Several at CPAC said they didn’t know even how to discuss the things they were worried about anymore—universities, big tech, publishers and more deplatformed the ‘big fish’, with the implicit threat that any of the smaller fish could be disappeared even more easily.

 

Last weekend, in Orlando, Florida, a couple of thousand attendees, a few hundred media and scores of people you usually only see on talk shows gathered for CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference. It made news around the world for a range of reasons, one of them being it hosted the first public speech by former President Donald Trump since President Joe Biden took his place in the Oval Office.

I was there to speak on a panel about China’s neighbours (hello, India), and to try to understand what is going on in “conservative America”. I learned a lot. And now I am even more confused. So, rather than make any grand pronouncements, I’ll just report what people at CPAC told me. You can probably figure it out better than I can.

WHAT IS CPAC?

First, the event itself. It is an annual conference run by the American Conservative Union (ACU). That is not the Republican Party. While there was a constellation of Republican politicians in attendance, there were also many who weren’t members of the Party. Attendees skewed young, with many in their 20s and 30s, and a substantial proportion were non-white.

The definition of conservatism used by the ACU is a “political philosophy that sovereignty resides in the person”. It continues, “We believe that the Constitution of the United States is the best political charter yet created by men for governing themselves. It is our belief that the Constitution is designed to guarantee the free exercise of the inherent rights of the individual through strictly limiting the power of government.”

THE INDIVIDUAL AND THE STATE

The nature of the relationship between the individual and the state was embedded in many of the panels and the discussions—especially around free speech. For many attendees, the starting premise is that the individual is sovereign but has chosen to exchange some of that independence in a social contract with the state. And the Constitution puts limits on what the state can take from the individual.

Even during normal times, that balance between individual rights and state governance is fraught and complex. And then came the Covid lockdown, with the government appropriating powers not seen outside of wartime.

It brought to the fore longstanding and very serious fault lines. Freedom of physical movement and commerce was curtailed. Parents got to see what their children were learning at school. And social interactions moved online, where tech algorithms and outside influences created more polarization, criticism of others became easier, and outright attacks became common. All during one of the most vicious election campaigns in modern memory. The social contract showed signs of fraying.

CANCELLED

For many attendees I spoke with, longstanding disquiet shifted to shock. Several at CPAC said they didn’t know even how to discuss the things they were worried about anymore—universities, big tech, publishers and more deplatformed the “big fish”, with the implicit threat that any of the smaller fish could be disappeared even more easily. They feared being economically, politically and socially “cancelled”—the theme of the whole conference was America Uncancelled.

The usual argument is, well just don’t question the election/masks/lockdowns or be racist/sexist/homophobic/etc and everything will be fine. The two usual counters from attendees I spoke with were it’s easy to defend free speech that you agree with, but the test comes in defending things you don’t agree with. And that the line of what is acceptable is constantly moving.

The example that was often used was the recent move to allow biological boys who identify as girls to compete in girls’ sports at school. They said they felt that if they mentioned their concerns, they risked being called transphobic and potentially getting fired or worse.

TRUMP VERSUS TRUMPISM

With that safety valve closed, pressure is building and cracks are appearing in the conservative movement—as seen by the fractures in the Republican party. One of the reasons I was particularly keen to go to CPAC this year was to get a sense of the direction of the party. The situation is complex and dynamic and, as mentioned, CPAC is not the Republicans. So really all I learned was what people who were willing to go to CPAC in person during a pandemic were thinking last weekend.

What many were thinking was the US is now in the unfamiliar position of having a de facto leader of the opposition in Donald J. Trump. Apart from his time in office, his “cancellation” and the election results accorded him near “martyr for the cause” status. I was in the speakers’ room during his speech and those there were listening very carefully indeed. When Trump said he wasn’t starting a new party, there was palpable relief. And when he started naming the names of those who voted to impeach him, let’s just say everyone took note.

The impression was Trump was setting himself up as the anointer-in-chief in the selection of political candidates so, while many think Trump won’t run again, he (and many at CPAC) seems to want “Trumpism” to continue.

It’s an important distinction that got at another aspect of CPAC. There was an evident momentum towards a very different type of politics—much more grassroots. One of the most popular side events was for an organization focused on “reinfranchising” rural and blue-collar Americans, and a common recommendation from panellists to attendees was to get involved at the local level—school boards, city councils, state legislatures. Similarly, there were constant discussions about alternative social media platforms.

From what was said at CPAC, it seems some in the conservative movement are looking at new ways of establishing broad-based, decentralized networks. This could just be an artefact of what has been a traumatic year for conservatives (and the country as a whole), or it could be a growing momentum.

AMERICA AND THE WORLD

A whole other strand of CPAC was geopolitics. There were several panels on China, and a speech by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Attention was paid to countries where freedoms had been stifled, like Hong Kong. There was a panel with defectors from North Korea describing unimaginable horrors, and a discussion of the creeping loss of liberties in South Korea. India was hardly mentioned at all—and only in the context of standing up to China.

Domestic and international politics were somewhat disaggregated, except in the context of China. And, even then, there wasn’t much discussion of the role CCP political warfare was playing in exacerbating polarization in the US.

PROBLEMS

What was clear was that the US is facing so, so many problems, with opaque drivers, vested interests creating more obfuscation and collaborative pathways cut off. It’s hard—to the point of overwhelming—to know what is going on, why, and what to do about it.

The less understanding between groups, the easier it is to divide us and the quicker we all lose—or are lost. We can disagree on ten things, but if we can agree on one thing, that’s what we should work on—together. And we can only find that one thing if we talk to each other—something that has become ever more difficult with Covid, distrust and division.

During Trump’s speech I asked one of the organisers what he thought was a key takeaway from this year’s CPAC. He replied, “that it happened”. He’s right.