Attending the Conservative Political Action Conference for right-wingers plays much as losing one’s virginity does for many teenagers. An initial euphoria during the obligatory passage rite gives way to the overwhelming need for a shower.
The event won pseudo-event status for me moments before my big moment in the big ballroom more than a decade ago. A conference functionary inquired, as though I would be addressing a WWE audience rather than CPAC, about my theme music. The dilemma tormented. Should I make a grand entrance to old-school “Eye of the Tiger” Hulkster? Rock-n-Wrestling-Connection era “Real American”? Or perhaps “Voodoo Chile” of the circa-NWO Hollywood Hogan?
Naturally, the inquiry made me laugh. He told a joke, right? So why did he sternly look upon my hysterics—surely something much more than a solidarity snicker—about entrance music? If the introduction of stadium-style sonic accompaniment didn’t cue me into the infotainment vibe of the gathering, certainly the late Jane Russell—herself a bit overwhelmed by the Hollywood quality of it all but still all alpha female in her eighties—sitting to my right on the dais did.
Years before speaking at the event, I attended planning meetings as an emissary of one of the sponsoring organizations. The theatrics in the smoke-empty room generally eclipsed the drama at the choreographed conference. One longwinded older gentleman argued passionately for representation at the lectern for the Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party. Everyone found this peculiar in the mid-1990s. Why doesn’t anyone find the universal Ronald Reagan fetishism strange today?
CPAC really plays best outside of the auditorium. Anyone harboring prejudices insisting on the homeliness of conservative women, or a notion that they dress conservatively, comes in for a rude pleasant awakening walking about the venue. Like the nanny state they decry, CPAC’s right-wingers liberally dispense goodies. As a proud cheapskate, I indulge in the chocolate handouts, cheap sunglasses, and t-shirts no matter the message they bear. Like a class reunion, the halls present people from one’s past to enjoy or avoid. There’s usually an Uncle Sam on stilts or some other spectacle worth viewing. In the digital age, the interactions with non-pixelated people seem more crucial than ever.
A tension lies within the words Conservative Political Action Conference. Fully politicizing conservatism necessarily waters down the philosophy and gradually turns it into something else. All right-leaning people want conservative political action but conservatism doesn’t pertain strictly to politics the way it does at CPAC. More Republican than Right, the event showcases on-the-rise presidential aspirants and on-the-wane celebrities who may have once said something pleasing to Republicans.
An “action conference” strikes as a contradiction in terms. Passively listening to words doesn’t exactly scream “action.” The participants, however fired up by Donald Trump or Sarah Palin, arrive home much too hungover, jet-lagged, or spent to spring into action. Perhaps the event’s annual late-winter appearance, not exactly the height of election season, tacitly admits that the “action” plays as part of the overall act.
This may be more of a criticism of conferences in general than this meeting in particular. And certainly if the number of registrants serves as an indicator of success, then organizers could rightly say that CPAC appeals to a lot more conservatives now than it did when it started more than four decades ago with 125 attendees. But the loud Jumbotron commercials that follow speeches, a bus ride (with more ads running on a loop) from Union Station to what seems like West Virginia, and shakedowns of major sponsors for money that might be better spent on down payments for National Harbor McMansions make the event more impersonal every year. Conservatism works for enterprise better than it works as an enterprise.
The conservatives come, so the politicians come, so the conservatives come. If one understands conservatism as a strictly political movement, then the numbers bespeak an amazing triumph. But if conservatism represents something other or in addition to a popularity contest—as ambitious as a guide for right living or as modest as an amorphously defined outlook—then numbers might represent dilution, speaking to the lowest common denominator, or even an intellectual or inspirational meeting morphing into a quasi-sporting event in which fans seek catharsis by cheering on their team.
“What starts out here as a mass movement ends up as a racket, a cult, or a corporation,” Eric Hoffer observed. Which of the three fates has the flagship gathering of the conservative movement avoided?