SHARE
Stu­dents from Hillsdale College attend CPAC every year. | Courtesy Isabella Redjai

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.