It was just after midnight on Friday morning. As we approached the American border, Yanky—yes, his name is actually Yanky—my conservative colleague connected his phone to the car’s Bluetooth and cranked up a song “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. I laughed and rolled my eyes.
He told the border guard that we were going to a conservative convention. I felt everything tighten in my body, and I held my breath—a reflex from my social justice days where the very word “conservative” was not to be uttered under any circumstances. Would we be detained? Interrogated? Of course not. The border guard did not care, and I needed to calm down and chill out.
The decision to go to CPAC was very last minute. Our news outlet is growing rapidly and the ability to cover events such as this is now a sudden part of our reality. It’s new to my colleague and I, and there was a nervous energy in the car as we pulled an all-nighter to wind our way down through the Adirondacks and eastern states toward Fort Washington, MD, where CPAC was being held.
It felt like I was in an alternate universe version of On the Road with Red Bull instead of booze, Advil instead of acid, AM talk radio instead of jazz. As Kerouac himself puts it, “the best teacher is experience.” And this was certainly a new experience.
Yanky is a fascinating young man whose story is worthy of an entire monograph. His first language is Yiddish, and he learned to read and write English when he was 16. He ran for provincial office when he was 23. He’s not that much older than that now, but he’s preternaturally wise and sociable. He has an uncanny knack for politics. We disagree on many things, and the conversations are fun and combative. I’m thankful for his friendship. Friendships with conservatives is a relatively new thing for me.
Somewhere around Delaware, he told me that the major difference between Republicans and Democrats these days is that the Republicans want to police crime and the Democrats want to police language.
I paused because this felt right to me. Spoiler: it’s not that simple.
The Trump CPAC circus
At CPAC I met a great number of friendly people. At one of the convention-adjacent bars, an older gentleman and I got into a brief healthcare debate when he heard I was from Canada. “Do you believe healthcare is a God given right?” He asked.
“Do you think the Interstate system is a god given right?” I asked.
We drank our beers and watched sport highlights on the big screen. Many of the attendees, it seemed to me, were there to express patriotism and assert their rights to guns and very large sodas. I didn’t see any glaring examples of toxic masculinity or virulent racism. There was LGBT representation, many people of colour, many young college students, and many, many more MAGA hats.
And then there was the main attraction. Trump. Yanky and I arrived an hour early to set up shop in the media section.
In front of me was a producer for the Showtime series The Circus. She told me that they were picked up for another season, and that things were going very well.
The crowd erupted in adulation as Trump took the stage and proceeded to snuggle the American flag. It was legitimately creepy and it was the closest I came to feeling unsafe during the trip.
It occurred to me that college kids there love him because he’s a living meme. The world’s greatest internet troll. He’s the world’s greatest internet troll on tour with his greatest hits. “Lock Her Up,” “Hillary’s Emails,” “Fake News,” “Witch Hunt,” “No Collusion.” He trots out his “Freebird” midway through his set. The crowd erupts and joins in the chorus: “Build the Wall.”
He spoke about how he won the election. He talked about numbers and projections. “They said we couldn’t get to 270,” he said.
He spoke about other world leaders: “They like me!”
He started to talk about tariff laws and ended up musing about political correctness somehow. It felt like listening to a rambling grandfather who just happens to accidentally have good comedic timing, so you almost don’t mind.
“You know I’m totally off script right now. And this is how I got elected. By going off script,” he said.
He mocked the Green New Deal. And expressed his desire for the Democrats to turn it into an election issue. He spoke about how the “maniacs” want “trains to Hawaii.”
He then turned his sites to wind energy. “Darling, Is the wind blowing today? I’d like to watch television, darling,” as if wind energy worked that way.
He pivoted then to “fake news.”
“Our great First Lady says I shouldn’t say certain words,” he said.
The crowd chanted “Do it! Do it!”
So he did it.
He pointed to us in the media section and called us “fake news.” And the crowd booed. I decided to turn around and smile in response to the boos. And a lady said, “Don’t worry, we still love you.” She had lent me an iPhone charger an hour earlier. For a fleeting moment I was in the centre ring at The Circus.
Of the media he said: “These people are sick.” Of the house intelligence committee he said: “These people are sick.”
It seemed to me that Trump is a creature who feeds off of moral panic. It makes him stronger. Attention makes him stronger. Negative energy seems to make him practically invincible.
“I tell you Matt Schlapp (the head of CPAC) is loving this. This is a lot more than he’s paying for,” he said.
He then moved on to inauguration crowd size, complaining that the media consistently misrepresents his crowd sizes. This is always where he’s at his weakest—when he complains. In a way that I’m still struggling to articulate, this is his contribution to the victimhood culture that his base bemoans.
It reveals that his vanity is his weakness. When Trump projects victimhood, he temporarily loses much of his crowd, or at least, they become less engaged. He can’t seem to let go of his own failures, he tries, unsuccessfully to massage them into successes.
Obama (as president), for a great majority of Americans was an aspirational figure; Trump (as president), for a great majority of Americans is simply an asshole. But because of that, he has set the bar very low for himself. It should be, at least in theory, easy for Trump to exceed expectations. It should be noted, however, that in the 80s, and 90s, there was no more aspirational figure in America than Donald Trump. He was adored by Hollywood, and probably still holds the record for being the most rapped-about billionaire in musical history.
“I spent Christmas all by myself.” The crowd awwed. “Just me and a few hundred men and women outside with machine guns. Beautiful machines guns. And I’m in the White House and I was lonely. I said, ‘Let’s go to Iraq.’”
Then he said something that actually impressed me: “We reject oppressive speech codes. … Today I’m proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research grants,” he said.
He spoke for over two hours.
“I’m in love. You’re in love. We’re all in love together,” he said with his arms open wide. And at least on this point, for this one isolated moment, he was 100% right.
The CPAC provocateurs
Although I understood and mostly agreed with Yanky’s argument that Republicans tend to not police language, there was an undertone of censorship at this year’s CPAC.
Laura Loomer, a right wing provocateur, was banned during this year’s CPAC for interrogating Oliver Darcy, a CNN journalist who is famous for leading deplatforming campaigns. While I am not a fan of Loomer and her abrasive ambush tactics, it seems to me that CPAC overreacted in this situation and should have levied a less severe reprimand. The answer to deplatforming should never be more deplatfoming.
Molly Jong-Fast of the new never-Trump outlet The Bulwark spent the entire convention “owning the cons” with funny, sometimes snarky and sometimes mean-spirited tweets. And while CPAC did not violate her first amendment rights, I did notice a great deal of conservative commentators complaining about her presence at CPAC and her status as an employee of a conservative news outlet. As a “token liberal” at a centre-right outlet myself, I was discouraged by this.
The source of the anger toward Jong-Fast was a mean-spirited and quickly-deleted tweet about the appearance of radio host John Batchelor (who is currently battling cancer) combined with her well-documented pro-choice beliefs. Some on Twitter opined that she should not have been there repping a conservative outlet—a very strange opinion from those who generally champion ideological diversity.
We need to recognize and speak out when we see those who rail against censorship become censors themselves. It doesn’t matter if the views they are censoring are reprehensible or appallingly offensive. For all of Trump’s many flaws, his steadfast dedication to freedom of speech is perhaps the main reason he was elected. And CPAC’s moves seemed antithetical to that.
For me, the star of CPAC was Van Jones, the liberal CNN contributor who braved the “away crowd” to speak on the issue of prison reform. He told the attendees that “the conservative movement in this country … is now the leader on this issue of reform.” Of course, for speaking this inconvenient truth, he was shamed online by the left, and called a “sell out” and an “op.”
He said something else that I thought was resonant and hopeful. He said, “I think what makes America great is that we have two political parties. One believes in liberty (the Republican party); One believes in justice (the Democratic party), and when we work together we get liberty and justice for all. It’s a highly optimistic message, but I found it refreshing. And the fact that Jones would be open enough to appear at CPAC to express this gave me hope for a less divisive tomorrow.
I would link you to the video of Jones saying this, but there’s just one problem. CPAC deleted it. You see, it turns out that two other right wing provocateurs, Faith Goldy and Nick Fuentes, were accidentally featured in an official CPAC wrap-up video. CPAC officials decided that they did not want to associate themselves with them, so they deleted the video. For all of the talk about free speech, there seemed to be a lot of erasing going on.
It turned out that Yanky’s assertion that Republicans aren’t censorious wasn’t entirely true. While there may be more censorship on the left these days, conservatives are still more than capable of deplatforming, shaming, and mobbing.
We departed Fort Washington bright and early on Sunday morning. Okay. I lied. We had some drinks the night before, so we got a late checkout. But trust me, it felt bright and early.
As we drove, we argued about Trump’s speech. Yanky thought it was a stroke of genius whereas I simply thought he was having a stroke. Should Loomer have been banned? I said no; Yanky said maybe. We agreed that conservatives have to be careful not to start censoring the more “problematic” elements of its movement. We agreed that Trump’s proposed executive order to protect free speech on college campuses was a good thing.
He once again connected his phone to the car and played “God Bless the USA.” I sang along, changing the lyrics of the chorus to “I’m proud to be an embarrassment” to make him laugh. He then informed me that it was National Anthem day in America and played “O Canada”—the politically incorrect version—on a loop as we made our way back north. I sang along, word for word.