A Liberal Goes Undercover to Brave America's Premiere Right-Wing Gathering
So I decided to go to the 2008 Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC -- America's foremost gathering of the extreme right wing of the Republican Party. Why did I do it? For years, I'd been writing snotty articles about the reactionary right as a contributor to the blog Sadly, No! but aside from family reunions, I never spent much time with them. So, with a hotly contested presidential election in the offing and rumors of the retreat of modern neoconservativism being whispered in the corridors of punditry, I decided there was no better time than the present to worm my way into the midst of the right wing's true believers. Using the generous donations of Sadly, No! readers and other well-wishers, and posing as a lobbyist for the American Milk Solids Council, I made my way to Washington in early February and sat through every moment of CPAC 2008. Herewith, a highly abridged version of my copious notes from the belly of the beast.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. When I arrive at the hotel, two members of the Young America's Foundation -- the omnipresent youth league that superceded the hippie-punching Young Americans for Freedom -- are trying to check in using a credit card not belonging to them. Rules are for poor people, and they seem to think that if they berate the poor West African guy working the front desk, they'll get what they want eventually. They may be wrong, but damn it, no late-shift immigrant is going to tell them that. Modern Washington, the Washington of Bush and CPAC, was built to keep people like him from telling people like them what to do.
The convention will be attended, largely, by two groups of people: the mainline Republican rump of 19-percenters, who think George W. Bush is doing a Brownian heck of a job, and the radical right, who think that the problem with George is that he's not heartlessly conservative enough. To put it another way, here we have the people who look at the wreckage of the American 2000s and pronounce it a wonderful thing and the people who look at it and say, "Yeah, it's pretty awful, but if we tried, we could make it a whole lot worse."
In the elevator up to my floor, two men in golf hats (golf hats? at 8 p.m.?) talk about how high taxes will cause the rich to flee the country and stop producing if Hillary gets into office. (They're apparently laboring under the misapprehension that Americans still produce things.) This is a real threat in the world of CPAC, while things like massive healthcare shortages, an increasingly ill-educated population, dependence on dwindling natural resources and the ever-widening gap between rich and poor are the stuff of fairy tales.
I've arrived too late for the pre-CPAC Diamond Reception and too early for the expensive hookers to start roaming the halls. The soda machine costs a buck and a quarter a can, so I decide to just wait for the boy to bring my bottle of gin. Then, before the pills kick in -- I need a little help to get through this -- a moment of imperialist panic: What if there is no boy? What if there is no gin?
THURSDAY MORNING. Here's a description of Hell they never give you: a huge room full of all the people you hate most, and they're all having a wonderful time.
Yes, it's all smiles and sunshine here at CPAC: lively young ladies with skillfully applied layers of makeup are here to greet you at every turn and correct your every confusion. Hopelessly earnest collegiate nerds hand out Mitt Romney stickers and hope against hope that John McCain has some sort of campaign trail meltdown: perhaps it will occur to him that the last 30 years have all been a fever dream brought on by bad fish paste, that he is still in some VC labor camp wearing a tin can around his head, and he will savagely turn on his campaign manager with a broken bottle while at a Kiwanis breakfast.
A rail-thin brunette in the row in front of me tests my cover for the first time.
"Hi! Are these seats taken?"
"Oh, thanks, sir!" Sir. So much for getting laid. "I'm (name redacted) from the University of Small Midwestern State's Conservative Student Alliance."
"Leonard Pierce, American Milk Solids Council."
"I'm sorry? What is that?"
"It's an industry group for milk solids manufacturers. We lobby Washington lawmakers to lessen regulations on the export of milk solids. The problem is that the government blames us for the incompetence of African mothers."
"That is so unfair."
"Tell me about it."
American Conservative Union leader David Keene interrupts a panel dedicated, like most things here at CPAC, to the beatification of Ronald Reagan, to report that Vice President Cheney has arrived early. I brace myself: I am about to be a few yards away from the Worst Man in America.
Before Cheney comes on, a bunch of CPAC dignitaries are introduced. Who gets the biggest applause? Wayne LaPierre, the human bulldozer of the National Rifle Association. But the panel is a real cross-section of the American privileged class, the rich and angry from A to B.
People are clapping rhythmically -- well, as rhythmically as this crowd is ever going to get -- for Cheney. For Cheney! I keep expecting them to start chanting "WE WANT THE SHOW" like they're waiting for the Blues Brothers, the presence of whom would color up the crowd considerably. Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso introduces the fiend of the hour: "The C in CPAC should stand for Cheney!" Which "C" he means is left unrevealed.
The crowd gives Dick a standing o, and, as a gang of bull-veined dudes in front of me start chanting "FOUR MORE YEARS!" I get the sensation for the first time all day that I'm at something that could easily turn into a fascist rally. When the applause finally quells, Dick chuckles evilly. Can that be done? Is a chuckle even feasible as the delivery vector for evil? If it is, Dick Cheney is the man capable of pulling it off with finesse. I have to admit, the guy has a certain degree of charm, but it's the same kind of charm that you might find in Stalin or Dracula: the easy charisma of a man who knows he can, with a wave of his hand, have you ground into paste.
The first part of Cheney's speech is right at the wheelhouse of the CPAC crowd: lower taxes, lower taxes, lower taxes. "Lower taxes are always good for this economy," he says. Which economy is he talking about? The economy in general, or the economy of the people in this room? He gets another standing ovation for "The absence of another 9/11 is not an accident, it's an achievement." (The first 9/11, apparently, was an accident.) A laundry list of constitutional butt-wipes get standing ovations from about half of the crowd: an expansion of FISA, the torture of terror suspects, and the financial protection of any big corporation who might theoretically have allowed illegal wiretapping to take place. The telecoms, says Cheney, shouldn't be "hassled" for acting in "good faith," which usage of the phrase is unfamiliar to me. Terror, terror, terror: it's the Dick Cheney boilerplate. (Bonus homosexual innuendo, Dick Cheney edition: describing the president's term in office, he says "We've done hard things and done them well.") Weirdly enough -- or maybe not so much -- his defense of torture gets a standing ovation, but his praising of our fighting men in uniform does not. It takes a man to fight, but it takes a train to waterboard.
Defense, security, prosperity. America is a country of good: thus stated, it need not be defended or explained. It's nothing we haven't heard before, but somehow hearing it in person, in the presence of true believers, it leaves a haze in the air, a strange absence of rhetoric: It seems less like a speech that has been delivered and more like a series of directives that have been issued. Cheney leaves the building (his last appearance here as vice president, Keene notes with a lick of the lips, but not his last appearance here) to thunderous applause, having gone out with a workingman's damn and told us all that the nation will be safer and more prosperous for having had Bush as president for eight years. It is not an assurance: it is an order.
THURSDAY AFTERNOON. Mitt Romney's funeral pyre. Desk-drawer Ann Coulter manquÃƒÂ© Laura Ingraham is introducing him, and her speech is a fiery enfilade against the RINOs who seem to think that the faceless Mormon nonentity isn't the second coming of Ronald Reagan, who I am beginning to think of as the fourth member of the Holy Trinity. She refers to the fact that "the three remaining Republican candidates for president" are all in attendance; that must cheese off Ron Paul something fierce, and a cheesed-off Ron Paul is a joy forever.
The crowd is absolutely explosive for Mitt; if the rumors are true that he's about to chicken-walk out of the race, there's going to be a lot of tears. (Although, of course, there were the callow little shits of the YAF I ran across in the Exhibit Hall who were already swapping out their Romney buttons and stickers for John McCain gear.) The true believers saw in him what they saw in Reagan, a mildly pleasant cipher of a man upon whom they could impress their most extreme beliefs: a man doing bad things and allowing you to feel good about them. His speech, delivered in that clipped I-can-only-read-five-words-at-a-time way he has, is hitting on all the cheer buttons: security, lower taxes, the "attack on faith" (not the Muslim faith, though, surely), and those sick, sick '60s, which ruined everything forever. Another big applause line for the punters comes when Romney invokes the hideous shadow of a nonexistent threat: "Simply put, we must not allow America to be held hostage by the likes of Hugo Chavez." Somewhere in a metallic cave below the streets of Caracas, Chavez shakes his armored fist and screams: "Ã‚Â¡MaldÃƒÂgale, Romney! Ã‚Â¡Usted me ha frustrado otra vez!"
Now comes doomsday: Because I love this country, says Mitt, I entered this race, and because I love this country, I am leaving it. Unfortunately, he means the race, not the country; I was hoping he was going to move to Paris and take a run for mayor against that dirty Red queer they have now. So it's all over for the Mittster, and when I wander back down to the hall of bloggers, it's like someone has let all the hot air out of them. The stench of failure and burritos hands in the air.
THURSDAY, LATE AFTERNOON. The John McCain speech viewed from a TV monitor near Blogger's Row. I fought like hell to get in here: No soldier in a war ever suffered more to gain less. (Hey, if conservatives can compare no-smoking laws to the Holocaust, then I own this.) His introduction keeps focusing on the theme of bravery, which, ever since those golden years of oh so many hours ago before Mitt Romney dropped out, has been the primary qualification for being president. So often does he drop the word "courage" that you'd think terrorists where constantly breaking into the Oval Office and challenging the leader of the free world to a rassling match.
John McCain's not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but he's surely smart enough to realize that he's among a group who wants a candidate slightly to the right of Father Coughlin. He establishes his conservative creds right away by talking about how the most important freedom of all is the freedom to be born without some vacuum-cleaner-wielding liberal getting all up in your fetusitude. He goes on to say the word "conservative" about eleventy seven billion more times, but honestly, he goes over like a lead balloon encased in a lead safe that has been thrown out of a lead airplane while someone plays Led Zeppelin III. There are exactly three times when he gets anything even remotely resembling raucous applause: (1) when he discusses lowering taxes; (2) when he disses Barack Obama; and (3) when he mentions Mitt Romney. He also apologizes constantly, saying that he knows he hasn't always been perfect and he counts on the cons in attendance to set him straight. But to this crowd, any admission of error is an admission of weakness, and every mistake is made by someone else. Anyone who still buys into McCain's reputation as a maverick should see him now, abasing himself before the rightest of the right: He may as well be wearing a "KICK ME" sign.
The overall consensus on Blogger's Row is that McCain is a dud. It's too soon, he's too dull, the Democrats are too competitive, the campaign season is too long. Even a ticket with The Great Mormon Hope is likely to be doomed unless his name is at the top. No one on Blogger's Row seems to think that, in the words of Ice Cube, today was a good day. I move along to a lecture featuring the Virgin Ben Shapiro about the next generation of Republican leadership, and despite an overall attempt at forthrightness and penetrating insight (not to mix a metaphor that would get Ben all hot and bothered), everyone better hope that the next generation gets it right, because this one fucked around and let John McCain end up at the top of the ticket.
FRIDAY MORNING. George W. Bush, when you get right down to it, is a fucker. That's why I don't like him. He's a fucker who does fucked-up things. He's a privileged little shit who doesn't give a damp hell for the opinions of the people he was elected to govern. He buys into the toxic economic theories of unreconstructed capitalism, despite never having had to earn an honest living in his life, and he supports a worldview that cuts out anyone who hasn't had his good fortune -- the worldview of a murderous plutocracy stained with swaths of luck and cruelty where first is first and second is nobody. He's stupid in the truest sense of the word: willfully ignorant and determined to surround himself with people who keep him that way, not only resistant to different ideas but actively hostile towards them. He is neurologically incapable of thinking ahead, and he consigns the consequences of his actions to the status of dreams. And he forced his country into a pointless, unnecessary, unconscionably wasteful war that will poison every aspect of American life for generations.
Worst of all, though, the son of a bitch made me get up at 2 o'clock in the morning to go to his fucking speech at CPAC.
At around 7:20 a.m., Mr. President finally takes the stage. In person, he looks a little haggard and tired: no legacy to speak of, no friends overseas (whither Pooty-Poot? a nation turns its starving eyes to you), and another boatload of corpses to go and frown at later today. He won't last as long as his old man once he's out of office: With no one to stand in the way of, with no one to infuriate, with no press hanging over his shoulder for him to mutter "fuck off" at, he'll wither away and disappear, just another burnout boomer with prostate cancer and no hobbies. The chant begins before he even hits the walkway: "FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS! FOUR MORE YEARS!" I look around for a copy of the Constitution, but no one seems to have brought one.
He starts out a little bleary, but with an oddly touching human moment, talking about his daughter's upcoming marriage. But just in case we might get the mistaken impression that he has a functioning human brain that works in a normal fashion, he goes on to say that "Dick Cheney is the greatest vice president in the history of the United States." Then again, maybe he's got some chip implanted in his incisor that makes him say that whenever Cheney's name gets mentioned, like when someone asked Frank Sinatra about Raymond Shaw. His administration "didn't seek the approval of editorialists" before deciding what to do -- take that, Matt Taibbi! -- and "we darned sure didn't seek permission from groups like Code Pink and MoveOn before taking action." Take that, mothers of dead soldiers! But what's with this "darned" shit? Even Cheney said "damn."
The war spiel comes next, because even this dumb bastard knows that no one's going to offer up any catcalls about the war. "Afghanistan will never again be a safe haven for terrorists who wish to do us harm," he claims, using a strange interpretation of "never again" which apparently means "at some point in the future," since the last I heard the heirs to the Taliban were pretty much running roughshod over the joint. He offers up a little bit that's calculated to make my blood pressure shoot up to Throbsville: he intends to sign an executive order that will force the president to explain wasteful and unaccountable spending. How fortunate that this doesn't apply to him, and the vast financial sinkhole that Iraq has become. No fear, though: "When the history of this period is written," says Mr. I Can Has Legacy? "it will show that we were right."
As of today, says the worst president in American history, "25 million Iraqis are free." A million more are beyond freedom, knowing what the dead know. At the final moment, he does what we all knew he would do: He gives John McCain the most tepid, most damaging endorsement imaginable, saying only that he hopes the crowd will support the Republican nominee for president. I'm tired and sick and burned, and I need to eat and I need to get away from all the choking self-satisfaction in the room. The whole place rises as one, roaring and chanting, calling for a repeal to the Constitution so this luckless bastard, so desperate to get the hell out of a job he never wanted to begin with and only took out of spite; and Bush stands there, holding a dripping knife -- the only tool he's ever used -- just another misbegotten Mark Antony, waiting for the cheers of the crowd to die.
The full and unexpurgated CPAC diaries of Leonard Pierce can be found here:
Chapter 1: An American God
Chapter 2: Invisible Asia
Chapter 3: You Shan't Go Home Again
Chapter 4: In a Mad Frenzy, Stinging Themselves to Eternal Death
Chapter 5: Soy un Perdidor
Chapter 6: She Don't Like, She Don't Like, She Don't Like Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ McCain
Chapter 7: Holding a Shard of Mirror Up to Nature's Throat
Chapter 8: Twice Presented Him a Kingly Crown
Chapter 9: Brought Me to Darkness, But Not Into Light
Chapter 10: The Sugar and the Shit
Chapter 11: Pestilence Goes for the Big Laff
Chapter 12: Show Us Your Twits
Chapter 13: Getaway