10,000 Elephants in the Room: I Made It Through CPAC Without Puking


I am sitting in a rented banquet chair watching Carly Fiorina remove her headset. In a moment, I will stand, smile with false confidence, and replace Fiorina in the chair she vacates, facing the questions of two right wing radio hosts. I was out until 3 a.m. last night drinking whiskey with both of my imminent interviewers and 200 of their closest friends and frenemies. I am so hungover that I’m positive I’m going to vomit all over CPAC’s radio row. What a story!

The night before, Anna Merlan and I had gingerly made our way from our Uber to the steps of a place I heard referred to as “The Embassy,” “The Breitbart Mansion,” and “that place where they have that big party,” unsure of what kind of murder situation we were willingly entering. We’d been invited by a man we’d never met before who spotted us and told us to come to a party in a strange city, miles from our hotel, something no self-respecting urbanite would do unless they were interested in having a kidney stolen. Later, I’d confirm that our welcoming committee was Stephen K. Bannon, a screenwriter, a commentator, and a gregarious shit talker who called me a “commie” with a twinkle in his eye within 30 seconds of properly meeting me. Steve is at once too brash and too canny to commit murder. I feel safe attending this party. I think.

“THESE TWO LADIES ARE MY GUESTS!” Steve bellowed as we approached the stairs. And with that, the two security guards stationed outside stepped aside, and we entered a room packed wall-to-wall with what has been called CPAC’s “Most Impressive.” This year, in honor of everybody’s favorite television program Duck Dynasty, the party had a bluegrass n’ moonshine theme. There was a live band. There were hay bales. There were cute female bartenders in plaid shirts. A water cooler full of whiskey sour. There was a picnic basket full of Twinkies and other cellophane wrapped snack foods. A catering staff. Cigars. So many cigars.

What is it with conservative men and cigars?

Spending four days at the Conservative Political Action Conference is, as one might expect, an odd experience for a Professional Internet Feminist-slash-Pinko. I’ve spent thousands of hours, spilled thousands of words essentially lampooning and generally shit-talking the sort of person who attends CPAC. I’ve shat on their economics, their retro gender politics, their jingoism, their awkward interview answers, their sincerity, their xenophobia, their faith in country and religion, their general un-chillness. They’d have every right to respond to my presence on their turf with revulsion, with derision. They wouldn’t be out of line if they just treated me like a garbage joke the whole time I was there. Fortunately for me, that’s not what happened.

CPAC 2015 was held in a resort complex called (not a joke; never not-funny) The Gaylord in National Harbor, Maryland, which is a fake town where nobody lives that contains, I’m told, a store that only sells Peeps and broken ground that will one day host a massive casino. It’s about 20 minutes by cab from Washington, DC’s Union Station, just far enough away to be an extreme pain in the ass for everybody who wants to do anything cool or worthwhile while visiting the DC area. Reporter Anna Merlan and I were given a room with a balcony that overlooked an atrium large enough to feel like it was semi-outdoors but small enough to remind us that we were in a prison of uselessness. I told Anna that I was afraid that a bird would fly in when we left our balcony door open one night; she responded by laughing for several minutes (later in the trip, while we were waiting for our train back to New York,
I’d be vindicated when two birds strutted by like they owned the place).

The conservative conference’s most blustery saber-rattling occurs in a large room with the capacity to hold thousands of Regulars and hundreds of Media People and their dozens of cameras. The Regulars filter in and out as their interest waxes and wanes during the nonstop parade of speakers; the ambient sound of the space is this coming and going, bodies jammed up against each other during marquee speeches and then separated by dozens of chairs during lulls. When the room fills up and the important figures take the stage, it’s a truly epic celebration of bombastic talking points.

The main stage speeches are pure dick-measuring contests, as are all speeches at all political events. Every speech answers a set of key conservative hot button issue-related questions:

  1. How great is America? (The best fuckin’ country in the history of the world! *guitar riff*)
  2. What about Common Core? (Best answer, by Donald Trump: “Common core is bad! Bad! Second Amendment good!”)
  3. How do you feel about the Second Amendment? (Second Amendment GOOD.)
  4. Abortion? ISIS? Obama? Hillary Clinton? The Affordable Care Act? Amnesty for undocumented immigrants? Unions? Taxes? (BAD! All very bad!)

By the second day of the convention, the main stage speeches (with a couple of exceptions) sounded so numbingly similar that they began to melt into each other, like a binge read of the Fox Nation comment section with all of the swears and misplaced homonyms taken out. Even the so-called “Lightning Round” of post-speech word association couldn’t break up the monotony, although it made a noble attempt.

In fact, minus right wing personalities’ distinguishing physical traits and quirks, I couldn’t tell you what the fuck they all said. I remember Chris Christie’s gargantuan head and thirsty dickishness, Laura Ingraham’s glinting cross necklace, Sean Hannity’s Bill Clinton impression (which he repeated—to the word—at least a few times over the course of mere days), the grim and tragic retreats of Marco Rubio and Scott Walker’s hairlines, Rand Paul’s winsome attempt at a sensible amount of bronzer, Carly Fiorina’s under-celebrated wardrobe excellence, Rick Santorum’s bizarre preening, John Bolton’s walrus face, Ted Cruz’s pastor-meets-salesman act that kept the crowd rapt. Donald Trump’s whole… thing. In a moment I’m still coming to terms with, Sarah Palin’s speech about health care for veterans was a mostly-coherent standout, save for a joke about Nazis that was delivered so overzealously that Anna and I dissolved into helpless laughter as other members of the media glared at us. The main room was exactly what is shown on TV, exactly what somebody who has never been to CPAC might expect: a bizarre alternate universe where Newt Gingrich is surrounded by fawning fans, where the Duggars are rockstars, and where Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson’s sanctimonious ramble about STD’s was anything but a reason for mild confusion and alarm.

But in side rooms and in side conversations, CPAC attendees weren’t so puff-chested about their future. Breakout sessions bemoaned the co-opting of “cool” by the Left, strategized on the damaged conservative brand (damaged, in their view, by a left wing media intent on smearing them), looked to get away from barking and Twitter battles return to real grassroots action, the kind of action that inspired conservatives during the Reagan years. They’re right to be nervous.
Fox News’ viewership is so advanced in age that it doesn’t even register on the Nielsen scale. And as elderly white conservatives die off and take their world view with them, pickings are slim for youth that mirror their antique ideas about how a country should be run.

The breakout sessions were all preoccupied with changing how things are presented, and this focus reflects a statistics-borne uncertainty: last year’s elections were a resounding success for the right, but last year’s election turnout was historically low. Presidential elections bring out typically liberal voters—the young, the nonwhite, the unmarried and female—in droves. And with control of both the House and Senate but a White House still in the hands of a Democrat, Republicans have a golden opportunity over the next 18 months to create a stockpile of gaffes the left can (and will) use to motivate their base, while potentially emerging with nothing to show for it in terms of legislation. In order to survive, conservatism needs to either adapt to a changing society or convince a changing society to adapt to them.

Fox News’ stereotypical viewership this was not; young people were everywhere, teetering uncertainly on heels like baby deer, growing visibly starstruck over the sight of Rick Santorum striding down the hall surrounded by security and hangers-on, sternly lecturing an unseen member of their College Republicans club over the phone: “If you’re going to be in this, you have to be in this, you know? You can’t be an officer and miss both CPAC and the March for Life!”

Listening to hours of bad-to-very-bad ideas and hacky Obama & Hillary joke attempts in the main ballroom was a tolerable exercise when broken up with between-and-after-hours interaction with younger conservatives who clarified, shaking their heads, that not everybody in the party was “like that.” Of course, just because they’re nice doesn’t mean that their principles are different than the Hannities and O’Reillys of the world; they’re just better at expressing them without bursting an artery.

At one exhibition hall booth, a lovely young woman talked to me at length about how excited her organization was about pushing a 20-week abortion ban through the Senate. In another, I talked student loans with a young man wearing a BIG GOVERNMENT SUCKS button. Behind us, a table covered with free posters that featured contemporary icons with libertarian-leaning quotes emblazoned over them: faces like Ron Swanson, Olivia Pope. Ronald Reagan. (I guess there aren’t that many contemporary libertarian icons. And Olivia Pope is kind of a stretch.) At the NRA table, two friendly and chill young men chatted with me as I signed up to win a free gun. (As I live in New York City, I’m not sure what I’d do with it if I won it. Buy it a house in Texas and send it a check and handwritten love note every few months?) Booth visitors could have their pictures snapped by event photographers, select a kicky gun-related slogan to emblazon across it, and upload their masterpieces to social media sites. A prominently displayed flatscreen displayed a slideshow of the photos, so in a way, it’s kind of like I was in the NRA booth the whole time I was at CPAC.

CPAC’s young attendees who weren’t dressed in the splashy logos of their preferred candidate adorned themselves with what I surmised were signifiers of their conservative status—long overly styled hair, Express skirts, French tips (I saw more French tips at CPAC than I’ve seen in three years of living in New York) for the women; tailored, pressed suits and ties for the men. A few cool libertarians sported beards. Like Chuck Johnson, a timeless style icon.

With the exception of Johnson, they were eager to talk to me, and even more eager to chat when they learned where I worked. “You’re a conservative, and you just don’t know it yet,” said several different men under 30 to me after lengthy political discussions on several different occasions. (Must have been the pearls. Turns out, it’s impossible to wear pearls ironically, even with AmeriKanye glasses handed to Anna Merlan by a giant blue bear.) They seem to believe that conservative brand is damaged because the people in positions to speak for it on mainstream platforms don’t represent anything sustainable given America’s changing demographics; the left wing media is able to successfully smear the right wing because the elderly shouters of the right are drowning out the next generation of American conservatives.

If only they were better at saying what we are trying to say, goes the new line, they’d convince people to agree with them. People like me.

As a group, the potential future Ronald Reagans of CPAC weren’t an iota as crazy, or mean, or racist, or exclusionary as mainstream coverage of CPAC might lead the casual observer to believe (at least, not to my face). They’re more pro-marriage rights than their older narrative-dominating counterparts, they’re pro-pot legalization, they’re pro-government-leaving-us-all-the-hell-alone. In their minds, society functions best when everybody is free to pursue what they want, and government only serves to get between people and the happiness and fulfillment they have a right to pursue. Also, let’s privatize the hell out of some stuff.

In one breakout session, One America News Network host Tomi Lahren (who, impressively, is only 22) aptly pointed out that the right has nothing to gain by preaching to the choir with what she characterized as Fox News-style “barking.” Young people, she said, are tired of being told what to think by old people, they’re tired of having numbers shouted at them, and they’re not going to be convinced to swing from D to R unless conservatives are able to communicate more effectively. During the Q&A portion of the session, an elderly man in attendance stood up and corrected her, insisting that actually, actually, what young people need is facts and figures and numbers. Thank goodness that old guy was there to tell that young person how to think.

“Heeeyyyy Chuck!” Anna Merlan, stoned and two drinks deep, shout-sings to self-styled right wing provocateur Chuck Johnson. I’m huddled beneath a heat lamp in the back yard of a mansion about 200 feet from the Supreme Court, surrounded by cigar smoke and male laughter. Anna grabs my wrist and pulls me toward Johnson, sticking her hand out to introduce himself, half smiling. The Breitbart writer he’s with looks uncomfortable. I look uncomfortable. Anna fucking loves it. “We work for Jezebel,” she continues, grinning. Chuck grimaces. I grimace. Breitbart dude grimaces. Anna and Chuck take a selfie together.

It’s freezing cold, and I worry I am nipping out. I didn’t want to bring my erect nipples to this party. I excuse myself and return indoors, where Rep. Steve King was hanging out. I know this because he was on the post-party dossier published on Politico the next day. I was also Spotted.

We had arrived around 9:30, and by 11 the crowd at the party was beginning to thin out as people making perfunctory appearances began making their way home. Those of us who are left are there to drink and listen to some bluegrass.

It was like college, except there were no drugs (not even pot; Anna indulged in her own supply back at the hotel), no conspicuous sex (I didn’t even witness so much as a drunken Daughter of the Revolution-on-Son of the Revolution makeout!), and nobody puked. At CPAC social events, Anna and I—close talking in our mostly-black ensembles and bold lip color and pale faces in a room full of women who looked, at least from a distance, like well-sunned +1’s to the CMA’s—did not fit in. But at the Breitbart party, we were delightful novelties, finally, at least temporarily, burying the hatchet with writers from publications with which we’d normally engage in an ideological tug-of-war.

It was one of the weirder nights of my life, and I once got a concussion after being dropped on my head by a male friend who was carrying me like a football down the Notre Dame football practice field at 3 am.

Now, here I sit, about to go on air with Steve and his cohost Alex Marlow, my stomach an angry ocean of whiskey and bile. They’re both so chipper.

When Alex asks me what the “liberal agenda” is for attending CPAC, I shoot back that some of my best friends are conservative. We have a good laugh and move into more lightweight territory. For ten minutes we talk without leaping across the table of radio equipment and slugging each other. It’s fine. It’s nice. I don’t hate a second of it. I get called a “commie,” and a “snark machine,” am told I work for the “meanest” blog out there. Kind of true.

Days later, I’ll realize that one of the other attendees at the Breitbart party was a young woman who I’d once called a “douchebag” who would never get a job in conservative politics because she has brown hair. She’ll tweet at me saying that she wishes we could have met. I’m sure we’d have had plenty to talk about.

As I get up to leave Radio Row, I realize that a shot of fear-adrenaline has cured me of my spins, and that I’ve sobered up. The hallways, yesterday teeming with conservatives and those who came to gawk at them, host only a few die hards and stragglers, empty booths, the eerie echo of still-occurring main room speeches. No cigars in sight.

Top photo via Getty.

Contact the author at [email protected].

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