Rierson on the Right
I’m a Christian, American, conservative, Tar Heel, and Republican in order of personal loyalty. I currently serve as the chairman of the UNC College Republicans, though my term is almost up and my opinions here cannot speak for those held by all members of the organization.
Some of my favorite experiences as a College Republican have been attending the Conservative Political Action Conference held at National Harbor, Maryland each year. I have had the opportunity to hear from a wide variety of leaders and influencers on the right. The conference is the country’s largest annual gathering of conservatives, and it appears that the 2018 conference attracted some high profile controversy.
The liberal media would have you believe that CPAC is home to a bunch of fringe activists plagued by “-isms” and a sign of collapsing conservatism. As usual, they’re wrong.
The conference, which took place last week, showcased the diversity of conservative thinking and popular support for the Trump agenda. Conservatism is experiencing growing pains after winning bigly in 2016, but that is a good problem to have and openly discuss, as CPAC allowed.
I think a great deal of the complaints directed toward CPAC are a continuation of the reality-denying craziness leftover from Trump’s 2016 vanquishing of the Republican primary field and general election success.
The surprise election of President Trump and change of balance in power within the Republican Party and conservative movement have greatly changed the face of CPAC, which is held by the American Conservative Union and its chairman Matt Schlapp. Schlapp is a strong public defender of Trump, who employs Schlapp’s wife on the White House communications team.
I still have reservations about some of Schlapp’s decisions though, as the last two conferences have been more controversial than years past.
Flashpoints at CPAC 2018 included loud audience disagreements with a panelist who denounced conservative support for sexual harassers like Roy Moore, and racially charged remarks made by a CPAC official about former RNC chairman Michael Steele. Schlapp apologized to Steele for the comments, but stopped short of firing the staffer who made them.
President Trump gave a speech that was over an hour long, so you know someone got triggered. Marechal-Le Pen, niece of the French nationalist party leader Marine Le Pen, also addressed the conference. Schlapp claimed in a Twitter argument with conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg that the younger Le Pen is a classical liberal, but the argument fell flat.
A cursory glance at political media will reveal that liberal and establishment conservative thinkers are upset at Le Pen’s speaking invitation, and the general pro-Trump vibe of the event. They make some good points, especially Mona Charen, the panelist escorted out of the conference after being booed for criticizing the pro-Moore crowd.
I give CPAC credit for giving a place for the pro-Trump wing to speak, though. It is certainly a problematic choice, but his populist viewpoints deserve a place of prominent discussion in the conservative movement. Trump is governing as one of the most conservative presidents in modern American history, which CPAC acknowledges and celebrates.
The conference still offers a balance of right-leaning viewpoints. The 2018 speakers prominently featured Ted Cruz, Ben Shapiro, Gary Johnson, and others who take issue with the president.
Much of the CPAC environment comes from the attendees themselves. In the last few years, the political leanings of the crowd has shifted with the rise and fall of popular Republican politicians. Based on the conference straw poll, Trump’s support jumped from 3.5 percent in the crowded 2015 primary field of my freshman year to 93 percent approval in 2018.
This change represents a growth in Trump’s support among conservatives and the introduction of new faces, as whoever is leading in Republican approval polls usually attracts the most followers to CPAC.
CPAC speakers and attendees are a bellwether of the Republican Party and conservatism. Right now Trump is at the helm, and the conference reflects that. The conference and party leader could both improve their image, but much of their criticism is overrated.
Even with its growing pains and mistakes, I have greatly enjoyed attending CPAC for the last four years to witness bold speakers unite and inspire the conservative movement.