Back in 1994, I spoke at the annual conference of the Conservative Political Action Conference, a who’s who of the conservative movement. I shared the stage with congressional leaders Bob Dole, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Armey; conservative luminaries like Jack Kemp; and neoconservative intellectuals Jeane Kirkpatrick and Bill Bennett.
Perusing the list of CPAC speakers this year gave me a very different glimpse into the state of the conservative movement. Yes, there are the requisite congressional leaders like Mitch McConnell and Eric Cantor and a smattering of future party stalwarts like Bobby Jindal and Marco Rubio (though not as many as might be expected: no Chris Christie or Robert McDonnell, both rejected for breaking party orthodoxies). The supporting cast is more revealing.
Other than CPAC regular Ann Coulter, who once said of the 9/11 widows, “I’ve never seen people enjoying their husbands’ deaths so much,” and noted thinker Sarah Palin, by far the most famous personage who will grace the stage is Donald Trump, who revived the birtherism scam as a supposed issue in the 2012 presidential campaign.
Occupying center stage will be a new crop of right-wing agitators who specialize in dumping opposition research under the guise of journalism into the public discourse. The Daily Caller, whose smear campaign against Sen. Bob Menendez was recently exposed for what it was, will be there in full force. So too will Breitbart.com and the Washington Free Beacon, two websites that led the slanderous push against Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the former giving us the “Friends of Hamas” farce. (The allegation was that Hagel had ties to a shadowy group that does not, in fact, exist). For good measure the Washington Examiner is in the mix; last fall that publication broke the false story that Jeep was shipping American jobs to China—a story picked up by the Romney campaign, much to its detriment.
I remember CPAC as a great place to talk to authors of new, interesting books. This year, with few exceptions (Amity Shlaes’s Coolidge), the books are not serious works of history or politics or journalism but rather a motley collection of ill-founded attacks on President Obama’s heritage (Dinesh D’Souza’s Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream; The Communist: Frank Marshall Davis, The Untold Story of Barack Obama by Paul Kengor) and debunked conspiracy-mongering (Who’s Counting, a book that highlights the New Black Panther Party’s alleged coziness with the Obama administration by Hans Spakovsky, and Katie Pavlich’s Fast and Furious: Barack Obama’s Bloodiest Scandal and Its Shameless Cover-Up).
Even the think-tankers are on the outer fringe. There is Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who chairs a coalition questioning global warming, and Peter Ferrara of the Heartland Institute, who took money from disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for op-eds aiding Abramoff’s clients and calls Obama “a Marxist.”
Other than that, the agenda betrays a preoccupation with anti-Muslim fearmongering—Dana Loesch, who was pulled from CNN’s airwaves shortly after promoting the canard that an aide to Hillary Clinton was secretly affiliated with an Islamist group, will speak—and the crowd will be treated to a panel on the phantom phenomenon of Democratic voter fraud, led by the faux-scandal-obsessed group Judicial Watch.
All in all, an unedifying and unhealthy snapshot of conservatism today. Oh, for 1994, those were the days.