Last week, conservatives gathered for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference. The event was more subdued than usual, and that wasn’t just because there were fewer evening parties than in previous years. If someone visited the conference from Mars, and they wanted to know about American politics, they would’ve guessed that the Republican Party was all but wiped out in the most recent election instead of the opposite.
The conference in many ways was akin to a Communist Party in the old Soviet Union meeting in 1991. Speakers came up and spoke the party line, but the applause was half-hearted. Just as even the rank and file Communist Party members had begun to abandon communism in 1991, many of the CPAC attendees had abandoned Reagan conservatism. It was going the way of bellbottoms.
CPAC tried to latch onto one of the rising strains on the right, nationalism. But it seemed insincere, and we got panels that announced America was in the middle of World War III and asking if America can’t be like Heaven and have a wall and extreme vetting. Meanwhile the other rising strain on the right, libertarianism, did not have a presence on the main stage at all.
Although there was no showdown between “Never Trumpers” and Trump supporters, some of these divisions were present at the CPAC hub. Unlike the main stage, libertarians and libertarian-friendly organizations had a presence. The American Conservative Union itself chose to focus on criminal justice reform at their booth. Students for Liberty, Americans for Prosperity, and FreedomWorks made their presence known. Three other organizations used their booths to oppose the proposed “border adjustment tax” that Congressional Republicans are proposing to boost exporters. In a way, the CPAC exhibitors hub served as the staging area for conservatism in exile.
The unified front also wasn’t there on foreign policy. On Thursday, there was a breakout session on Russia led by two Russophobes, Tom Rogan of National Review and former CIA agent John Schindler. But on Friday, the Charles Koch Institute sponsored a panel on foreign policy realism led by The American Conservative‘s Daniel McCarthy. Ever since Donald Trump proved it was possible to win last year by challenging the neoconservative establishment on foreign policy, there has been a hunger on the right for a new direction on that. Libertarians have a chance to shape the right’s overall direction on this issue as well.
While some libertarians had a presence at CPAC, many others chose not to attend. It was a missed opportunity to make inroads.
The only times there seemed to be energy was when Trump spoke at CPAC and at the Bull Moose Party, which was hosted by the organizers of the Deploraball. The attendees had a clear vision for what they wanted, which is a more nationalist and populist conservatism and country.
In many ways this CPAC was the passing of an era. Traditionalist Reagan conservatism was dead, and this was an unintentional attempt to give it a dignified funeral. But the battle for the right is in many ways just beginning. The fault lines have become too big to be papered over by a single conference.