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.