The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which kicks off Thursday just outside Washington, should be a celebratory occasion for the conservative moment.
A new Republican President was just sworn in. GOP majorities in both houses of Congress are preparing to take up long-awaited reforms to tax and health care policy. A Supreme Court nominee with sparkling credentials was announced this month to rave reviews.
But as thousands of conservative activists converge for their yearly bacchanal on the banks of the Potomac, there are signs that conservatism itself in a state of crisis.
It starts with a President who treats the ideology as an inconvenience. “Don’t forget,” Donald Trump warned last year, as the ill-fated rebellion against his nomination gathered steam. “This is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.” Once-doctrinaire colleagues on Capitol Hill have proven unwilling to defy him. After years of preaching fiscal restraint, few Republicans have balked at the red ink Trump’s domestic agenda would spill. Under Trump, misfits and renegades who once hung out at the party’s fringes have moved to key policymaking roles in the White House.
They are running the show at the CPAC as well. The event—part policy confab, part candidate cattle call, part trade show—has long since evolved from a sober gathering of dedicated conservatives to a raucous bonanza of hard-core activists and college kids hoping to get lucky at the booze-soaked after parties. And the migration of the party’s fringe from the margins to the mainstream is made plain by the agenda.
On the docket are discussions about political correctness, Trump’s “deplorables” and “snowflakes, safe spaces and trigger warnings.” Dog the Bounty Hunter will be the special guest at an event to gin up interest in drafting far-right sheriff David Clarke as a Wisconsin Senate candidate. (The flyer promises a free sample of “Clarke-Tosterone: For the treatment of Low-T RINOs and GOP Eunuchs.”) Another panel is titled: “If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?”
Professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos was given a prime speaking slot to discuss free speech, despite—or perhaps because of—his track record of making offensive remarks about women, Muslims, blacks, transgender people and Jews. His invitation was rescinded after an online video surfaced in which he appeared to make approving comments about pedophilia.
Yiannopoulos ia a favorite of the alt right movement, which disdains conservatism. It says something that he was deemed a top draw at a conference convened to venerate it. And the controversy is only deepening the party schisms. In far-right circles, the release of the tape was blamed on mainstream Republicans trying to stop the alt right’s ascendancy.
That effort will be on display at CPAC too. On Thursday morning, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, the group that puts on the conference, will give a speech called “The Alt Right Ain’t Right at All.” Another speaker’s address—”Conservatism is About Ideas, Not Identity”—suggests a rebuke to the alt right as well.
Conservatism is a big tent, and CPAC often reveals its tensions. In recent years, the young libertarian crowd has clashed with the Bush-era neoconservatives. Debates sprang up over the inclusion of GOProud, a group of gay Republicans. The event, catering to a self-selecting group of activists, has always provided a distorted picture of the party’s true state. And the familiar factions of the conservative movement—the social conservatives and fiscal reformers and foreign-policy hawks—will all be represented as usual.
But the agenda reflects the rise of the GOP’s populist fringe. Trump, who will address the conference Friday morning, has always been a CPAC favorite: his early speeches there, beginning in 2011, served as the ur-text of his campaign platform. Back then he was just one of the conference’s far-right celebrities, with a quasi-ironic following that matched his national profile. Now he is the President, and the party is remaking itself in his image.