Public Seminar is Back, LIVE from #CPAC2018
Friday, February 23 2018
You can return to this space for updates throughout the day.
1:21 PM: It is really not the same thing to watch Donald Trump on television as it is to watch him in person. First of all, when you watch on TV, if you need to go to the bathroom, you can. But when you are live, and a speech goes on for over an hour, and the Secret Service closes the room for an hour before that, it can be pretty rough.
So, what do I know after an eighty-minute, rambling stemwinder that I didn’t know before?
One thing I saw is how happy Trump is when he is actually with the crowds that are devoted to and embrace him. The love in the room is stunning, and something I have not seen since Ronald Reagan. In 2007, I was at the Ronald Reagan Library doing research, and I asked one of the volunteers who run the tours why she enjoyed doing it. She responded: “I just want to be near him.” (Reagan had been dead for several years and was buried on the grounds of the library.) I predict that this will be true of Trump as well. Similar to the Iran-Contra investigation, which might have called Reagan’s legacy into question too and is now almost never discussed, Trump will remain a cult figure on the right whatever does, or does not, happen in the Robert Mueller investigation.
While I understand why people should keep doing it, fact-checking the many things Trump pulls out if his head, or simply gets wrong, makes little difference to the people who support him. What they care about in politics are broad brush principles, not details: that’s true of their policy preferences too. Trump doesn’t sweat the details of policy either. You could occasionally see him going back to the prepared speech, but not much. Towards the end, I think someone offstage mouthed “NORTH KOREA!” at him, and he nodded, and tossed in a line about sanctions — “very big ones” — that were apparently imposed this morning.
What interests Trump is telling stories, and evoking scenes — school shootings, border policing, how legislation does or doesn’t get passed — stories that have a moral, but no annoying details. The facts that he gets wrong, that are unknowable, that he makes up on the spot, or that are simply absurd (for example, that 10-20% of American teachers are “gun adept” former military or police, and if they have concealed weapons, deranged shooters will be deterred because they will never know who has a gun), don’t matter to Trump or to the conservatives who love him. And they think that liberals who are setting their hair on fire about these things are either dumb, deluded or don’t get the point.
The president’s supporters don’t care what Trump’s opponents think of his grasp of school safety, or how the details of arming teachers and “hardening” schools would work. What matters to them is their deep belief that people with guns are safer, and – Trump riffed on this for several minutes – the president’s repeated assertions that teachers love their students and would do anything for them.
Everyone wants to live in a world where teachers love their students and would do anything for them – even though we don’t, and conservatives are aware of this. But not unlike liberals, conservatives are not all doom and gloom about that fact. I do think one thing I have learned at #CPAC2018 is that conservative principles conjure the world that could be—one where people get what they deserve, where they sacrifice for their neighbors, where all children are wanted and loved, and where everyone has satisfying work and safe neighborhoods. This is the world Trump reflects back at his supporers – and it is a world where the safety they crave has to be won and fought for by identifying the entities who want to take their “freedom” away. There’s a lot packed into that, and I want to return to it below.
“He’s such a regular guy!” a woman in front of me in the bathroom line, a regular Trump rally attendee, said. “Isn’t he?” said her friend. “Didn’t you love the way he came on stage and started goofing around, doing his hair?” (He did: about five minutes into the speech, Trump looked at himself onscreen, and said: “Hey! That’s a pretty good-looking guy! I like him!” And started to stroke supposedly errant hairs back into place, turning around to expose a significant bald spot. Then he turned around and spoofed himself: “I try like hell to hide that bald spot,” he smiled at the crowd, like it was their little secret: “We’re working on it, we’re working on it.”)
The crowd loved it.
Another special thing Trump shares with his people is “The Snake,” something he describes as a poem, but which is actually a song written by the civil rights activist and songwriter Oscar Brown in 1963, and first recorded in 1968 by Al Wilson. Based on one of Aesop’s fables, it tells the story of a woman who finds a beautiful, half-dead snake, which she takes into her home and nurses back to health. The snake repays her by biting her, and as she is dying from the poison, she asks why. “Shut up silly woman!” the snake says. “You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in!”
“The Snake” is generally accepted by Trump supporters to be a metaphor for the ingratitude of so-called “illegal immigrants,” and the naïve attitudes of liberals who want to harbor them. Many of us thought Trump was coming to the end of the speech, and that going to the bathroom was nigh, when he pulled this paper out of his jacket and asked the crowd whether he should read “The Snake.” They agreed loudly that he should, he demurred, and then let them “persuade him” to do it.
But what is important is not just that the song is an intimate, coded message (I had never heard of this before, and have never seen these “poetry readings” mentioned in the media, even though it happens all the time), but that the snake/immigrant is, of course, Satan, in the Garden of Eden/America. This taught me vividly, in a way I had never understood before, the depth to which Trump followers see immigration as an existential threat, and why it is impossible to argue about it. The details don’t matter to them – they want a wall around Eden.
I cannot emphasize enough the fact that Trump says repeatedly that he loves his supporters, and that they believe him. I believe it too. I think he really does love them, and he feels their love for him in return. I have never seen such a large group of predominantly young people sit and listen to such a long, boring, rambling speech with such rapt attention. Granted, this is an exceptionally polite and disciplined group of young people. But I asked a Christian broadcaster behind me why they were so drawn in by a speech that, if one of their fathers had given it, they would have walked out on.
“That’s it,” she said, smiling in a way that expressed her joy that I was finally getting it. “He’s the real Dad. He’s The Father. He makes it so simple.”
It’s true – I am finally getting it, understanding the Trump phenomenon in a way I never had before I came here. While the Trump agenda is based on a set of conservative principles that have been around for years and never really come to fruition, like Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump reassures his followers that they will get these things, that it isn’t hard to get them, and that good old fashioned common sense will get you to the world you want. Maybe tomorrow.
And Trump supporters believe it. The rest of us are just kibitzers. Until liberals come up with as compelling a vision, Democrats may win back the government from time to time – but we aren’t winning back the culture war.
10:00 AM: Waiting for Trump.
Prior to an interminable exhortation from the CEO of Liberty Health Share (one for which he paid dearly, but one to which the youthful crowd predictably did not respond) Laura Ingraham, the Fox News and conservative media star, began by telling us the list of things she tried, and failed, to give up for Lent, and then she decided to give up watching Nancy Pelosi on television and it worked.
But that wasn’t her biggest laugh line. It was this:
“Liberals are kind of like herpes. Just when you think you’ve got them beat, they come back again. There’s no cure for them.” Nice.
This was a lead in to her theme: that conservatives should congratulate themselves for everything they have accomplished in electing Donald Trump, but that they needed to trust Donald Trump to keep us safe, and they need to keep struggling and never let their guard down. Struggle, Ingraham emphasized for the crowd of young activists waiting to hear Trump himself; struggle is good. Reflecting on the Reagan years, Ingraham said: “I bet you’re thinking, I wish I were there fighting for conservatism in the eighties….Remember, they resisted Ronald Reagan every step of the way. It was no cakewalk in the 1980’s. It was a constant struggle.”
“The struggle will continue from generation to generation,” Ingraham continued. “You should be vigilant…when you’re successful, it really drives them crazy. These are the good old days. This was the way it was in the eighties….They’re not mad because they are winning on the left, they’re infuriated because they are losing.” Getting angry might be cathartic but, Ingraham said, just keep working. “The lasting effect of the elevation of conservative ideas through policy — that’s what the goal is. That’s what Trump is doing. …He’s the president of all the people, of the forgotten people, of the working class.”
Trump, Ingraham continued, “understands more about the hopes and dreams of the average American,” more than all the think tanks in Washington, all the journalists, and all the pundits.” His determination to take power away from the state means that there is more power “for me — for you,” she said. And, she said, you can’t have everything. But you could have “more middle-class tax cuts. Focus on judges, judges who actually respect Article 3 power.”
There is, of course, is another message: that if a Republican Congress is not elected in November, the things that conservatives can do may shrink even further. Everybody at #CPAC2018 is very aware of this.
8:32 AM: Still time before morning prayers, so here are some comments about the atmosphere:
- The music. Every speaker or panel enters and exits to a pounding rock beat, designed to keep us all enthusiastic and energetic. But by the second day, I’ve noticed something interesting: the girl music is upbeat and sassy, featuring country singers who belt out fast paced songs about guys, cars and sex. The guy songs are anxious, gloomy and angry, featuring either bands that in the Reagan years would have been considered Satanic or despairing, white boy rappers. Then there is Earth, Wind and Fire, perhaps as a gesture for the fewer than 100 African American people here.
- Gender. The crowd is about two-thirds men under the age of thirty, very clean cut, self-confident and well-groomed, looking like they just stepped off the lacrosse field. A friend of mine who used to come to CPAC all the time says it is always like this. There is a smattering of much older people, who I suspect are retired, and who I worry about a lot as they get on and off the escalators at the Gaylord Convention center with their canes.
- Fashion. Dark suits and ties for men, skirts and suits (not pants suits!) for women, and many women are sporting red jackets, which is either a conservative thing or a Trump thing, I am not sure which. There seems to be a general consensus among the men not to wear MAGA hats: I am not sure why, except that in my experience young men seem to fear hat head more than they fear Hillary Clinton. The so-called liberal press is identifiable by its jeans and open collar shirts – except the Asian press, who look like bankers.
- Food. The liberal media and conservative activists seem to be in complete agreement that the food is bad and wildly expensive. My instinct to bring energy bars and Soylent was correct, even though it pissed off the Secret Service searching our bags. Breakfast and coffee were a bad scene altogether, except for the young men, who are solving the problem by drinking Mountain Dew.
7:41 AM: Remember I said never to miss morning prayers at CPAC? People I missed yesterday by being late and leaving early: Wayne LaPierre, Mike Pence and Eric Trump. As I publish today, if you are a general ticket holder, it’s already standing room only, an hour before the pledge to God and country.
If you followed my live blog or my twitter feed you know that I spent most of the day in the press pen reporting #CPAC2018. I also spent a little time blocking people on Twitter who decided I must be a conservative activist who needed a talking to, and who insisted on addressing me as “lady” and “cupcake,” and suggesting I perform various unnatural acts on them.
Blogging hasn’t been this interesting since the Duke Lacrosse case.
The last session of the day that I attended was a rousing keynote by Ben Shapiro of The Daily Wire that brought the young crowd to its feet repeatedly. One standing O was when Shapiro asked audience members to raise their hands if they cared about the students killed in Parkland Florida last week. Thousands of hands shot into the air. “And how many of you care about the Second Amendment?” Shapiro demanded. The same hands shot into the air.
“See, members of the media?” Shapiro thundered at those of us in a makeshift press room behind metal fences at the back of the room. “Both of these things are true!” Then, as if he had thrown a switch, the crowd turned around and began to boo, cat call and shout at us. What was a little surreal, other than the fact that this was actually happening, was that probably only about a third of us were not conservative media, so it had more of the feel of an activity than of a spontaneous demonstration. Nevertheless, the intern from the Washington Examiner sitting next to me was freaked. “I’ve always been on the other side of that fence,” he said. “This is so weird.”
Afterwards, I went to the exhibit hall, where there were a lot of free pens, stickers, and tote bags. The NRA had a huge exhibit, as did (wait for it)…
That’s right! Facebook! The same people who failed to detect massive amounts of Russian spam, fake news and forged accounts during the 2016 election cycle have a booth at a political event! What were they thinking?
I also ran into this person wandering around:
Which brings me to another observation from yesterday: if Hillary Clinton died tomorrow, the radical right would deflate like an old party balloon. While I do remember Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Jimmy Carter being objects of prolonged mockery, it ended abruptly when they ceased to be president. That someone who never actually won the office is such a rallying point can only signify serious doubts among many that there is anything but mutual hatred that really holds these different conservative factions together.
If this is true, it is cynical. The young people I have met at #CPAC2018 are drawn to conservatism by ideas, not by old people’s grudges and 1990s conspiracy theories. And some of them are really amazing. Here are two of them, Kassy Dillon and Elizabeth Desimone, the Founder and Editor in Chief of the blog Lone Conservative:
Keep your eyes on this space and on my twitter feed: I’ll be back in an hour or so with President Donald Trump’s remarks to #CPAC18.