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A 'Safe Space' for Establishment Conservatism at CPAC 2017

Inside an alternate Republican reality where the alt-right never happened

Sure, there were more "Make America Great Again" hats this year. And Donald Trump's talk was now the main course, rather than an appetizer. But overwhelmingly, there was little at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to betray that the past year or two of U.S. politics had happened or anything like the "alt right" had ascended. For four days, the massive, annual gathering of right-of-center students, strategists, activists, media, and general GOP enthusiasts functioned mostly as a "safe space" for establishment conservatism and traditional Republican politics.

For one thing, there was nary a Pepe the Frog in sight, nor millennial men sporting the undercut hairstyle so popular among young neo-"deplorables." At CPAC, the hordes of young people packing the expo-hall and after-parties could mostly be found in long-standard young-conservative trappings: navy-blue blazers and bow-ties, shorts dresses with sheer tights and high-heels, khaki pants, polo shirts, elephant-print skirts, and swag t-shirts bearing slogans like "Socialism Sucks."

Even the Breitbart News party Friday night was rather subdued, at least by 2016 standards of absurdity. During the 2016 election, Breitbart emerged as perhaps Trump's biggest cheerleader in the press and the media epicenter of the alt-right. At the Republican National Convention (RNC) last July, a Breitbart-funded party featured far-right figures like anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller and Dutch politician Geert Wilders backdropped by borderline-pornographic "Twinks4Trump" posters and renderings of Trump as Superman, while notorious alt-right web figures like Chuck Johnson, Roosh V, and Lauren Southern roamed the crowd. The whole place was charged with a manic, bizarre, youthful, and sometimes frightening energy.

In comparison, Breitbart's luau-themed CPAC shindig might as well have been a think-tank book party. Journalists from publications like The Hill and The Weekly Standard mingled over cocktails with staffers from D.C. lobbying firms and policy institutes. Sweet-looking old ladies sat eating roast pig and watching smiling hula dancers. The Breitbart staffers on hand wore sensible conference clothing and refrained from shouting wildly about Sharia Law and how feminism is cancer—a notable difference from the RNC party, at which alt-right provocateur and former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos was the featured speaker. Not even the three-story boat or the arrival of Dog the Bounty Hunter could cut through the stultifying normalcy of the night's event.

The specter of Yiannopoulos—disinvited as a CPAC keynote speaker earlier in the week over comments he made about teens and sex—loomed large in the minds of TV pundits and Twitter conversations going into the conference. Yet the only time I heard him (briefly) mentioned by CPAC speakers or attendees was during a third-day panel on campus politics. And the one mainstage speech explicitly addressing the alt-right (from the American Conservative Union's Dan Schneider) portrayed them as a left-wing fascist movement. Meanwhile, white-nationalist of recent renown Richard Spencer showed up on CPAC's opening morning, but the only folks who flocked to him seemed to be reporters, and within an hour he was kicked out by conference organizers with little fanfare.

The small Spencer kerfuffle aside, CPAC '17 showed little evidence of intra-right drama. Certainly there was nothing like the CPAC "civil war" between more traditional, limited-government conservatives and Trump supporters that some in the media and conservative movement predicted. Trump's Friday morning speech did draw an enthusiastic crowd, but the president's presence was notably absent from the story CPAC speakers and movement leaders told about conservatism.

Even discussions of the 2016 election seemed to largely ignore Trump or his fans as unique phenomenon. Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign strategists gave a session touting the success of their data-driven strategy in Iowa, leaving out the part where this tack failed to match Trump's polar-opposite appeal. A Friday breakout session titled "Revolt of the Deplorables: Inside Election 2016" had seemed like a promising space to find some mention of some of the unique factions, forces, and rhetoric that drove Trump's victory; instead, it featured conservative media insiders dwelling on how the liberal press doesn't get "real" Americans and #NeverTrump conservatives had ineffectual messaging.

Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/NewscomZach D Roberts/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/NewscomAt panel after panel, people's talking points—liberals are dumb, conservative are being censored, socialism is evil, guns are good, and God Bless America—could have come direct from many CPAC stages past. Former president Barack Obama and the Affordable Care Act were still a frequent target of ire (Cruz jokingly asked if we could "retroactively impeach" him), as was the supposed sensitivity of college students these days and the liberal bias in the mainstream media. Wayne LaPierre, head of the National Rifle Association, played a 2003 clip of him fighting with a CNN news anchor, which he also showed at CPAC 2016. Limited-government groups and criminal-justice reform advocates plowed on like Jeff Sessions isn't attorney general and Trump doesn't want to spend billions on a border wall.

And the fact that Republicans now dominate Washington seemed who matter little in terms of tailoring CPAC content. Speakers and panelists managed to mock Democratic voters, policies, and leaders (sometimes laudably and sometimes tediously) but failed to focus much on what conservatives could do to make things better.

This is, of course, a trap that many conferences and panels fall into (the amount of substance-lite, lean-in, lip-service-to-intersectionality feminism that plagues prominent panels on the subject could make you weep into your free Bloody Mary). And CPAC is not an academic or professional conference but an event designed to rally broad Republican bases and allow for conservative schmoozing. Some degree of rose-tinted, ra-ra rhetoric is understandable, and probably no more common this year than at conferences past.

Trump's speech was, predictably, it's own uniquely odd and anti-liberty phenomenon. But what's remarkable is how the overall CPAC milieu seemed so little attuned to or affected—visually or rhetorically—by the bizarre past year in American politics, and conservative soul-searching it's spawned. Gadsden flags may have had competition from #MAGA hats at CPAC 2017, but the basic conflation of conservative characters and factions was familiar—the pro-lifers and tax reformers, center-right think tanks and college Republicans, older men in Founding-Father cosplay, groups of frat bros in U.S. flag shorts, hardcore anti-immigration and carceral types (ProEnglish, Sheriff David Clarke), Rick Santorum-style family values crowd, libertarian-leaning millennial groups, smiling ladies at aggressively pink Enlightened Women's Network and Future Female Leaders booths, conspiracy-spouting talk-radio hosts and perfectly polished TV pundits, gun-rights advocates, chubby middle-age couples in slogan t-shirts, and various identity groups bearing signs explicitly announcing their allegiances ("Blacks for Trump," "Transgender Conservatives," "Jews for Trump," etc.),

While the Democrats spent the weekend warring over control of the Democratic National Committee and, more broadly, the future of the party's purpose and coalition, CPAC conservatives seemed emphatically avoidant of anything that looked like big-picture conversations or redefining what it means to be Republican.

So how do we read CPAC: a sign of surprising health in the conservative political coalition, or a carefully curated and sanitized synthesis of it? A safe space for mainstream/establishment conservatives to talk without the distracting din of white nationalists, men's rights activists, Twitter edgelords, and Ann Coulter? The conservative movement's leaders sticking their collective heads in the sand? Tacit approval for "Trumpism," or a rejection of it? A sign—to use two recently popular words—of resistance, or normalization?

I don't presume to know the answers to these questions. But it does seem clear that whatever shake-ups have happened in the Republican coalition, and whatever disproportionate share of online attention and horror the "alt right" might command, much of the machinery of the conservative movement is little touched by it. They are (for better or worse) busy doing their own wonky, weird, intellectual, insane, freedom-promoting, or reactionary but long-established things. Many of these things are not simpatico with small government or libertarian ideals (as Eric Boehm details here), but such has long been the case with right-leaning gatherings, where religious and socially conservative contingents, "compassionate conservatives," national-greatness and neocon types, etc., outnumber those there for fiscal responsibility or getting government out of our lives. Whatever CPAC 2017 did represent, it wasn't a radical departure from the same mixed-bag of limited-government principles, frightening authoritarianism, and performative populist rhetoric that the conference has cultivated for years.

Photo Credit: Zach D Roberts/NurPhoto/Sipa USA/Newscom

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  • SIV||

    shorts dresses with sheer tights and high-heels

    Classy. Not a pussy hat in sight.

  • Fatty Bolger||

    How gauche. Everybody knows that Vagina Couture is the pinnacle of political fashion these days.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Vagina Hijabs are the pinnacle

  • SIV||

    I should also add, as a fashion pedant, that "sheer tights" are traditionally known as "pantyhose" here in America, particularly if they are 30 or lower denier

  • ||

    Plenty of dick heads though.

  • WakaWaka||

    Watch out- there's the alt-right behind you!

    The more intellectually shallow people who are about as 'libertarian' as Chuck Schumer spotlight fringe white nationalists under the ominous guise of the 'alt-right' the more their ideas gain traction.

  • Contrary Ian||

    @WakaWaka: Exactly- what was the turnout at the alt-right's convention in DC, 200 people? That's their national convention and it's got fewer people than an 8 o'clock showing of La La Land.

  • Chip Your Pets||

    Wow. Can you get more divergent accounts of the same event than this blog post and the previous one?

  • Acosmist||

    You're not supposed to notice that.

    "This is fine."

  • american socialist||

    Lol wow ya.

    Also i dont know if there is really an alt right so it makes sense it wasnt here

  • White Tennis Balls, Jr.||

    This is what Hugh Akston and a few others are referring to when they say something like "Reason is not a monolith."

  • ||

    Was just going to point that out. Clearly socialist gaslighting by Reason meant to confuse us.

  • Crusty Juggler - #2||

    Reason purposely confounds its readers by offering differing perspectives of the same event.

    Don't fall for its journalistic tricks!

  • Chip Your Pets||

    These aren't different perspectives, they're contradictory accounts of the same event.

    Didn't know Reason was into alternative facts.

  • Contrary Ian||

    STOV
    Acronym Definition
    StoV Standortverwaltung (German)
    STOV Small, Task-Oriented Vehicle
    STOV Sustainable Tourism on Vashon (Vashon Island, WA)
    STOV Saint Thomas of Villanova
    STOV Short Take Off and Vertical Landing

  • Sidd Finch v2.01||

    alt-right web figures like Chuck Johnson, Roosh V, and Lauren Southern

    LOL

  • The Grinch||

    Don't know about Johnson but Roosh V and Southern are alt lite at the most.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Alt-Lite doesn't make for clickbait

  • Fatty Bolger||

    "Daddy, I can't sleep. The alt-right is in my closet and I'm scared."

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Trump's speech was, predictably, it's own uniquely odd and anti-liberty phenomenon.

    WRONG ITS.

  • Aloysious||

    I read this as "WRONG TITS", and was going to correct you by saying this article isn't about Chuck Schumer.

    My bad. Carry on.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    SHOW US YOUR ITS.

  • Crusty Juggler - #2||

    You don't have to ask me twice, sailor.

  • Aloysious||

    okay, okay. Don't be so pushy.

  • Chip Your Pets||

  • Fatty Bolger||

    It's not her fault, her hands were literally shaking at the thought of the alt-right when she wrote this.

  • SIV||

    Reason has to be feelin' pretty L7 in the role as establishment spokescucks of the progressive center-right.

  • Robert||

    Square?

  • Ken Shultz||

    The alt-right is 2017's answer to the evil clown sightings hysteria from 2016--only this time it's for supposedly educated people.

    Dicks out for Harambe is supposed to be scary? And the alt-right has a haircut to go with it now, too?

    Oh noes!!!

    To my mind, "alt-right" still refers to a handful of 4chan nerds who think it's positively hilarious anytime anyone takes anything they do seriously.

    But if we keep talking about the alt-right, eventually, people will come out of the woodwork to accept that mantle.

    Is that what you want?

  • The Grinch||

    The joke's on Reason: the left considers libertarians to be alt right.

  • american socialist||

    Ya thats probably true

  • buybuydandavis||

    It's the new shriek of the Left.

    Racist! Sexist! Homophobe! Lost their punch. They moved to Nazi! Now it's Alt-Right.

    All of them mean the same thing: "I hate people to the Right of me. *Please* don't dislike me!"

  • Contrary Ian||

    The left painted itself into a corner when it called Romney racist (self-deportation) and sexist (binders), so they had to turn it up to 11 with Trump: Nazis everywhere!

  • Rothbard'sbitch||

    Lauren Southern alt right really?

    See alt right could be a meaningful term if the definition wasn't so broad and murky. Like what can you call Trump's brand of conservatism? It doesn't really fit with neoconservatism or standard GOP politics. So alt right could be a useful term to describe a new branch of conservatism that supports Trump and is more aggressive in its tactics then other conservative factions along with having different views than other republican factions. But if your going to throw in neo nazis and white supremacists into the mix and call them alt right then its no longer meaningful.

  • american socialist||

    Trump is a democrat who is good on taxes and regs

  • JeremyR||

    Bill Clinton?

  • some guy||

    I'll believe the part about taxes and regs when I see it.

  • Memory Hole||

    And republican primary voters apparently now perfer democrats over traditional conservative candidates.

  • Memory Hole||

    Yes I'm a cat. Prefer god damn it.

  • Contrary Ian||

    Can't limit the differences to taxes & regulation: there's Gorsuch, don't forget.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    At panel after panel, people's talking points—liberals are dumb, conservative are being censored, socialism is evil, guns are good, and God Bless America—could have come direct from many CPAC stages past.

    One of those things is different than the others. Liberals are dumb. Socialism is evil. Guns are good. AND YOU BETTER BELIEVE GOD BLESS AMERICA.

    Meh. Whataboutism alert: The central planners on the other side of the aisle dragged the Democrat Party far away from anything resembling champions of civil liberties and who spoke up? Trump isn't conservative so much as a central planner of a slightly different shade, and he's going to take the GOP to basically the same big government place as the left, but with gun rights. At least until he gives up the White House in four years (or possibly but less likely Congress in two) when those on the right suddenly rediscover their small government bonerfides.

  • Bra Ket||

    Yeah when I was first reading that sentence I thought she was heading for something about how it could just as easily have been said by libertarians.

  • Sevo||

    "Trump isn't conservative so much as a central planner of a slightly different shade, and he's going to take the GOP to basically the same big government place as the left, but with gun rights."

    Not sure.
    De Vos, Pruitt, Chao, Regs 2-for-1 action, and some judicial appointments look good,
    Yeah, he sucks on immigration; Sessions could well be a disaster (Holder, anyone?)
    I can only say he's done far better than I might have hoped for 11/9/16; I assumed a disaster not far better than the hag would have delivered.
    Sorry Old Mex: "yada, yada, yada, yeah, he sucks, yada yada! (I'm one of those 'open border' guys, but I'm also willing to prioritize)
    There is scant doubt he's far superior to the available option. And he's made a LOT of the proper enemies

  • straffinrun||

    My alt right bucket is filled with squirmy bastards that keep trying to climb out. I don't care what you call yourself, I just know that you're a racialist.

  • call your mom||

    Richard Spencer showed up on CPAC's opening morning, but the only folks who flocked to him seemed to be reporters, and within an hour he was kicked out by conference organizers with little fanfare.

    What a shame. Spencer certainly has to be more fun that a roomful of scrotum-clutching cucks.

  • Rich||

    "The kids are alt right."

  • Chip Your Pets||

    Mommy's alt-right, Daddy's alt-right, they just seem a little weird.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Weird Al Alert!

  • Contrary Ian||

    don't nobody worry bout me
    why you got to give me a fight
    why can't you just let me be

  • Rich||

    resistance, or normalization?

    Why not both?

  • Crusty Juggler - #2||

    shorts dresses with sheer tights and high-heels

    Pics? Thanks.

    elephant-print skirts

    I am not really sure what that is, but...pics? Thanks.

  • Idle Hands||

    "Game over man."

    Bill Paxton is dead. Rip.

  • Crusty Juggler - #2||

    Roosh V and Dog the Bounty Hunter?

    Why weren't they protested?

  • Eman||

    "Inside an alternate reality where the alt-right never happened"

    So, an alternative to the alternative? "I, too, like to start my day with a hot cup of recursion, followed by an identical cup of exactly the same recursion."

  • Eman||

    "Inside an alternate reality where the alt-right never happened"

    So, an alternative to the alternative? "I, too, like to start my day with a hot cup of recursion, followed by an identical cup of exactly the same recursion."

  • Trigger Hippie||

    The double posting was oddly appropriate.

  • Africanis||

    Hey, did you all know according to liberals it's okay to punch white male libertarians. It's my go to line when I read stupid crap like this. Imagine a convention for conservatives is attended by such people who identify, shock!

  • AlmightyJB||

    Needz MOAR swastikas!

  • John Titor||

    notorious alt-right web figures like Chuck Johnson, Roosh V, and Lauren Southern

    ...And there goes ENB's credibility, declaring people like Lauren Southern as 'notorious'. I'm done.

    Enjoy being pathetic hacks who's limited influence will just shrink further and further Reason, you deserve it.

  • Sevo||

    Not offered on the e-version of the Chron, but the dead-tree version had an article on how Trump's presumed actions are affecting electric car sales.
    According to one of the few columnists who hasn't yet claimed Trump is a big poopyhead, it's killing them. She cites a guy in the south bay who is not certain whether he wants to buy one now that what amounts to a $10K gift from you and me may be in question. Terrific! Maybe it'll put Tesla out of business!
    Trump has done poorly on immigration (yes, I said that) and suggests he's going to do the same regarding trade barriers (but hasn't yet). If he manages to make people pay for their druthers (yes, all you greenies, that's you) rather than have the rest of us do so, he'd get my vote on that.

  • Cyto||

    This is a fairly silly set of observations.

    Nobody should seriously conflate the "Alt-Right" with conservatives. Aside from the obviously divergent ideological leanings, it is right there in the name that they chose for themselves. They clearly do not see themselves as mainstream or conservatives. Hence the label "Alt".

    The argument on "alt right" is "are they a creation of the media and a fantasy of the left." Their numbers would suggest yes. And as a libertarian, remember that "the media" spent much of the last year painting you as "alt right" too in an effort to marginalize your voice and ensure that you would not be heard.

    And as to Trump..... Well, the guy is the sitting president. But as for the absence of Trumpism.... well, he aint' a conservative and they have never pretended he was. His populist rhetoric plucks a couple of conservative notes, that is all. Trump didn't talk at CPAC last year because he was afraid of the reception he would receive. He was worried that conservatives were planning protests against him.

    Complaining that the largest ideology-driven conference in the country is "carefully curated" is similarly silly. What would you have them run - an uncurated forum? The point is to have a platform for conservatives to meet and discuss their ideology and strengthen alliances for the political fights to come. This explains the presence of the Trump team.(have power) And the absence of Paul Krugman or David Duke. (not conservative)

  • Azathoth!!||

    This--and the other articles about CPAC read like they're from people who are no longer on the inside.

    Reason has shit it's bed, and now it must lie in it.

    I think the 'writers' are beginning to realize that they're not going to be treated as quasi allies--or even actual libertarians-- anymore. The mask, as they say, is off.

  • MarconiDarwin||

    At panel after panel, people's talking points—liberals are dumb, conservative are being censored, socialism is evil, guns are good, and God Bless America—could have come direct from many CPAC stages past.

    Or from the reason.com comment section. Except maybe for that God Bless America part.

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