If there was one word to describe this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, that word would be “retro.”
I’m not talking about the Lilly Pulitzer-esque elephant skirts worn by a gaggle of college Republican women, or the young men who openly embrace the middle pages of the Brooks Brothers catalog, though there were plenty of those. The conference, which is the largest yearly, national gathering of conservative activists, had, instead, a certain air of trying to relive glory days, belied and destroyed from within by an acid-orange life-sized Muppet currently flopping across the countryside, complaining that grocery stores have Mexican food departments.
Sure, the backdrop was remarkably similar to every other year: crowded campaign booths, plenty of hilarious conservative swag, and swaths of “young Republicans” on their annual “Spring Break,” mixing with each other and dancing in the middle of the exhibition hall to someone’s jazzed-up running playlist from two years ago. There’s the drinking, the schmoozing, the competitive tailoring, the guys dressed as Minutemen, the long-winded speeches, the just-slightly-out-of-touch panels on things like “the entertainment industry” and Millennials. There were rousing calls to battle the Establishment, and to set fire to the status quo, to send our glorious, collegiate minions out into the world to resurrect the corpse of Ronald Reagan and set it upon the tired aphorisms of liberal thought, currently winning our conversations and dominating our institutions.
But this year, with a Trump nomination looking likely, there’s a cloud that’s descended on the conservative-sphere. Even as the applause lines crackled and the Presidential candidates shook hundreds of hands in rolled-up shirtsleeves, skepticism in many of conservatism’s stalwarts and heroes seemed to be on the upswing. Where just a few short years ago there would have been standing ovations, there was polite clapping. Declarations of “we’re winning!” followed by pleas for financial support were more noticeable. And promises to defeat “the Establishment” seemed to lack the kind of courage and heart they’d exhibited even just last year.
The transformation isn’t surprising, when you think about it. When Republicans talk about “the Establishment” now, it’s hard to tell who they’re blaming. CPAC is an event held right outside of DC, featuring mostly legacy organizations, attended mostly by people who live in and work around the centers of power. It’s far too expensive to travel for the event now, and if you’re not a member of an organization, club, media outlet or special interest group, it’s almost impossible to navigate — or even need — the conference at all. The “Establishment” has a grand presence at CPAC, it just doesn’t seem to know it.
Part of the problem is, of course, that the definition of “the Establishment” regularly changes. Where it was once John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, those two are either out of power, or remarkably agreeable of late. Ted Cruz used to be a Tea Party darling, but he’s Establishment now, as is Marco Rubio. And where the “grassroots” once had a widely held definition of conservatism — a Tea Party that had some common-sense demands at its core — many of its most vocal leaders have moved on to policy positions further outside of the mainstream. Certainly, many conservatives and libertarians have a problem with the current President’s brand of comprehensive immigration reform, but it’s harder to side with someone against that, if they’re talking about rounding up 11 million people in what would be the largest police operation in American history.
Part of the problem also is that such a policy drift has left the door open for conservative charlatans, people who have less of a desire to move the ball forward as they do to sell books and hike up speaking fees. If your enemy is ill-defined, the strategy to combat them could be just as amorphous. The perfect, somewhere along the line, became the enemy of the good — and since no one sells paperbacks or books speeches once “perfect” appears, nothing can ever be perfect, anyway.
Donald Trump, as a candidate, has laid a lot of Republican falsehoods bare. No sane movement with a serious set of ideological principles could see a man with no platform as a viable candidate for higher office. No party that valued standards for their leadership would let someone whose most notable achievement was a handful of seasons on a reality show take their mantle. There’s nothing “anti-Establishment” about Donald Trump, except that he happens not to be a Republican at all. And that seems to be what those clamoring to deconstruct the Republican “Establishment” want: the entire conservative movement burned to a crisp.
Robespierre, after all, was the last victim of the Revolution.
A desire to hold on to power in face of inevitable irrelevance is not merely a problem of those ramming the gates. Desperate to cling to a belief that someday, somehow, they’ll make a difference, there are plenty of legacy conservatives that have held on far too long, preventing a new generation from adapting a more modern party. As long as college Republicans keep showing up at CPACs, they reassure themselves that the movement is in good health — these kids see the light and will carry it forward into the future. Unfortunately, many of those kids are legacies themselves, the products of staunchly conservative families and educational institutions, who speak mostly to each other and look back fondly on the CPACs of their youth as they would on their senior year Spring Break, as they leave politics for more profitable careers. The old school Republicans are left looking in the mirror, smearing lipstick on their aging faces, like a scene out of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
So what happens to a party that fractures from both sides? Well, there will always be a CPAC next year to find out.