisted.

The two topics that virtually every speaker—including big names such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Vice President Mike Pence, CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp, and journalist Michelle Malkin—raised were abortion and immigration. These were not policy discussions but cultural ones. The CPAC speakers were against all abortions but they always invoke late-term abortions because they're making a rhetorical argument, not a policy one. Trump's beautiful immigration wall was invoked like a preacher might invoke a hallelujah during a call-and-response sermon.

To be against the wall was to be against borders and, well, you can't have a country without borders, can you? Such rhetoric ignores the basic fact that no one (to my knowledge at least) is saying that the United States should simply abandon all points of entry and stop processing people and goods as they enter the country. "If you don't have a border, you don't have a country," explained the vice president. "We've already started to build that wall…I'll make you a promise, before we're done, we're gonna build it all." The crowd broke out into a "build the wall" chant and gave him a standing ovation.

Jeff Malet Photography/Newscom

When Michelle Malkin spoke, she laid into the "grifters" who she says took over the Tea Party movement and then lobbied for immigration amnesty (this is a peculiar reading of the Tea Party, which started out as a movement against government spending before branching out to include anti-immigration groups in its mix). "Diversity is not our strength," the daughter of Philippine citizens averred. "My pronouns are U.S.A." She said that immigration was the country's biggest issue and that even CPAC had caved in to political correctness by disinviting people who were critical of racial diversity.

In such a setting, it was comforting to run into various people who enjoyed Reason or, like Howard "Cowboy" Wooldridge, were they to evangelize for explicitly libertarian causes.

@howardwooldridge is keeping it real at #cpac2019. "I expected every conversation to be, what sort of flaming asshole are you? But most are, Ok why does a cop want to legalize heroin? These kids are hungry. I'm happy to be proven wrong."

A post shared by Nick Gillespie (@gillespienick) on Mar 1, 2019 at 1:15pm PST

And it was good to talk to the Albanians, even if we didn't agree on all that much. "I really can't stand the idolatry of Trump, the former Bernie Bro told me on my way out the door. The three of them had gone to a party the night before thrown by Turning Point USA. At various points, he said, the entire crowd started chanting "Trump! Trump! Trump!" "Imagine if they did that for Obama," he said, shaking his head. But when all politics is culture, group chants are always going to be part of the program. In fact, they might be the biggest part.

Correction: I have fixed various minor typos since posting.