For the Season 2 premiere of With Friends Like These, Ana traveled to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC for short), to get to the heart of what this show is about: seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. Ana is no stranger to CPAC — she’s been going for more than a decade and has experienced it in all its idealism and nerdiness. One thing she’s noticed in that time is that conference attendees were attracted to the conference because they wanted to have arguments about ideas and policy, rather than get sucked into a cult of personality. That’s precisely why people like Donald Trump found it difficult to turn celebrity into following at CPAC, to the point that Trump opted against speaking there in 2016 in the face of a potential walk-out.
However, since his election, something has changed at CPAC. The idealistic exchange of ideas, young activists, grassroots organizers, and George Washington impersonators are still there. But so too are the Make America Great Again hats and with them overtly racist discourse.
At this year’s conference, Ana found that many attendees were hurt by accusations that voting for Trump marked them out as racist. They also felt that discussing racism, immigration policy, and the #MeToo movement were a distraction from conversations about the economy, and taxes, hallmarks of the old CPAC. Yet, those sentiments flew in the face of reality: that CPAC had embraced more open, virulent racism than anything Ana had experienced before.
One of the first people she encountered at this year’s conference was a 17-year-old from North Carolina attending the conversation to meet her friend, a young man who “was basically the poster child for Charlottesville.” She met this friend when he was pictured in *that* viral photo of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. After joking that he should “hit her up” because he was “so cute,” they got in touch with each other via Twitter and struck up a friendship. That led her to discover he was “a perfectly normal guy… not a Nazi at all, smart, very nice,” and they bonded over politics and Catholicism.
She went out of her way to state that she is not a racist, and tried to talk about finding common ground in race relations for all Americans to move forward, together. In her ideal world, that looks like one thing: “a white super-majority.” While eschewing the idea of a white ethnostate, because there is no way to create one without “violating people’s human rights and human dignity,” she nonetheless thinks that a white super-majority is “important to the identity of America.” She wanted to “secure our borders,” and dispel the notion of America as a nation of immigrants.
Ana encountered the same anti-immigrant sentiment in another, more surprising place: a 19-year-old Muslim immigrant named Nafisa, a Criminal Justice major at Northeastern. Her family immigrated to New York from Bangladesh when she was a toddler, shortly before the events of September 11, 2001. Drawn to the conservative movement by social issues, she supports the President — to the point that she didn’t think the Muslim Ban went far enough.
Nafisa blamed problems within the Muslim community on generic cultural values, the diversity lottery system, and diagnosed the lack of assimilation by Muslim immigrants as “the biggest problem in our society.” Be like us, or go. There is no in between, at least at CPAC.
How quickly times change. Two years on from Trump’s decision to skip CPAC, when his anti-immigrant rhetoric was ridiculed at the conference, he keynoted the event. Trump’s presence loomed over the event as a whole, infecting the tenor of other speakers. Marine Le Pen’s niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, gave an address less than an hour after Vice President Mike Pence. Ben Shapiro, darling of the conservative intelligentsia, told fellow conservatives to speak the truth, and that “we don’t have to worry about charges of racism, sexism, bigotry, homophobia, because facts aren’t racist, sexist, bigoted, or homophobic, and neither are we.” The biggest cheer he received was when mentioning his mentor, Andrew Breitbart.
The conference took place little more than a month before the March For Our Lives. In age composition and enthusiasm levels, CPAC was not dissimilar from the marches that took place across the country. The only difference was in what they stood for. CPAC has always had its fringe, racist elements. But you used to have to seek them out. Now, as Ana found, they’re on stage.
Ana was not the only longtime CPAC attendee that noticed the shift. For another perspective, she spoke with the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, who has been attending as long as she has, about how recent shifts in the conservative movement played out at the conference.
Not everyone Ana encountered at CPAC liked what they saw. In Part 2, Ana goes looking for those principled conservatives, to find out how many of them there are left, and how they can make themselves heard.
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