Asking Conservative Political Action Conference attendees for their views on conservatism is like asking arsonists to lecture on fire safety. For decades, the fondest hope of the kind of agitators attracted by this annual event has been a Republican president who shares the breadth of their grievance, the depth of their anger and the fervor of their conspiratorial delusions. In Donald Trump, they finally found their man. He will be welcomed this year — as he will be for the rest of his life — as the god-king of Crazy Town.
The problem is that Trump has extended his realm to include state Republican Party institutions across the country, which now see their primary role as the censure of sanity. The vast majority of elected Republicans have demonstrated their cravenness by falling meekly into line. And the vast majority of Republican voters seem to view Crazy Town as preferable to what they believe is the other place: the socialist, “PC,” police-free Republic of Liberalistan.
There is no doubt that negative partisanship — the making of political choices mainly out of contempt for the other side — has increased the power of activists in our system of government. Any group — even one with views outside the mainstream — that can seize control of a political party can count on the broad support of partisans for that party. So plenty of supporters of John McCain’s and Mitt Romney’s presidential candidacies, when faced with a binary choice on the ballot, voted for Trump’s election — and for his reelection, despite a failed and divisive first term.
This dynamic is dangerous because politics has a morally instructive role. When those holding opinions outside the mainstream gain high office, their opinions are inevitably mainstreamed. Views espoused by an extremist at CPAC merely reinforce the views of other extremists. Views declared from behind a lectern with a presidential seal on it are at least partially normalized. If we believe that moral leadership can improve a country, it follows that immoral leadership can debase it.
An example: Many Americans have an uninformed or mixed opinion about undocumented migrants. When an American president compares such migrants to vermin, slanders them as rapists and criminals, shatters their families at the border and condemns their children to cages, Americans are given permission for dehumanization. Other GOP politicians are given a green light for demonization. White supremacists are confirmed and emboldened in their hatred. Not just the politics of the country but also the character of the country are poisoned.
This is one reason that right-wing populists can never be true conservatives. If intellectual conservatism means anything, it means one generation has the moral duty to cultivate humanizing beliefs and habits in the next. Conservatives do not believe that human beings come pre-wired for character. Children must be carefully taught to know what is right, informed by millennia of reflection on the matter. They must be instructed to do what is right through example and habituation. No form of traditional conservatism would urge people to follow their destructive passions or indulge their baser instincts.
Some might object that such a conservatism no longer exists as a mass movement in American politics. True, but beside the point. This is not a political platform. It is a moral framework to make sense of life and politics. Claiming it is irrelevant is like saying the Pythagorean theorem is outdated.
By a conservative standard, what should we make of the activists and participants at CPAC? It is worth noting that many who attend each year are young. What moral messages is an older generation transmitting to the next?
With many of the sessions premised on the big lie of a stolen presidential election, young attendees will certainly be taught that truth is infinitely malleable in service to ideology.
They will surely be instructed that their political opponents are really ruthless, inhuman enemies, bent on canceling and silencing them by any means necessary.
By the systematic downplaying of the recent attack on the Capitol — and probably some wink-and-nudge approval — they will learn that the recourse to violence is permissible in politics, and that democracy is valuable only if it serves their ends.
From the attendance of eager presidential hopefuls such as Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, they will learn that exclusion, deception and the maximization of White grievance are the future of the GOP, and that encouraging sedition is not a shameful disqualification for the Oval Office.
From Trump’s deification they will learn that civility is for losers, that compassion is for suckers, that misogyny can be fun, that strength requires brutality and that racism makes for good politics. They will learn that deadly incompetence, based on lies and lunacy and costing countless lives, means nothing. They will learn that the Constitution can be shredded in the pursuit of raw power and that populism must be rowdy enough and transgressive enough to break a few windows and kill a few policemen.
Call this what you will, but it has nothing to do with conservatism.