If you’ve never been to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), hosted every year in Washington, DC by the American Conservative Union (ACU) you might expect a dull, stuffy affair attended by old men smoking cigars in dimly lit rooms. In reality the conference is almost always attended by a large chunk of media, interested conservative citizens mostly from the DC area and students. In most recent years the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul has bused in hundreds of his supporters in order to tip the balance of the straw poll in his favor. The conference is usually a little bit of a sideshow, with a dozen attendees dressed in costumes, ready to take pictures with the hundreds of students present.
That’s what CPAC is like every other year anyway. This year, it felt a bit like a wake. There were no Paul supporters, and surprisingly, few Donald Trump supporters either. Few attendees wore campaign paraphernalia, you would never know it was an election year by the looks of everyone in attendance.
Even in the year following the election of President Barack Obama, the tone has never been, in my experience, so subdued.
It isn’t just the forthcoming election of a liberal (the choice now falls between likely nominees Democrat Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump), but also the potential destruction of the Republican Party as conservatives know it. Under Trump, the brand will inevitably take a beating from which it will likely not recover. After an entire generation of Republicans fighting back against stereotypes of racism and sexism, Trump will destroy all of the good work that Republicans of color and female Republicans have fought so hard to achieve. Instead of being known as the party of free enterprise, Trump will bring in the crony capitalism that many on the Left associate with capitalism in general. On the BBC yesterday, American Wall Street Journal reporter Sohrab Ahmari correctly said “If your candidate is someone who is not, when pressed on it, renounce support from the Klu Klux Klan… You need a candidate who is clean on the issue of race, so when they come forward and say ‘we support school choice and welfare reform’ this is not about attacking minority communities, it’s about uplifting them. That’s what is at stake here.”
On the main stage, politicians gave speeches on their visions for the future of conservatism in America but each speech fell a bit flat in the audience. They had a slow dancing in a burning room kind of quality. Trump has never indicated he is interested in any actual conservative policy, despite running as a Republican. Many of his stances (which change by the hour) are liberal in reality, whether they’re a positive view of the work done by Planned Parenthood or the belief that Obamacare didn’t go far enough in the government takeover of healthcare. It’s as unlikely for Trump to ask Paul Ryan for his best anti-poverty policy solutions than it is for Ryan to agree to help the entertainer businessman turned political candidate.
It’s unclear what role, if any, Trump or conservatives in the Republican establishment would be willing to play in a Trump run for the White House, or during the Presidency itself. If the mood at CPAC is any indication, it’s going to be a long few years in the wilderness rebuilding the Party, or perhaps, even starting one anew.