It’s technically true that I’ve never been to CPAC, but the preposition “to” is doing almost all the work in this sentence.
What I mean is that I’ve never been a panelist or an invited speaker at CPAC. In fact, I’ve never even attended a panel or watched someone invited to speak at CPAC. That’s because I’ve never bought a ticket to CPAC. I think I officially “covered” it for National Review one year — or rather was one of a half dozen staff writers who went to National Harbor to cover it — but for one reason or another I was never issued actual press credentials by its organizers and so could never make it past the gatekeepers into any of the sessions.
But the sessions aren’t really the point of CPAC — not for me, and not for many. And so I’ve spent a lot of time around CPAC, both that first year, when I came down from NRHQ in New York and tried to intercept interview subjects in hallways or elevators, and in the years since I moved to D.C.
Usually, I’ll head over as the day’s events are winding down and rendezvous with a motley band of colleagues, hacks, and fans — yes, even rotating Happy Warriors have three or five fans! — in the lobby of the Gaylord Hotel, or at some sponsored party, or in one of the sticky-floored bars that ring National Harbor. That part is always great, and indeed the principal value of the conference to me is that it makes far-flung acquaintances near-flung for a few days each year. I guess I do some “networking,” too, here and there.
All of this is to say that I think the criticisms of CPAC — “It’s a circus!” — are a bit overblown. CPAC is not supposed to be a colloquium of botanists. CPAC is supposed to be fun, and circuses are great fun.
Don’t get me wrong, CPAC is also deeply weird. It’s held at a weird place, for one thing. National Harbor is a kind of Epcot Center built on the ashes of a burnt-down plantation house on a Potomac backwater. The Gaylord Convention Center, which sits at the center of a dozen blocks of antiseptic, centrally planned New Urbanist condos and boutiques, is surrounded by a mind-bogglingly huge glass dome that amplifies the kind of Truman Show vibe the whole place gives off. Every time you leave you get the feeling that if you were to come back the next morning you’d find just an empty lot with a few Diamond and Silk flyers blowing around the grounds like tumbleweeds.
And the people are weird, too. At least a lot of them are. There are plenty of earnest Young Republican types and pet-issue policy guys, to be sure, but there are also nuts of every flavor. They include both the professional class (the Swamp Things) and the civilians, the ordinary Americans who come from all over to see the medicine show. If you’ve been to both Republican and Democratic national conventions you know what I’m talking about. The joke about the DNC is that it’s “the welfare state on vacation,” your local DMV at 10,000 times its size. The RNC is a much rowdier place, and this was as true when Romney was the nominee as it is now that a former WWE day player is running the party. For rank-and-file activists, the RNC is a place to cut loose, and in my head the median attendees will always be a married pair of Sun Belt small-business owners in matching denim vests replete with 15 pieces of NRA flair, sucking down frozen margs and mentioning a little too often that they’ve got a hot tub in their hotel room.
In other words, my kind of people!
CPAC is the same way, although with a more Beltway brand of decadence (one-third of the times I’ve been offered cocaine have been at CPAC). And again, that’s all great. Education policy is important, but it’s boring as hell, and you can’t build a winning political coalition on white papers alone. American politics has always been a pastime, and pastimes have to be diverting. Tocqueville got this but Rush Limbaugh did too. So did Roger Ailes and Andrew Breitbart. So did Bill Maher and Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee and John Oliver and, well, everyone telling jokes on television after 10 p.m.
CPAC, then, isn’t the problem. The problem is that the rest of politics has become like CPAC. The president’s rallies, the performative press conferences and pay-per-view negotiations with Chuck and Nancy, are all indistinguishable from it. Throw a rock and you’ll hit someone responsible for this. CNN as much as Fox, the White House as much as the Twitter meme-lords.
So let’s let CPAC be a circus and devote our efforts instead to getting the bearded ladies and the elephants off the streets and back under the Big Top.
This article appears as “Party of the Right” in the March 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.