Sad (Seriously)

Why Is CPAC Afraid of Real Conservatives?

It’s not just Marine Le Pen’s niece, actually, but a veritable murderer’s row of ethno-nationalists: Nigel Farage, Sebastian Gorka, and more. And nobody should expect any better.


Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP/Getty

The annual freakout about the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is upon us.

Past controversies over whether the gay conservative group GOProud would be allowed to co-sponsor the event have given way to controversies over speakers. Last year, it was Milo Yiannopoulos (who was invited and then uninvited) who held our attention. This year, the big dustup is over Marion Marechal-Le Pen (niece of right-wing populist French politician Marine Le Pen) who is set to speak Thursday, about an hour after Vice President Mike Pence.

The news was greeted with confusion and consternation. Perhaps sensing another pre-CPAC uprising on the street, American Conservative Union Chair Matt Schlapp took to Twitter, noting that, “This is Marion not her aunt,” and saying that, “Marion is a classical liberal, a conservative” (this may seem confusing, but in political terminology, a “classical liberal” is basically an Adam Smith-style economic conservative).

It’s clear that some people confused the two Le Pens, but it also is worth noting that Schlapp previously told conservative Jamie Weinstein that he probably would have voted for Marine Le Pen if he was French.

What is more, the notion that the younger Le Pen is a “classical liberal” also lacked plausibility with conservative Jonah Goldberg, who sarcastically replied, “This is fantastic news. I mean if she’s a classical liberal, she’ll announce she’s leaving the National Front, right? That’s a coup for CPAC. Congrats.”

The idea that conservatives own CPAC (when, in fact, the show belongs to the ACU, which is heavily funded by the National Rifle Association and other entities) is naïve.

Weinstein saw this as symbolic of how the conservative movement has changed. “While the alt-right has very little connection to American conservatism in terms of ideology,” he wrote, “it has significant overlap w/ European parties like [the National Front] @mschlapp. Might as well just say the alt-right is now welcome at @CPAC if FN party members embraced w/ open arms.” (As if to lend credence to this fact, around the same time, Schlapp was enjoying the congratulations of Jack Prosobiec, an alt-right activist who was involved in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.)

Schlapp responded to Goldberg’s criticism by suggesting that, “Part of @CPAC is hearing people out. Debate is good for democracy and we are honored to have her address our activists.” This sounds good on paper, but as Goldberg pointed out, (a) if Le Pen is truly a “classical liberal,” then how much diversity would she bring to CPAC, and (b) if diversity of opinion is so prized at CPAC, then why not have more speakers from the right who would critique Trump’s presidency? It seems like the calls for diversity seem to only go one way—in the Trumpian direction. In recent days, Schlapp has been outspoken in his mockery of Mitt Romney. The former GOP standard bearer will not be speaking at CPAC.

Instead, the organizers of CPAC apparently searched the four corners of the globe to assemble a “legion of doom”-style roster—a collection of some of the worst “conservative” supervillains who generally share a populist, ethno-nationalist brand of politics (and some, I assume, are good people). Of course, it’s not just Le Pen. The lineup is a veritable murderer’s row of nationalists, including UKIP leader Nigel Farage, Jeanine Pirro, and Seb Gorka—and a panel titled: “Kim Jong Un-iversity: How College Campuses are Turning into Reeducation Camps.”

In fairness, after years of dumbed-down speakers (and this happened long before Schlapp took over), it’s unclear to me why this is a surprise to anyone. Not long ago, the keynote address of the conference involved Sarah Palin making references to her “rack” while drinking a Big Gulp. Why do we expect things to change? As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat observed, it’s “not clear to me that we should be worried about a conference that features Sheriff David Clarke as a luminary of conservatism sullying itself somehow with its other invitations.”

Goldberg’s point, though, deserves some attention. A debate between a “Never Trumper” and a pro-Trump conservative would be a huge draw. In the old days, liberal journalist Sam Donaldson would debate conservative journalist Bob Novak at CPAC. It was always a highlight. In more recent years, Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala went at it. To CPAC’s credit, conservative Never Trumper Ben Shapiro is already on the agenda (one of the few critical voices against Trump that I saw listed). Why not have him match wits against Gorka?

Even better: Where are Sen. Ben Sasse and American Enterprise Institute head Arthur Brooks? Or, for that matter, where’s Jonah Goldberg? Or how about giving a keynote spot to Dennis Prager and comedian Adam Carolla? This duo is currently traveling across America to talk about illiberalism on college campuses. Why not take their show to the Gaylord National Resort?

Or if you want to embrace controversy, what about comedian Joe Rogan interviewing Jordan Peterson? Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto and clinical psychologist, is a highly intelligent, if controversial, emerging voice on the right today. And he has been a guest multiple times on Rogan’s very popular podcast. Any of these ideas would at least combine star power with some intellectual muscle.

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Then again, why should they listen to me? The idea that conservatives own CPAC (when, in fact, the show belongs to the ACU, which is heavily funded by the National Rifle Association and other entities) is naïve. We have no right to claim ownership of who speaks at any other conference. So why do we cling to the notion that CPAC is somehow supposed to represent conservatism? Every year, we return to the pumpkin patch and expect to see the Great Pumpkin. But you know what? He never shows up. Instead, we get a rock—a visit from a French politician from the National Front.