FORT WASHINGTON MARYLAND – Gene Wisdom, a 55-year-old conservative from Nashville, Tennessee, was no fan of Barack Obama. Clutching a book called “The Communist,” he was waiting eagerly to meet the book’s author, Paul Kengor, so that he could sign it. The book, which detailed the life of black American journalist and labor activist Frank Marshall Davis, bore a startling subtitle: “The untold story of Barack Obama’s mentor.” That worked for Wisdom. “It is very convincing,” he said.
Believing that the president is more or less a communist would be surprising in many political circles, including many Republican ones. But Wisdom was not just queuing at another book launch. He was one of the crowd at the largest and most important conservative gatherings in the American political calendar, where the outlandish is commonplace.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), hosted by the American Conservative Union, does not do moderation or restraint. At times it appears to maintain only a loose connection with political realities. This is an annual shindig of conservative clans from across the nation. But this year the conclave took place against the somber backdrop of presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s disastrous defeat.
For a location, organizers had plumped for a gigantic convention complex just outside Washington. It was a place of giant hotels and expensive upmarket chain restaurants surrounded by freeways. It felt like an artificially suburban, self-contained, inward-looking universe with almost no natural relationship to the surrounding landscape. As such, it was perfect.
Obama’s win has left many American conservatives angry. They are mostly furious at Romney — a vastly rich titan of free market capitalism and deeply religious social conservative — whom they consider not rightwing enough.
“This Romney campaign was the worst campaign in the history of the United States,” said pollster Pat Caddell.
Other consultants complained that Romney had failed to hone the right conservative message. But then it is not easy. The movement is a fractious place of social conservatives who hate abortion and gay rights, fiscal conservatives who do not care about such things but hate government, and then foreign policy conservatives who are obsessed with the latest fashion in perceived threat — a hot seat currently occupied by Iran.
So instead conservative activists often find themselves glued together by emotion, paranoia and a firm belief that America is about to turn into a liberal totalitarian state. Tea party groups promoted themselves with events linked to “Hunger Games,” the dystopian sci-fi novel and film, and a video that fantasized about violent revolution. In a giant exhibition hall in the bowels of the convention center, dozens of stalls vied for who could be most apocalyptic about the state of America. One contender was Cliff Kincaid’s group called America’s Survival. Kincaid was also promoting a film about Frank Marshall Davis. But this work postulated Davis was not just Obama’s political father but also his biological one: a development that would shock the many conservatives convinced Obama is a Kenyan. “He is a Marxist though. It is his background,” Kincaid said.
The idea that Obama — whose administration has seen a wild stock market boom and who boasts Goldman Sachs as a major campaign contributor — is to the left of Lenin would seem insane anywhere outside this place. But inside CPAC there is a vast self-referencing ecosystem of media and think tanks to back up that world view.
Corridors are lined with talk radio shows and booksellers all barking up the same tree that says Obama is a nightmare come true, the very embodiment of a leftwing anti-American autocrat. A cinema even beamed films like “Frack Nation,” “America at Risk” and “Hillary: The Movie.” Internal logic is not always a strong point. In one film screening about abortion, an interviewee declared: “They are attempting to do abortions on women who are not pregnant.”
Those same corridors were also full of fresh-faced members of the Young America’s Foundation handing out posters — eagerly snapped up — of a beaming Sarah Palin riding on a horse. “They see her as a star. As someone to look up to and a person of change,” said foundation spokesman Adam Tragone.
Not many Americans outside CPAC share that view. The former Alaska governor is seen as someone who left her job as governor of Alaska early to pursue a media career. Her talent for misstatements, which helped derail John McCain’s 2008 presidential run, are a joke for many Americans — not to mention people overseas. But then even Palin looks a genius compared to another CPAC star, Donald Trump. The reality TV mogul was given a prime-time slot which he used to launch a plea for a return to American manufacturing even as he boasted of buying all his TVs in South Korea.
“I am continuously criticized. It’s unbelievable,” he mused.
Not surprisingly, many have called on CPAC — and the wider Republican Party on which it still exerts powerful influence — to change its ways. Obama’s victory was built on the votes of the young, women and minorities: all demographics that some conservatives have toiled mightily to offend.
Nor have those habits been broken. CPAC embraced Trump but did not invite gay Republicans, with their GOProud organization reduced to a single speaker on a single panel invited along by the Competitive Enterprise Institute. “We are taking tolerance out of the closet,” boasted institute director Fred Smith, which raised the question of why it had been hidden there in the first place.
Another disaster was a tea party-organized panel titled “Tired of being called racist?” which was attended by at least two white nationalists. As black speaker K. Carl Smith outlined his vision of a color-blind ideology, two young white men, Scott Terry and Matthew Heimbach, spoke up to defend slavery, racial segregation and insult Martin Luther King. The meeting descended into an ugly shouting match, though Heimbach, who heads the White Students Union at his college, explained later: “After a few drinks most people here agree with us.”
That is no doubt a demented pipe dream. But conservatives do have a serious image problem as being too white in a country whose skin tone is changing more with every election cycle. Much of the convention’s attention was focused on America’s millions of Hispanics, who are the fastest-growing major demographic in America and who have fled the party because of its hardline stance on immigration control. Belatedly many have realized that is a major problem. Kay Rivoli, a singer known for her viral YouTube ditty Press 1 for English, even admitted as much. “We need to change on immigration reform,” she said.
But on nearly everything else Rivoli was a font of optimism about conservatism’s political future. “We have to be a little more loud, a little more brazen,” she said, though it was hard to imagine such a thing. She then happily mused that somewhere in the giant CPAC hall a future conservative president was walking. “There’s a possibility,” she said.