You could have attended all of the speeches by the 15 or so potential presidential candidates who appeared at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference and only had the slightest notion that anything of note was happening in Egypt. The young conservatives gathered there have their own leaderless revolution to foment. The long-time president of the American Conservative Union, which sponsors CPAC, stepped down the day before the conference began to become the head of the National Rifle Association. And the CPAC Straw Poll, the first of many basically meaningless contests for all those 2012 Republican hopefuls, gave attendees a baffling array of candidates to choose from. There was even a not-very-enthusiastic write-in campaign for Donald Trump— who showed up mostly to trash Ron Paul.
Paul, the gnomic Texas Congressman who has already led two quixotic presidential runs as a staunch libertarian, wound up winning the poll with 30 percent; Mitt Romney brought in 23 percent and after that the field split into drips and drabs of 6 percent and below. Trump's typically belligerent speech—he wondered if America was becoming "the laughingstock of the world"—won him one percent. Not bad, considering the write-in campaign was as light and hollow as his hair. It stemmed entirely from his accepting the invitation of GOProud—an organization of gay conservatives whose inclusion at the conference is a source of a controversy of far greater interest to reporters than most attendees. At the GOProud booth, they gave out black-and-white Xeroxed flyers asking people to write-in Trump, but were not so very enthusiastic about it. "We do not endorse any candidacy or campaign," two said, almost in unison. What about the flyers? "We want him to be considered."
The unassuming booth, where they also pass out stickers bearing the slogan "Our gays are more macho than their straights," is the reason why a some conservative groups—including the Heritage Foundation and the Family Research Council—backed out of the event rather than share oxygen with open homosexuals.
Anticipation of a wide open and contentious 2012 primary contest ballooned attendance of CPAC. The American Conservative Union attests that they recorded the largest number of registered attendees in the conference's nearly 40-year history: 11,000 "conservative leaders and activists." Mainstream news outlets arrived in large numbers as well though the two groups were after very different things. Reporters sought tea leaves to read (and Tea Partiers to mock); the students were largely concerned with their careers. (Honestly, both constituencies would be better served by trading goals.) Reporters crowded around elected officials and interviewed the guy walking around in a Revolutionary War costume. Students crowded into meeting rooms for sessions such as "Secrets to Landing a Conservative Job," "Getting Started in Hollywood," and "Becoming a Columnist."
Though larger than ever, and certainly attracting as much attention as ever, CPAC in 2011 was curiously unmoored. The exhibit hall was a riot of competing ideologies. There are not one, not two but three groups that claimed to support "liberty": Young Americans for it, a Campaign for it, and Students for it. The latter two actually work in concert, while the third eschews politics in favor of a "purely philosophical" agenda. "We do not support any candidate, campaign or party," the representative said, handing out pamphlets on becoming a "Students for Liberty" campus leader. I ask what a leader would lead toward, if not a specific campaign. "You'd be a leader for liberty."
A lot of exhibit hall booths had the same buoyant directionlessness. Maybe conservatives have become so good at co-opting the language of generically good goals—who could argue with the titular premise of Americans for Prosperity?—that their messaging strategy has fallen in on itself, relying on a conservative audience's ear for hidden meanings to such an extent they have no hope of reaching anyone else. A friend and I, as University of Chicago graduates, were drawn to the "Youth for Western Civilization" booth, for example, thinking maybe to score some free copies of The Illiad, only to discover that, as my friend put it, "They don't mean Western Civilization"—with its riot of competing philosophies and constantly evolving definitions of freedom—"they mean us, in the building, right now."
GOProud's booth was just around the corner from "The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property"—a Catholic organization that fancies itself a home for modern-day Crusaders. Its representatives wore jaunty red capes that are somewhat at odds with their literature, which condemned the opening up of CPAC to the gay group. It is also an all-male group, with fantasy camps for boys where attendants dress in the white tunics of Crusaders and practice archery. Asked if there isn't some concern that aligning itself with the Crusades—the Pope has apologized for them, after all—a representative told me that the Crusades are misunderstood: "It was a defensive war."
The TFP boys recognized that they were fighting a defensive war themselves when it comes to keeping the conservative agenda staunchly anti-gay, but their attitude toward the battle conformed to the marketplace-of-ideas calculus that imbued the event: "We wanted to make our voice heard."
For a party that has planted its flag on the backs of our armed forces, talk of the war on terror at CPAC was limited mainly to discussing incursions on the homefront. Early on I was accosted by a leafleteer drumming up support for "Secure America Now," a militant-sounding group that actually (thankfully?) interprets its mandate metaphorically: "We want to alert people to threats to the American way of life." Even the appearance of Don Rumsfeld to accept an award —and a surprise cameo by Dick Cheney to present it—made for weirdly parochial rhetoric. A contingent of the crowd reminded everyone of what Cheney and Rumsfeld left unsaid: pro-Ron Paul hecklers shouted "War criminal!" and had to be escorted from the hall.
The Ron Paul contingent was so weirdly, asymmetrically present at CPAC that it disturbed conference regulars. As one co-sponsor said, "I don't know what to expect next year. It'll be a different conference."
As for this year's conference? The conservative movement is so divided they can't even decide how to delegitimize an election. "The Paul people bought it," said a guy from Americans for Tax Reform of the Straw Poll. Isn't that the point? You guys believe in a free market, right? And on abolishing campaign finance reform? He paused. "You have a point," he said. "But that doesn't mean it means anything."
Ana Marie Cox is GQ's Washington correspondent.
Photo by Mark Taylor.