CPAC

03.16.13

More Sarah Palin Than Ronald Reagan: CPAC’s Paranoid Style

At CPAC, the old politics of paranoia are always in vogue, writes John Avlon.

There’s no place where the paranoid style in American politics mixes with presidential aspirants quite like CPAC.

At this year’s conservative conclave, held at the Gaylord Hotel in Maryland, there is a mood of grim resignation after their rejection in the 2012 election, a determination to look for restoration along even stricter ideological lines.

What was once a decidedly fringe festival that Main Street Republicans have derided as a “Star Wars bar scene” has become a mandatory stop on the GOP presidential circuit, with Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Bobby Jindal, and Paul Ryan all making speeches this year. For conservative activists, it serves as an annual tribal gathering, selling special knowledge to those who feel at war with much of modern America and all of the Obama administration. And the media happily feed the beast because CPAC offers a one-stop shop for portraying the uneasy coexistence between constitutionalists and conspiracy theorists inside the conservative movement.

The anxieties evident in panels and pamphlets echo those famously articulated by Richard Hofstadter in The Paranoid Style in American Politics a half century ago: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try so repossess it and to prevent the final act of subversion.”

This year, the heraldry included a trailer to a fake film that envisions a politically correct collectivist party takeover of a city on a hill, inspiring an underground teenage guerilla liberty movement. There are books with titles like The Ultimate Obama Survival Guide and panels like “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and Know You’re Not One?” and  “Stop THIS: Threats, Harassment, Intimidation, Slander, and Bullying From the Obama Administration."

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At CPAC, Libertarian is the new conservative.

This is just a recycled script sold to enthusiastic new dupes.

The impulse to play the victim is strong among these Padawans; a pose that is decidedly more Sarah Palin than Ronald Reagan.

This is a place where panelists describe “The Left’s Anti-Child Utopia” to nodding audience agreement and where Brian Brown, the president of the National Organization for Marriage, advises "The time when you can stay at home and not have conflict is gone." It is a place where congregants line up to ask questions like “What protections are in place for Christians with a biblically informed sense of morality and marriage to have that same opportunity to serve openly in the United States Army?”

When “Friends of Hamas” inventor and Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro spouts off unhinged aphorisms to scattered applause—“Our enemy is the government," “The media has to be destroyed where it stands,” and “If you’re not making them cry, you’re not doing it right”—it riffs off a tired but tried and true script. 

The whole scene all recalls Richard Hofstadter’s anthropological admonition that “the paranoid spokesman … is always manning the barricades of civilization ... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician.” Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.

The recent failures of the Republican Party are always explained away at CPAC by blaming past nominees for failing to have been conservative enough. There is no room for recalibration in any direction but further right on all fronts. Those who do otherwise risk being called a “squish” and drummed out of the party. The GOP influencers who attend end up lending their credibility to organizations that otherwise might not pass the laugh test. But this year, tempered by loss and a desire to rebrand, the crazy quotient was diminished if far from extinguished.

The John Birch Society was expelled, as was the gay conservative group GOProud—both deemed unfit for conservative company. But there were still the self-styled knights of anti-socialism—the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family, and Property—passing out pamphlets on “10 Reasons to Reject Socialism” and “10 Reasons Why Homosexual ‘Marriage’ Is Harmful and Must Be Opposed.”

There were ubiquitous glossy pamphlets from a group called America’s Survival that describe “Obama’s Plan for the Disarmament of Israel,” “Obama’s Revolution and the Drugging of America” (featuring a photo of a wild-eyed Charles Manson, naturally), and, just in time to greet Pope Francis, a description of how “the Roman Catholic Church has been compromised philosophically—not only by infiltrators from the homosexual movement and Marxists, but by adherents of the so called ‘New Age’ philosophy.”  Even the free Spanish language newspaper El Sueño Americano, which piled up unread on stands, featured an article on 63 sites where drones were active in the USA, asking “Is this the change you voted for?” For conspiracy entrepreneurs, the specter of King Obama and his benefactor George Soros is always lurking in the shadows of otherwise polite conversation.

When Hofstatder wrote about paranoids’ belief that their political enemy “makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced,” he could be credited with great prescience, if it weren’t for the fact that this is just a recycled script sold to enthusiastic new dupes.

A few years ago, armed with the unwavering certainty of true believers, CPAC attendees believed they were ascendant. But the 2012 election sent a very different message. When the fringe starts to blur with the base, odd things happen. One symptom is the inability to speak outside the echo chamber, epidemic in the current conservative movement. Another sign is a preoccupation with purging the party of heretics. And even if the rhetoric resonates among the true believers, there is the frustration of proposing policies that turn out not to be particularly popular with voters in presidential elections.

This also echoes the Paranoid Style: “The demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.”

For some CPACers, Obama’s reelection feels like an existential threat because it forces them to recognize demographic trends in the United States that do not reflect the sensibilities or complexion of the conservative base. Maybe that’s why the healthiest and most hopeful youthful energy is directed toward the libertarian movement, which might have finally found its moment to impact national policy. But the coddling of the paranoid style has got to be confronted if the Republican Party is going to modernize—and that will require asking why it has found a home for so long in the bowels of CPAC.