The annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. is exactly the sort of thing George Washington would frown upon, and so should we.
Each year, students at Hillsdale College have an opportunity to travel and attend the yearly performance known as CPAC. It offers itself up as a bastion of conservatism, but conservatives like myself arrive only to find it rife with populism and nationalism — ideologies the Founders, Washington included, strongly opposed. In his “Farewell Address,” George Washington warns the American people “to guard against the impostures of pretended patriotism” by resisting the spirit of party and faction.
Washington argues that this spirit of party causes disunion by further separating the country into an “us” vs. “them” development, in which we attempt to ruin our political opponents for factional gain.
“The alternate domination of one faction over another,” Washington writes, “sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissention, […] is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism.”
Washington goes on to caution that the “disorders and miseries, which result from faction, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual.”
Unfortunately, many of the coordinators, speakers, and attendees of CPAC have already embraced this cult of the individual. Last year at CPAC, when asked how President Donald Trump has impacted the conservative movement, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway retorted, “By tomorrow, this will be TPAC.” Although made in jest, Conway’s words expose the dim future of American conservatism if we choose to rally our banners behind one man and, quite literally, replace principles with a person.
Since 2016, the litmus test for speakers seems not to be based on any traditional understanding of conservatism, but on whether they are properly affectionate toward the president. A quick glance at the round-up of speakers in recent years shows that many are chosen from Trump’s current or former staff. Even those who have not worked directly for the president still routinely praise him in their speeches. And although public admiration for the president isn’t an evil, kitschy panel speech titles like “Trumponomics,” “The New Trump Doctrine,” or “#TrumpedUp: Unmasking the Deep State” reveal a shallowness to what could be a great event dedicated to teaching the principles of conservatism.
I attended CPAC last year and one particularly grim moment that comes to mind is when conservative radio personality Mark Levin revelled in the spirit of faction, urging attendees to discredit special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation into alleged collusion between Russia and Trump’s 2016 campaign. Democrats “are trying to take Trump out and it’s our obligation to defend this man and to defend his office and to defend the presidency…over our dead bodies,” Levin cried.
His statement left no room for the possibility of potential misconduct. There was no tepid “Let’s wait and see.” Levin forsook prudence to defend the leader of his party, as many Republicans have.
The last day of CPAC, conservative columnist Mona Charen was booed and heckled for suggesting it’s hypocritical for Republicans to support members of their own party who mistreat and sexually abuse women. Charen cited the Republican National Committee’s monetary support of “credibly-accused child molester” Roy Moore in his Alabama Senate race: “You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that,” Charen said.
Room for disagreement at CPAC has taken a downward turn as well. Speakers like Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., or Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, have been notably absent from the stage since Trump’s election, whether they were invited and chose not to attend, or they were simply excluded from consideration. With the exception of a few people, like conservative pundit Ben Shapiro, it seems as though there’s no room on the CPAC stage for anyone openly critical of the president. The coordinators at the American Conservative Union have dedicated the entire event to the faction of Trump, not varied conservative thought.
The toxic person-worship at CPAC is a consequence of this spirit of party that Washington warns us against. As citizens of this great country, we should believe Washington when he says, “It is the duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.”
Isaac Kirshner is a sophomore studying American Studies.