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.
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.