The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), organized by the American Conservative Union, is regularly the most anticipated event on the conservative calendar. Although it has become increasingly circus-like in recent years, it remains the year’s foremost gathering of conservative activists, several days of speakers normally include leading officeholders, and it is considered a testing ground for prospective presidential candidates.
Over the weekend, CPAC invited Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at this year’s event, happening later this week in Maryland. Of late, Yiannopoulos, a “tech editor” for Breitbart News, has been a regular guest on college campuses and a constant source of irritation to campus liberals. Recently, the University of California–Berkeley greeted his arrival with riots. Despite the fact that Yiannopoulos holds a number of noxious opinions, we have defended his right to air them against those who would shout him down or worse.
CPAC is different. The annual event helps to define and broadcast the priorities of grassroots conservatives. Whatever Yiannopoulos’s politics, they are not conservative in any meaningful sense. Indeed, Yiannopoulos has said so himself. Appearing on HBO’s Bill Maher Show just last week, Yiannopoulos said that he was not sure he would call himself conservative.
What Yiannopoulos has called himself is a “chronicler of, and occasional fellow traveler with, the alt-right,” that various group of “reactionaries,” ethno-nationalists, white supremacists, and others, who have set themselves against Reagan-style conservatism and who have developed a robust online presence over the last year. The latter is in no small part thanks to Yiannopoulos, who wrote an essay largely praising the alt-right last spring; according to him, the alt-right is generally composed of “dangerously bright” “intellectuals” and “mischievous” “rebels.” While Yiannopoulos has tried to distance himself from Richard Spencer and other, more unabashed white nationalists, he has had no qualms making common cause with the hordes of Twitter users who photoshop Jewish conservative writers into ovens. Yiannopoulos — who has himself hurled anti-Semitic slurs (he recently described a Jewish BuzzFeed reporter as “a typical example of a sort of thick-as-pig s**t media Jew”), and who helped to popularize the term “cuckservative” — defends himself against charges of bigotry by reminding everyone that he has Jewish ancestry and is gay. The latter is part of his excuse for defending pederasty on a podcast in September 2015, then again during an interview in January 2016. Recordings of those statements were unearthed this weekend, shortly after CPAC’s announcement.
‘Trolling’ is not conservatism, and there is no virtue merely in upsetting campus Democrats.
On Monday morning, the ACU cited those recordings as its reason for rescinding Yiannopoulos’s invitation. But that Yiannopoulos did not have a place at CPAC, or at any forum that describes itself as “conservative,” should have been obvious from the start. Instead, the ACU put conservatives in a no-win situation. Had they permitted him to speak, it would have been considered a tacit endorsement of his opinions. Now, having rescinded his invitation, CPAC will be portrayed by Yiannopoulos’s many fans as one more organ of leftist-style speech-policing. Whatever happens later this week, CPAC has diminished true conservatism’s appeal.
It has become fashionable in conservative circles to cheer every apparently right-leaning gadfly. But “trolling” is not conservatism, and there is no virtue merely in upsetting campus Democrats. There are many conservatives who do regular battle with left-wing agitators — but who also are of high character, and advance conservative arguments and defend conservative principles with poise, wit, and good cheer. If CPAC wants to highlight the challenges for conservatives on campus, there are dozens of respectable options.
The alt-right and its “fellow travelers,” meanwhile, openly detest the “conservatism” that the ACU was founded to defend. CPAC should have taken them at their word.