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Grift Before the Storm: Three Days at CPAC 2020

March 13th, 2020 | 23 min read

By Jonathan Cioran

For three whole days late last month the Gaylord Resort and Convention Center in Fort Washington, Maryland became the pulsating core of the Conservative Political Action Conferrence’s annual Republlican extravaganza. Its soaring, glass paneled interior serving as the blighted ovum destined to soon be fertilized by the pulsating, engorged thumos of President Trump’s new Republican party.

By Thursday morning the consummation was complete, some 13,000 attendees mulled about inside the Gaylord. College Students and interns clad in ill-fitting suits and girl-boss business attire mixed with boomers robed in red MAGA caps, Trump pins and 10-gallon cowboy hats as they wandered the generous expanse within.

I had arrived the night before to grab my media badge in an attempt to avoid the inevitable chaos that Thursday morning would bring. As I made my way past ‘radio row,’ the veritable rogue’s gallery of radio hosts, e-celebs, and washed up grifters that comprise the propaganda arm of the modern Trump movement, I noticed some familiar faces setting up their booths. A gaggle of Taiwanese technicians swarmed around the sleek looking setup of the Falun Gong affiliated astroturf newspaper ‘The Epoch Times.’ The booth for Dr. Sebastian Gorka (Ph.D!) was tragically empty for the time being, but Breitbart’s nearby camp was humming with activity, as editor Allulm Bukari whispered instructions to a fresh-faced female reporter in gentle, effeminate tones befitting his wispy and delicate bone structure.

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Mainstream media reporters were present as well. I had noticed the Daily’s Beast’s Will Sommer wandering the halls of the Chesapeake rooms on my way in. A photographer from The Atlantic was snapping pictures of giddy attendees as they showed off their sparking new MAGA gear, while another from The Washington Examiner was waiting her chance to pounce on any unsuspecting Trump appointees who might be passing by. Meanwhile Ben Jacobs just looked bored.

I finally made my way into the press area situated in the middle of the main convention hall and settled onto one of the tables just as TPUSA’s boy wonder Charlie Kirk took the main stage to begin his routine.

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He immediately launched into a speech which struck at the real red elephant in the room: the pernicious threat posed by the apparent surging popularity of ‘Socialism’ among America’s misguided youth.

This simple message was the very essence of Kirk’s, rather ingenious, grift, which consists, almost entirely, of selling Fox News-watching boomers on the idea that their children and grandchildren are quickly falling under the sinister spell of a dangerous, ‘un-American’ ideology being forced on them by radical left-wing college professors like Bernie Sanders. Luckily for them however, there is an organization who can rescue them, but only with the help of their generous donations—it just happens to be Kirk’s own Turning Point USA”

There was something surprisingly youth pastor like about Kirk’s presence, which dripped with an impressively convincing pseudo-sincerity and conviction. An almost undeniable sense that he really did care about their leftist ideological indoctrination at the hands of woke, SJW educational commissars, the development of their personal character, and perhaps even the ultimate fate of their immortal souls as well.

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Of course, the same dynamic was now at play throughout the Gaylord. The theme of this year’s conference was, after all, ‘America vs. Socialism.’ And America was going to win…bigly.

A forgettable round of panel discussions followed Kirk’s performance which trumpeted the President’s victory over the Democrat’s years long impeachment crusade, before the focus would inevitably return to the pressing theme of the conference.

Majority Whip Steve Scalise then took the stage to introduce a trio of experts, which included an MD and a representative of the Austrian school of economics, to discuss the looming threat Socialized medicine posed to American families.

If the panel was to be believed, America’s current system is truly the envy of the world and one which was essentially free of meaningful problems. At least any meaningful problems that couldn’t be solved by a more thorough application of free market principles. The audience seemed to whole-heartedly agree with this sentiment, of course, but to drive the point home Dr. David Schneider took it upon himself to up the ante, in the process potentially revealing one of the darkest secrets of the international “deep state.”

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For as Schneider would solemnly reveal, it turns out that the true cause of the late, much beloved, Princess Diana’s death wasn’t due to a harassing swarm of paparazzi, an insidious royal conspiracy, or even (as I had myself mistakenly believed) simple blunt force trauma, but rather socialized medicine itself.

Apparently, it was the long, inefficient practices of France’s socialist surgeons that was the true cause of Diana’s untimely demise. And as Schneider pointed out: if Diana’s candle had only been blowing in the wind somewhere between the coasts of America’s freedom-loving shores on that fateful night in 1997, perhaps her luminous flame may not have been snuffed out so quickly by the howling tornado of socialized medicine.

After having been newly enlightened by this history-altering bombshell, the attendees were given a temporary respite from the menace of socialism in order to receive a message from the heart of the Holy Land. A broadcast from CPAC Jerusalem was then beamed through the giant screens which showed the US ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who then proceeded to deliver a message directly from a platform next to the ‘Pool of Siloam’ in ‘The City Of David’ that would go on to make Yoram Hazony sound like Bernie Sanders.

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According to Friedman, the pool (discovered by archaeologists in 2004) proves that Jerusalem was indeed the ancient capital of Israel, thus demolishing (in some cases quite literally, as many Palestinian families in the West Bank have recently discovered) any claim to the contrary. Friedman continued on, this time channeling his inner John Nelson Darby, by noting that as an American and a Jew, Jerusalem is the place where both of his heritages began. As Israel served as the foundation for ‘Judeo-Christian’ civilization, and if America refused to recognize Jerusalem as the modern day capital of Israel it would be somehow cutting itself off from the values of the founding fathers.

I personally found this quite confusing (I still have so many questions) but the audience seemed to implicitly understand the tangle of implied historical causation which I found so mystifying.

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As my mind was still clouded by the divine truths contained in Friedman’s esoteric pronouncements, the day’s keynote speech commenced with none other than Vice President Mike Pence taking the stage as the sound of Bad Company’s ‘Alright Now’ filled the room.

In his initial remarks Pence tried to tackle the looming threat of coronavirus, doing his best Mayor of Amity impression, attempting to reassure the nation that the Administration had the situation firmly in hand and that, contra the scaremongering of the fake news media, the threat to the US public was essentially nil.

The rest of the speech was mostly spent touting the President’s achievements at home and abroad: lower taxes, a stock market in the stratosphere, dead terrorists, and judges, a lot of judges.

Pence then turned to the Democrats (or as they’re known in MAGA world “Demon rats”), decrying the disorganization and chaos of the current primary death struggle between Bernie Sanders and everyone else. Pence seemed to assume, either for cynical propaganda purposes or out of genuine conviction, that Sanders essentially already had the nomination in the bag. He then went on to make the predictable attacks on Sanders for being an ‘avowed socialist’ who ‘honeymooned in the Soviet Union’ before closing out his speech by announcing that the choice in 2020 would be one between ‘freedom or socialism.’

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There were plenty of more speakers scheduled for the main stage but I decided I had enough, I was hungry, but more importantly I desperately needed to take a drag off my juul and I had to walk all the way out to the front door to do it. After getting my fix, along with a bit of fresh air, I wandered up to a friend’s ‘hospitality suite’ where I helped myself to a fast-casual catered lunch before unceremoniously, and to my everlasting personal shame, pounding two White Claws.

As soon as I entered the suite it was as if I walked through a portal into a completely different world. Gone were the uncritical and wide eyed gazes of the ten gallon hat and MAGA button wearers, replaced by the unblinking reptilian stares of the careerist swamp creatures who have inhabited Washington’s underbelly since time immemorial.

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Their CPAC was a different one than the one enjoyed by the political vacationers below. They were the morlocks who ran the machines which fed Trump’s masses of MAGA-headed eloi, while also simultaneously feeding off of them. Jeb!, Cruz, Rubio, Trump, while they may have had their own personal preferences, it ultimately had made no real difference. For they alone understood the instruction manual for the running of the great Conservative machine, and this knowledge had great value, regardless of who was technically in charge. Most of them made salaries that in a flyover state would have put them comfortably in the top percentile of local society, and even by Washington standards most of them were doing quite well for themselves.

Policy wonks, lobbyists, PR consultants, and political hacks of every persuasion made their way in and out, taking a well deserved break from the stage managed chaos below. This was the deep swamp, the show behind the show, and their real “work” was just getting started.

The entire point of CPAC and events like it, at least for them, was as an opportunity to network with the only people who really mattered: donors and each other. A steady supply of fresh donor cash was the lubricant that greased the gears of the engine, and without it everything below would have come to a grinding halt long ago. The think tanks, lobbying outfits and nonprofit foundations that trained and then employed these political engineers that provided the reserve army for any conservative administration’s inevitable need for appointees didn’t come cheap.

After all, in the ‘off season’ (meaning the years of Democratic rule) they have to work somewhere and someone has to pay for it. The big names are well known enough: Koch, Mercer, Friess, Adelson etc. But there’s also an entire cadre of other donors whose names aren’t known (and likely never will be) and whose funds are just as badly needed. Their donations are generous, but they come with strings attached, as nothing comes free in Washington, especially not money.

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I then descended from my perch back to the den of activity below and headed toward my first panel discussion, which saw Rusty Reno, the editor of the conservative religious journal First Things debate Inez Stepman, a policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum.

What followed was a kind of low-intensity rehashing of the now infamous Sohrab Ahmari, David French debate regarding the role of government in promoting the so-called ‘common good.’ The debate, as these things usually go, was remarkably tame and underwhelming with Stepman regurgitating ‘classical liberal’ talking points on liberty and Reno countering with incredibly vague rebuttals decrying the pornographic excesses of ‘liberty.’ Stepman’s points weren’t particularly convincing, and Reno managed to get a few light rounds of applause whenever he took shots at pornography and the like but it was obvious he had no actual idea what he really wanted, no less how to get there.

When he was pressed by Stepman on what Americans should now rally around to form their identity (if we had moved beyond pure ‘liberty’) he responded with a bizarre kind of tautology, claiming that it should be ‘sovereignty’ itself. He refused to elaborate any further on this point, in spite of the implication that America’s new post-liberal ‘national identity’ should be based on…national identity.

Incoherent and unconvincing as both participants in the debate were, it still was hard for me to get worked up about the whole thing, as the stakes themselves were so incredibly low anyway.

Next up was a debate on tech censorship, with introduction, I am told, by “Carpe Donktum” an internet personality whose existence, up until that point, I had been blissfully unaware of. Mercifully my lateness had spared me from any of his “insights” on the matter.

The actual panel was in full swing by the time I walked in and I made my way toward my seat in the front row. The “anti-tech” side, anchored by Jon Schweppe from the American Principles Project and Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center were pitted against the libertarians represented by Tech Freedom’s Ashkhen Kazaryan and Americans for Tax Reform’s Chris Butler.

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Wonk speak aside, the long and short of it was this: Big Tech corporate giants like Google and Facebook indisputably exercise an inordinate amount of control over the online speech of Americans, in particular conservative leaning ones whose value set doesn’t line up with the progressive one held by most Silicon Valley content moderators. Thus, in the eyes of the anti-tech side, these companies were squelching the free speech of conservatives.

The problem, of course, as Kazaryan happily pointed out during the heated exchange in her vaguely Eastern European (Chechen?), bond girl accent was that the companies in question were obviously private entities and thus free to regulate speech on their platforms however they chose. This was obviously true and indisputable, but the two sides generally continued to talk past one another, with the anti-tech bros, ironically, tending to lean on libertarian-sounding arguments which seemed to imply that Tech companies should essentially adhere to first amendment absolutist policies. This kind of rhetoric (like most things at CPAC) won over the crowd but was an essentially empty statement as it would mean platforms would be completely unable to police their own services save for removing the occasional death threat.

The real issue, which would go unaddressed, was the simple question of not only where the moral authority within a liberal society resides to censor speech, but rather where it should reside. Maintaining neutrality in the ‘public square’ while allowing private entities to exercise discretion in their own spheres “worked” well enough in a pre-digital age. But the old understanding didn’t anticipate the rise of massive social media platforms like Facebook, no less the gargantuan societal and cultural shifts and ensuing problems caused by the very medium of the digital itself. Issues the current constitutional structure of the US system, by its very nature, simply isn’t designed to properly address.

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The Q and A portion of the panel saw a gaggle of portly, button clad attendees rush to grab a place in line, preparing to unleash a torrent of abuse against their oppressive tech overlords. One man’s “question” consisted of a good 10 minutes of ranting before he finally cajoled into giving the mic back. As I made my exit out the back door another man was complaining about being banned from Twitter for accusing Lebron James of being a Communist. The dialectic was unfolding.

I retired back to the lobby and then on to dinner, the details of which, alas I cannot discuss. Even under a pseudonym.

The next day’s general session was even more studded with MAGA stars than the first, but at 9 AM I was already exhausted and hung over from the night before. I stumbled into the press area in the general session hall and honestly I had trouble paying attention. I do remember Josh Hawley putting on a far more interesting, if less wonky, anti-tech speech. Focusing mostly on the issue of forcing social media platforms to engineer interoperability into their systems, allowing customers to take their data with them if they left a platform and thus altering the incentive calculus.

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I coasted through the rest of the morning before retiring to my hospitality suite to join with my ecothermal friends for lunch and a few hours of drinking. It is, of course, easy to denounce what these people do as a kind of corruption of the intent of America’s founders. But such righteous indignation can only exist if one maintains the illusion that American “democracy” still rests on a bedrock of informed citizens who dedicate a significant amount of their time and personal energy to the art and science of self government. A sentiment that is, at the very least, presently open to doubt.

In reality most of them were thoroughly decent people (at least by Washington standards), who just were being paid to be useful like anyone else. A role they will likely continue to fill for the foreseeable future, righteous indignation be damned.

Buzzed and rejuvenated I decided to skip whatever remained of the general session and head down to where the real action was going on: radio row.

I finally drifted down to radio row after rousing myself from my buzzed midday semi-slumber. On my way passing an engorged, and for some reason quite reddened, Mike Cernovich. Looking puffy and confident as he entertained a small group of admirers.

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I had mostly remembered Cernovich as a kind of bizarre relic of the 2016 election cycle, one of the countless obscure e-celebrities that had been rocketed to prominence by the improbable series of events leading up to Donald Trump’s election. And for most of them that year seems to have never ended. While more than a few have dropped out entirely, imploded, or been completely banished due to involvements with certain disreputable political movements, most of them were still around somewhere, just waiting for their chance to make a come back.

As I made my way through the crowd I noticed “anti-Sharia activist” Laura Loomer darting about near the corner, shaking hands as she made her way toward the Breitbart booth for what looked like some kind of interview. No doubt ready to once again demand her, at this point, years-old Twitter suspension be revoked, and perhaps warn the American people of the danger posed by Ilhan Omar’s nefarious plan to impose creeping Sharia on the good people of Minnesota.

To my right a man dressed in ostentatious leather gloves, sunglasses and a bizarre bleached blonde haircut with dyed red tips was taking photos with passersby. I had always felt my knowledge of MAGA lore was pretty good as far as it went, but I had absolutely no idea who this guy was supposed to be. After watching him approach one attendee after another for a picture I eventually was forced to ask a Washington Examiner reporter exactly who the hell he was supposed to be. His name apparently was “Ricky Rebel” a washed up B-tier former 90s boyband member and pop musician who had decided to jump aboard the Trump Train in 2016.

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My morbid curiosity finally sated, I sauntered back to the front, following the sounds of yelling and screaming. I then found myself faced with what looked like a press gaggle surrounding Infowars “journalist” Owen Shroyer, who was minutes into a impassioned monologue on the rank injustice of his apparent expulsion from the event.

I had noticed the Infowars gang milling about, unmolested, most of the day and didn’t think much of it, as Alex Jones (arguably the greatest performance artist of his generation) wasn’t among them. They were a sad sight now, incoherently claiming their free speech rights had somehow been infringed upon after being politely asked to leave by an old lady.

This was the depressing grift so many of the former stars of Trump’s high flying 2016 circus had been reduced to: live streaming a, mostly contrived, narrative of censorship and free speech martyrdom at the hands of the powers that be (“Conservatism Inc.”, the “Fake News Media,” the “Deep State” etc.) to whatever small group of online devotees they had left.

This is to say nothing of many of the other marginal figures, such as Dr. Sebastian Gorka (P.h.D!), who had managed to somehow stay between the generous safety rails that walled off mainstream MAGAdom from its less reputable cousins outside.

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For all the sound and fury the entire spectacle had an air of distinct unreality to it, as if I had somehow walked into some clownworld version of the pre-revolutionary court of Versailles, with gaggles of latter day courtiers milling about, waiting for their chance to once again win back the favor of their beloved monarch.

After I had my fill of the day’s spectacle I joined a motley group of associates for drinks at the Gaylord’s in-house sports bar, unsubtly titled “National Pastime” before heading to dinner and our miscellaneous parties.

After a night of metaphorical skinny dipping in the murky waters of the deep swamp (which, as these things go, was rather unremarkable as it witnessed only a minor instance of recreational cocaine usage) I somehow managed to drag myself back to the Gaylord the next day in time for the big man himself to finally make his appearance in the flesh.

After sleepwalking my way through a draconian secret service security check I walked back into the press area, this time making my way toward the front. I was slightly perturbed at the sight of some general attendees who had inexplicably managed to seat themselves in the press area, my sense of self importance was under attack.

I spotted a friend, surrounded by what appeared to be a group of earnest looking 9th graders (only later would I discover they were actually Daily Caller employees), and plopped myself down beside them.

We then did our duty and waited through several hours of forgettable speakers droning through loaves of MAGA bread and butter while waiting for Trump to finally grace us with his presence.

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The moment finally arrived when Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and chief swamp toad, took the stage to introduce the reason we were all here.

Then it finally happened: as “Proud To Be An American” blared through the speakers as Trump made his way to the podium, the crowd was ecstatic: This was the moment they all had been waiting for.

In honesty it was the first time I had ever seen him speak in person, and everything I had theoretically known about Trump soon became practically evident. The crowd was downright worshipful and it was obvious he was enjoying himself. He was finally with “his people,” and his demeanor reflected it.

The next hour and a half would be filled with a mix of the braggadocious victory laps (including regarding his Coronavirus virus response, for which he gave himself the grade of “A plus, plus”) and a cascade of, genuinely funny, attacks on his potential Democratic rivals. “Crying” Chuck Schumer, “Crazy” Bernie, “Mini” Mike, “Pocahontas,” “Sleepy” Joe Biden, and, most nefarious of all, “Obama!” All would taste his ridicule, interrupted only by uproarious applause or intermittent chants of “USA, USA!”

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It was impossible not to be infected by the manic enthusiasm which by the end of the speech had permeated the whole room. And it was more than just a high energy political rally, many of the Trump fans around me seemed to be genuinely moved by the whole experience. One of the interesting things about Trump’s live performances are the little asides of complete honestly with his audience. Times where he’ll mention advice his staff gave him or private conversations with advisors. These frequently go unmentioned in press coverage, but they are a big part of what makes a live Trump rally “work”: for once in their lives his people don’t feel like they’re being bullshitted.

The speech reflected what I had been told the night before by one of his campaign staff: Trump essentially had this thing in the bag, whoever he faced in 2020 had essentially no chance against him. All that was left to do was to ‘run it up the gut’: drive home the President’s accomplishments and slam the radicalism of the left. And with the economy doing so well, and the President only experiencing success on the home front there was almost no way this wouldn’t work. In fact, he told me confidence was so high most in his inner circle were already turning their sights to 2024, with Pence, Rubio, DeSantis already in the early stages of planning for their eventual campaigns.

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I had my own reservations about the entire thing, but after hearing the speech and seeing the connection the big man had with his people it was hard for me, in that moment, to imagine any other outcome.

As Trump closed to a standing ovation of rapturous applause and made his way across the stage to once again embrace the American Flag, I made my way out the back and down the stairs. I decided to try and skip the line and make my exit out the side door (this was imperative, as I had been without nicotine for a good 5 hours at this point).

As I strolled across the walkway connecting the side entrance to National Harbor’s main drag I stopped to look out over the Potomac. Marine One passed overhead on its way back to the White House, its rotors slicing through the thin Winter air as the setting sun’s rays playfully danced across the water below. It was a transcendent moment which seemed to foreshadow inevitable victory.

In the distance somewhere behind me, a Boomer started to cough.

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