After two days of the “Conservative” Political Action Conference, it became abundantly clear: The Republican Party is no longer the place for me.
I don’t know what I expected, honestly. I knew that the Grand Old Party was now the party of President Donald Trump, that traditional conservatives such as Sens. Ben Sasse, R-Nebraska, and Marco Rubio, R-Florida, were now an unwelcome fringe and that stirrings of populism and nationalism were making the rounds throughout a changing party.
Trump’s nomination dealt a massive blow to my political optimism, but for some reason, I still held onto the belief that the GOP remained a net good and that Trump’s “winning” outweighed the white nationalist element of the party that keeps rearing its ugly head. Plus, my Hillsdale bubble kept me immersed in real conservatism.
After the first two days of CPAC speeches, panels, and interviews, my optimism vanished. European populists, Fox News pundits, and Trump sycophants filled the speaking lineup. Nearly every speaker, with the exception of political commentator Ben Shapiro and columnist Mona Charen, stayed safely entrenched behind talking points that Trump’s avid supporters were sure to enjoy, including the wall, national pride, and immigration reform.
Conspicuously absent was actual conservatism, discussion of the Constitution or the Judeo-Christian tradition, or speakers like Sasse, who at CPAC 2016 said he desired to “breathe passion into our children about a constitutional recovery.”
Educators such as Hillsdale College’s own President Larry Arnn, who habitually addresses the history and tradition of conservatism, were relegated to interviewing White House staffers about policy decisions.
Instead, former leader of the UK Independence Party Nigel Farage gave an awkward, poorly prepared speech that pandered to the anti-European Union sentiment of Trump’s base and praised his own endorsement of the “wildly successful” president.
Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, a controversial French politician, spoke broadly about the importance of family and national heritage. Supposed conservatives wildly applauded Maréchal-Le Pen, who claims to be the “political heir” of her disgraced grandfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Although Marion may not espouse the radical Holocaust denial that got Jean-Marie Le Pen booted from his own party, the question still remains: why would the American Conservative Union welcome a speaker shouting “Vive le Nationalisme!”? Figures like these do nothing to advance conservative causes in America. They serve only to ostracize true conservatives who wish to avoid association with these unpalatable individuals.
The shallow nationalism peddled by most CPAC speakers left much to be desired, but the audience’s response jarred me the most. It’s hard to ascertain from CNN soundbytes, but the electric current in the air was unmistakable. CPAC reeked of ebullient optimism and a sense of triumph. Trump kicked the Democrats in the teeth and melted the snowflakes; Republicans of all ages flooded into the Gaylord Convention Center to claim their victory. None of this shocked me, but the sentiments that these individuals chose to cheer and boo were unhappily reminiscent of the the 2016 election’s negative tone.
The Washington Examiner’s Phillip Wegmann, a 2015 Hillsdale alumnus, reported via Twitter that a “speaker talking about the beauty of naturalization ceremonies draws loud, sustained booing.” In an interview with Hillsdale sophomore Ben Dietderich on CPAC’s Radio Row, conservative firebrand Ben Shapiro pointed out that the conservative position is not anti-legal immigration. Keeping out skilled legal immigrants just to “artificially boost wages” is neither beneficial from a free market standpoint nor the traditional position of the GOP.
Chants of “lock her up” resonated frequently throughout the hall. Various reports noted attendees wildly booing a panel member’s remonstrances against the use of eminent domain to build Trump’s border wall, yelling “build that wall!” to drown him out. Wegmann further reported that speaker Rick Ungar asked an angry audience why they rejected these legal Mexican immigrant voters, who aligned with them on so many issues. He was met with more disapproving shouts and boos.
In Hillsdale’s radio interview, Shapiro addressed the two pillars of conservatism: “limited government and God-given rights.” Until I listened to that interview after the fact, I hadn’t heard any mention of these principles in the various speeches at the conference. Panels or smaller lectures may have referenced the higher things of conservatism, but major speeches given by Le Pen and Farage, as well as the addresses from Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, did not contain traditional conservative themes.
Forget the Aristotelian Good or Judeo-Christian values. Where were the free-market crusaders railing against the national deficit? Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky; his father, former Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; and their enthusiastic libertarian followers were nowhere to be found. The party has actually consolidated post-Trump, marginalizing free-marketers and intellectual conservatives in favor of Trumpites supporting tariffs, protectionist policies, and expediency in politics.
The final straw came toward the end of the conference, when Ethics and Public Policy Center Senior Fellow Mona Charen sat on a panel addressing the #MeToo movement and called out the hypocrisy of the GOP on sexual abuse-related issues.
“I’m disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women,” Charen said.
She also slammed the GOP for its support of accused child molester Roy Moore: “You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.”
The crowd went berserk. Attendees shouted “not true!” and booed loudly. A protective security detail later escorted Charen from the convention center. The GOP has angered and disheartened conservatives such as Charen and myself by turning a blind eye to Trump’s extramarital dalliances and boasts about sexual assault. When Trump and Farage endorsed Moore, it further reinforced the idea that the GOP was no longer the party of decency and moral character. CPAC attendees, and the GOP at large, seem content abandoning morality in pursuit of victory.
I hung on, for as long as I could. I pinched my nose and shrugged, as the president’s Twitter tirades spewed ignorant divisiveness across the political landscape. After all, he gave us a decent Supreme Court justice and some tax cuts, so I could keep my conscience quiet for a little while. But the despicable behavior of my fellow CPAC attendees, as well as the populist voices that now represent the Grand Old Party, has become too much.
I cannot associate with a party so disinterested in actual conservatism. “Winning” is not a good enough reason to abandon principles of decency, small government, property rights, and respect for women. I did not leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me. I hold hope for a conservative revival in America, whether through GOP reformation or the insurgence of a viable third party. Until then, I’m on my own.
Joshua Liebhauser is a senior studying marketing.