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John Seward Johnson II’s sculpture, The Awak­ening, depicts a giant attempting to free himself from the earth. Nic Rown | Col­legian

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — “No, I’ve got nothing against him. But those hats. Red doesn’t look good on anyone’s head,” the woman in the red ele­phant-printed Lilly Pulitzer mini skirt says to me.

I don’t know her, but we’ve become lobby friends, trapped in a growing mob of young con­ser­v­a­tives locked outside the revolving doors of the Gaylord National Resort & Con­vention Center. Vice Pres­ident Mike Pence is about to deliver the first keynote speech at the annual Con­ser­v­ative Political Action Con­ference. To keep the hoi polloi out, Secret Service has locked all of the doors and posted heavily armed police officers around the whole building until the vice pres­ident fin­ishes his address.

Well, around most of the building. I’ve been to enough events and fundraisers at the Gaylord or the Ritz or the Orga­ni­zation of American States to know that here, the guns in the hotel lobby are more of a drama staged for CPAC attendees’ benefit than an actual pro­tective measure designed for the vice president’s safety. I bid goodbye to my momentary friend and walk down the hill through the light rain to try the back doors. And of course they are unguarded, unlocked.

A couple of other jour­nalists have also dis­covered my neat trick. Together we trickle up to the main con­vention hall and through the metal detectors that don’t set off when metal passes through them. The vice pres­ident is about to speak.

But like his security force, Pence is only here for show. CPAC is designed to hype up crowds of mostly college-aged people about con­ser­vatism, a movement pushing back against American pro­gressive liberal ide­ology (which con­ser­v­a­tives believe has been tyr­an­nizing the nation since the mid-20th century). It is not, however, an aca­demic sym­posium where pro­fes­sorial types present papers with solu­tions to problems such as an over-extended federal gov­ernment or the enormity of the Supreme Court’s power. CPAC belongs to the crowd — a uni­vocal body of fervent believers inspired by a great hope and fear for the future of the United States.

Pence attests to both feelings. He begins his speech by expressing his grief for the victims of the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, saying that no child should ever fear that sort of danger: The Trump administration’s first pri­ority is the safety of America’s youth.

“We pray for God’s wisdom that all of us in posi­tions of authority may come together with American solu­tions to con­front and end this evil in our time,” he says.

The crowd cheers in agreement.

But once he’s done his duty there, Pence switches to a more hopeful topic. He recounts how, in the past year, the Trump admin­is­tration has racked up a ter­rific track record of promises made and promises kept. According to Pence, 2017 was the most con­se­quential year in the history of con­ser­vatism. These are the facts: Trump appointed Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Trump signed an amazing bill cutting taxes for middle class Amer­icans. Trump’s federal dereg­u­lation efforts have been off the rails, rein­vig­o­rating American industry.

“Oh, and make no mistake about it: We’re gonna build that wall!” Pence says.

The crowd goes wild. A chant of “USA! USA! USA!” fills the win­dowless con­vention hall and some people throw their red “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” hats up in the air. Pence pauses a beat — as if reading a screenplay — to let the mob exercise its vocal chords a bit.

But when everyone pours from the con­vention hall after his speech, several college stu­dents in atten­dance dis­so­ciate them­selves from that faceless con­course cheering in the dark room.

“We shut down the gov­ernment twice over the promise to build that wall,” says Jordan Kali­nowski, a College Repub­lican from Penn­syl­vania State Uni­versity. “Even though this was a cor­ner­stone of Trump’s cam­paign, unless Repub­licans and Democrats can reach an agreement, we’re not going to increase border security.”

Kali­nowski adds that he does not have faith in Trump’s efforts; law­makers will not be able to reach any sort of security agreement.

“Per­sonally, I don’t think we’ll ever get a wall,” he says.

Robert Whitehead, a Tufts Uni­versity College Repub­lican, says he’s a “huge skeptic” of the wall, even if that is an unpopular opinion among Trump sup­porters.

“I think a security fence would do just as well in most places,” he says.

According to Whitehead, there are better ways to strengthen border security, such as more effec­tively reg­u­lating people who have over­stayed their green card limits.

“The wall is a big applause line Trump people pull out a lot,” he says. “But it won’t accom­plish any­thing.”

Before he can con­tinue, clapping coming from the radio booths behind us inter­rupts Whitehead’s skep­ticism. Political com­men­tator Ben Shapiro has stepped onto The Her­itage Foundation’s raised platform to give a radio interview. CPAC attendees rec­og­nized his bold eye­brows, and now a crowd of fans is forming around the Her­itage booth. Die-hards demand auto­graphs and selfies.

Cool.

When Shapiro actually speaks in the con­vention hall, he draws an even larger crowd than the vice pres­ident did. In the past two years, the internet pundit has risen from just another squawker in the con­ser­v­ative ghetto to the voice whose timbre sets the tone for the par­tisan echo chamber. Shapiro has amassed a devoted cult fol­lowing because he’s a young, smart, and (thank God, at last) cul­turally hip con­ser­v­ative.

“Pres­ident Trump has brought us one really fan­tastic thing. Hillary Clinton is not and never will be pres­ident of the United States,” he says.

The crowd takes the bait.

“Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!”

“Why bother?” Shapiro laughs. “She’s already in a jail of her own making some­where in the woods of upstate New York.”

But those are just the jokes, even a year after Trump’s inau­gu­ration. Shapiro’s main point is that facts don’t care about your feelings. That the age of political cor­rectness is over. That there is no such thing as your truth; there is only The Truth. Just some slogans dressed up with rhetorical flour­ishes and broad appeals to the Founders, common sense, and con­ser­vatism. We have seen this before.

As Shapiro wraps up his speech, I rush from the con­vention hall to the hallway behind the stage. A door marked “Stars Only” divides me and several other jour­nalists banging away on their laptops from Shapiro and his security entourage on the other side.

I call Alt-Right leader Richard Spencer for a live update on another speaker, French far-right politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen. Le Pen had told the crowd how she wanted to free France from the matter-of-fact glob­alism under the European Union, which she said she believes is “without a people, without roots, and without civ­i­lization.”

I need Spencer’s take on Le Pen, because CPAC offi­cials tossed him out of the con­ference for expressing similar — albeit incredibly racist — ver­sions of the same opinions. As I’m com­piling his quotes, Shapiro emerges from the “Stars Only” door, and a passing gaggle of young con­ser­v­a­tives spot him.

“Mr. Shapiro!” a George Wash­ington Uni­versity student in a red tie calls out.

I try to focus on my notes. Spencer is lec­turing on the dif­ference between European and American white nation­alism. He tells me it’s odd that CPAC would invite a French nation­alist like Le Pen, but exclude an American like himself.

“It’s a bit of a double standard, sure,” he says.

“Mr. Shapiro, may I take a picture with you?” a student behind me asks Shapiro.

“Obvi­ously, the core ide­ology of the National Front is nation­alism, and that means the French nation; ulti­mately, that means race,” Spencer says.

“Sure, sure,” Shapiro is taking selfies with stu­dents. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” he says for someone’s Snapchat story.

“And Marion’s grand­father is an Alt-Right icon, though, of course, one from a dif­ferent gen­er­ation.”

“Mr. Shapiro! Auto­graph?”

“The dif­ference between Marion and me is that the National Front became a main­stream political party,” Spencer says. “Con­ser­v­a­tives will attack people who are closer to them geo­graph­i­cally, while being more open to people abroad, who don’t chal­lenge their claim to deter­mining what is right and what is not right in America.”

“Will you speak at G.W.?” the student with the red tie asks Shapiro.

“I’m happy CPAC invited her,” Spencer says. “I wouldn’t be happy, however, if this means that Le Pen and the National Front are becoming more like American ‘con­ser­v­a­tives.’”

“Yeah, sure.” Now Shapiro is trying to leave the hallway, past all these stu­dents.

“One of the fun­da­mental problems with American con­ser­v­a­tives is that they define them­selves and America abstractly.”

Shapiro wants to keep it neat: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

But that’s just Spencer’s problem with con­ser­vatism.

“American con­ser­vatism is based in eco­nomics and con­fronting the Soviet Union, with some vague ‘values’ thrown into the mix,” he says.

“Facts don’t care about your feelings.”

“A true con­ser­vatism must be based in people and civ­i­lization — ‘roots’ — as Le Pen says.”

“Facts do not care about your feelings.”

It’s too much. A mob has formed around Shapiro, and now his security guards are pro­pelling him from the building. Spencer is done. I’m done, too. I run into the bathroom and confine myself to a stall where I can be without red noise.

It’s odd how shoes profess pro­fundity when viewed from a toilet’s vantage. The sole and the heel ground the foot to the floor. The tongue and the lace bind the shoe to the foot. The cuff and the counter connect the tongue to the heel. The quarter and the welt cover the rest of the foot. And of course there are the tacky — but entirely nec­essary — add-ons: eyelets to thread the lace through and aglets to prevent the ends of the laces from fraying after too much use.

Shoes are unified; these facts make sense.

Outside my stall, I overhear an inter­action between an older and a younger CPAC attendee.

“Watch out for that soap dis­penser: It’s like Niagara Falls,” the younger one says.

“Oh, thank you sir,” the older one says. “Is there any way we can fix it?”

“No. It’s useless.”

It’s too much again. I rush from the building.

But I’m not alone. The day is ending, and everyone is leaving the con­vention, eager to hit the bars and talk that political talk. Tomorrow Trump will deliver a long and inco­herent address in which he will play with his comb-over and read a poem about a snake in front of the biggest crowd CPAC has ever seen. The attending mob will do the same things it did today. It will shout “Lock her up!” and “USA! USA!” I will despair and curl up in the fetal position on the floor, using my blazer as a blanket until The Weekly Standard’s Andrew Egger ’17 saves me with a lunch invi­tation.

But for now, it’s time to leave CPAC and roll into the streets of National Harbor. As the droves spew them­selves out the doors and fill the shops of this post-apoc­a­lyptic Coney Island, the whachuck of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar cuts through the drizzle from a bar’s overhead loud­speaker. Thom Yorke’s whining growl pierces the misty air:

“I’m a creep. I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”  

I take refuge in the AMERICA! store. This is the sort of shop you would find in an airport, offering flags, col­oring books, and mugs. Hillary Clinton bob­ble­heads are on sale —  half price. I ask the guy behind the counter if this is in honor of CPAC.

“No, it’s not for that Repub­lican thing,” he says. “Hillary’s always on sale. Well … since about this time last year.”

This time last year. This time last year I was here, in National Harbor, standing on the beach, staring out at the water. If only the swamp could rise over the riprap and over­whelm us all, I thought, we would be cleansed from every fact in this dis­unified con­vention.

But now when I head down to the water, all I can see is John Seward Johnson II’s sculpture, The Awak­ening, which depicts a giant attempting to free himself from the earth. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve feared The Awak­ening. The giant looks up to the sky and with a pained cry acknowl­edges his defeat. He will always be bound to this mess — only he’s just now old enough to under­stand what that means.

  • koiright

    “How
    could I express how above it all I am? How about a cringe-inducing,
    over­wrought jux­ta­po­sition of rapidly alter­nating Spencer and Shapiro
    quotes that cul­minate in my retreat to the toilet and rumi­na­tions on
    shoes? Yeah… that will work per­fectly. I’m such a good writer. Ooh wait
    how bout a few more eso­teric ref­er­ences and smug intro­spection just to
    really flesh out what a higher level I was on than all those cheering
    rubes. Checkmate, CPAC”
    When Hillsdale sends its people, they’re not sending their best!

    • Alexan­derYp­si­lantis

      LOL. Other than that, tell us how you liked the article?

      Could be worse, you could have a writer from the WMU Western Herald cov­ering it. Theyr’e nitwits.