Two years ago, at the dawn of the Trump administration, Kellyanne Conway predicted that 2017’s CPAC would really be TPAC, or “Trump Pac.” What was premature spin then is conventional wisdom now.
The Conservative Political Action Conference has always been what the great historian Daniel Boorstin called a “pseudo-event.” It has no formal role within our politics and no binding power outside of it. It’s part trade show, part infomercial, part convention for the various tribes of the Right.
I was invited to speak at CPAC this year, which is a good sign given that I’m not exactly beloved by MAGA Nation these days. I passed. Still, I don’t begrudge conservatives attending CPAC, nor do I think that going amounts to an endorsement or rejection of the president and his ideas.
If you’ve been to CPAC, you know it’s a bit like a right-wing Comic-Con, albeit with marginally fewer cosplayers. Some go to be part of the show, others just to take it all in. No one expects everybody dressed as Marvel’s Thor to endorse DC’s Superman.
But to the extent that CPAC is an infomercial for what the organizers want to sell as conservatism today, it really was TPAC, with the commander in chief cast as the Man of Steel, by which I mean the allegedly hamburger-hunting Stalin himself, whose nom de guerre literally meant “man of steel.”
Trump is not a dictator, but his two-hour speech, possibly the longest ever delivered by a U.S. president, shared many of the traits associated with demagogues who feed off a cult of personality.
Very long speeches are a way of proving dominance over an audience. In 2013, Russian president Vladimir Putin held a press conference that lasted for nearly five hours. Fidel Castro would routinely give speeches that exceeded that. Got somewhere to go? Too bad, I’m the only game in town. Stalin once gave a lengthy speech that was later released on vinyl. The entire B-side consisted of recorded applause.
Trump’s speech was a virtuoso performance, showing off the man in full. But the overriding theme to the pudding was that there is only Trump. One of the great challenges for conservatives in the Trump era has been to navigate between supporting the man’s policies and supporting the man.
Over the last two years, you could hear echoes of this tension in the ubiquitous refrain: “He’s better than Hillary would have been.” That’s a defensible proposition for conservatives, but never before in the history of the conservative movement have conservatives lowered the bar to the Democratic nominee the president faced in the prior election.
No serious conservative defended George H. W. Bush by saying, “At least he’s better than Dukakis would have been!” And no one denounced conservative critics of the 41st president as being secret Michael Dukakis supporters.
In Trump’s sprawling address, which he began by literally hugging the American flag, he denounced and castigated any competing source of conservative authority, including several people who served in his own administration.
His fact-challenged braggadocio and his whining — about the media, the Mueller probe and every other source of inconvenience — was an at times brilliant, at times pathetic effort to encourage the audience to invest themselves in Trump himself, not his ideas or the ideas that have formed the glue of the conservative movement for decades. Trump’s instincts now have papal authority.
The schism between defending the man and the agenda was obliterated. Instead of loving what he’s doing despite his faults, the audience was implicitly asked to love him because of his faults. His celebrity is all that matters, and his narcissism is infectious.
In his 1962 masterpiece “The Image,” in which he introduced the concept of the pseudo-event, Boorstin posited that a celebrity is a “human pseudo-event.”
“We try to make our celebrities stand in for the heroes we no longer have, or for those who have been pushed out of our view,” Boorstin wrote. “Yet the celebrity is usually nothing greater than a more-publicized version of us. In imitating him, we are simply imitating ourselves.”
That was the part of the message that got Trump the nomination and the White House two years ago. And now it’s the entirety of the message from the main stage at TPAC.
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