CPAC 2013: Angry and beaten right wingers offer wacky ideas in search for electoral victory
Delegates at fringe Republican convention seek a way back into America’s heart at a key annual meeting of conservatives
Gene Wisdom, a 55-year-old conservative from Nashville, Tennessee, was no fan of Barack Obama. Clutching a book called The Communist, he was waiting eagerly to meet the book’s author, Paul Kengor, so that he could sign it. The book, which detailed the life of black American journalist and labour activist Frank Marshall Davis, bore a startling subtitle: “The untold story of Barack Obama’s mentor.” That worked for Wisdom. “It is very convincing,” he said.
Believing that the president is more or less a communist would be surprising in many political circles, including many Republican ones. But Wisdom was not just queuing at another book launch. He was one of the crowd at the largest and most important conservative gathering in the American political calendar, where the outlandish is commonplace.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), hosted by the American Conservative Union, does not do moderation or restraint. At times it appears to maintain only a loose connection with political realities. This is an annual shindig of conservative clans from across the nation. But this year the conclave took place against the sombre backdrop of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s disastrous defeat.
For a location, organisers had plumped for a gigantic convention complex just outside Washington DC. It was a place of giant hotels and expensive upmarket chain restaurants, surrounded by freeways. It felt like an artificially suburban, self-contained, inward-looking universe with almost no natural relationship to the surrounding landscape. As such, it was perfect.
Obama’s win has left many American conservatives angry. They are mostly furious at Romney – a vastly rich titan of free market capitalism and deeply religious social conservative – whom they consider not rightwing enough. “This Romney campaign was the worst campaign in the history of the United States,” said pollster Pat Caddell.
Other consultants complained that Romney had failed to hone the right conservative message. But then it is not easy. The movement is a fractious mix of social conservatives who hate abortion and gay rights, fiscal conservatives who do not care about such things but hate government, and then foreign policy conservatives who are obsessed with the latest fashion in perceived threat – a hot seat currently occupied by Iran.
So instead, conservative activists often find themselves glued together by emotion, paranoia and a firm belief that America is about to turn into a liberal totalitarian state. Tea Party groups promoted themselves with events linked to the Hunger Games, the dystopian sci-fi novel and film, and a video that fantasised about violent revolution. In a giant exhibition hall in the bowels of the centre, dozens of stalls vied for who could be most apocalyptic about the state of America. One contender was Cliff Kincaid’s group called America’s Survival. Kincaid was also promoting a film about Frank Marshall Davis. But this work postulated Davis was not just Obama’s political father but also his biological one: a development that would shock the many conservatives convinced Obama is a Kenyan. “He is a Marxist, though. It is his background,” Kincaid said.
The idea that Obama – whose administration has seen a wild stock market boom and who boasts Goldman Sachs as a major campaign contributor – is to the left of Lenin would seem insane anywhere outside this place. But inside CPAC there is a vast self-referencing ecosystem of media and thinktanks to back up that world view. Corridors are lined with talk radio shows and booksellers all barking up the same tree that says Obama is a nightmare come true, the very embodiment of a leftwing anti-American autocrat. A cinema even beamed films like Frack Nation, America at Risk and Hillary: The Movie. Internal logic is not always a strong point. In one film screening about abortion, an interviewee onscreen declared: “They are attempting to do abortions on women who are not pregnant.”
Those same corridors were also full of fresh-faced members of the Young America’s Foundation handing out posters – eagerly snapped up – of a beaming Sarah Palin riding on a horse. “They see her as a star. As someone to look up to and a person of change,” said foundation spokesman Adam Tragone.
Not many Americans outside CPAC share that view. The former Alaska governor is seen as someone who left her job as governor of Alaska early to pursue a media career. Her talent for mis-statements, which helped derail John McCain’s 2008 presidential run, are a joke for many Americans – not to mention people overseas. But then even Palin looks like a genius compared to another CPAC star, Donald Trump. The reality TV mogul was given a primetime slot which he used to launch a plea for a return to American manufacturing, even as he boasted of buying all his TVs in South Korea. “I am continuously criticised. It’s unbelievable,” he mused.
Not surprisingly, many have called on CPAC – and the wider Republican party on which it still exerts powerful influence – to change. Obama’s victory was built on the votes of the young, women and minorities: all demographics that some conservatives have toiled mightily to offend. Nor have those habits been broken. CPAC embraced Trump but did not invite gay Republicans, with their GOProud organisation reduced to a single speaker on a single panel invited along by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “We are taking tolerance out of the closet,” boasted institute director Fred Smith, which raised the question of why it was there in the first place.
Yet, unlike gays, outreach to non-whites was a theme of Cpac. But it did misfire on occasion. One panel on conservatives from non-white backgrounds featured two white speakers, including a standup comedian from Hollywood. Panel moderator Suhail Khan explained – apparently in earnest – that Hollywood was considered minority outreach due to liberals dominating the entertainment industry. “Cartoon films have a very left message. The Lorax was a recent example of that,” he said.
Another disaster was a Tea Party-organised panel entitled “Tired of being called racist?” which was attended by at least two white nationalists. As black speaker K. Carl Smith outlined his vision of a colour-blind ideology, two young white men, Scott Terry and Matthew Heimbach, spoke up to defend slavery, racial segregation and insult Martin Luther King. The meeting descended into an ugly shouting match, though Heimbach, who heads the White Students Union at his college, explained later to the Observer: “After a few drinks most people here agree with us.”
That is no doubt a demented pipe dream. But conservatives do have a serious image problem of being too white in a country whose skin tone is changing more with every election cycle. Much of the convention’s attention was focused on America’s millions of Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing major demographic in America and who have fled the party because of its hardline stance on immigration control. Belatedly many have realised that is a major problem. Kay Rivoli, a singer known for her viral YouTube ditty Press 1 for English, even admitted as much. “We need to change on immigration reform,” she said.
But on nearly everything else Rivoli was a font of optimism about conservatism’s political future. “We have to be a little more loud, a little more brazen,” she said, though it was hard to imagine such a thing. She then happily mused that somewhere in the giant CPAC hall a future conservative president was walking. “There’s a possibility,” she said.
Not everyone sees it that way. Bill Nitze was wearing an 18th century costume, complete with Revolutionary War-style hat. He styled himself a conservative, keen on the constitution and a patriot. But, despite his elaborate dress, he was hardly a CPAC fanatic. “This group, in my view, is too associated with what I call the last stand of white Christian America,” he said. So who had Nitze voted for in 2012? “Obama,” he replied.