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I have missed many things because of COVID, but later this month, here is what I will miss most: the 2021 Conservative Political Action Conference, otherwise known as CPAC.
If you are truly interested in young people and conservatism (and in the grown men who do Benjamin Franklin cosplay) – and as a teacher, and an American interested in understanding other people, I am truly interested – CPAC is an amazing place to be.
Students from all over the country flock annually to CPAC, hoping to forge careers in the conservative movement. An event first held in 1974, and sponsored by the American Conservative Union (ACU), CPAC was intended to convene disparate types of conservatives in a cavernous convention hall, to try to find and further a common cause. Ronald Reagan gave the first CPAC keynote, and recruited foot soldiers for his proposed “Reagan Revolution,” long before Bernie Sanders had put into political play the word “revolution.” Two years later, Reagan made his first serious run for president. Similarly, Donald Trump gave a speech to CPAC in 2011: and Trumpism as a grassroots conservative movement began to coalesce within the GOP.
CPAC is flooded with the young. They receive steep discounts to stay in fancy hotels, and much of the conference is devoted to workshops and networking to help them ascend a well-funded conservative machine of foundations, PACs, and media outlets. Usually, it happens in a sprawling conference center in Maryland, but Republican Governor Larry Hogan—who is so science-minded he is practically a Democrat – currently prohibits large gatherings. So this year, the people who are all-MAGA, all the time, will gather in sunny, mask-free, Orlando, Florida, only a quick helicopter ride from Mar-a-Lago, to plot their return to power in 2022.
For many years, CPAC has conducted a straw poll at its annual convention. Over time, that straw poll has been an accurate barometer of how populism and its vicissitudes within the GOP.
Before 2010, mainstream conservatives usually won the presidential straw poll: Mitt Romney has won it four times, every year from 2007 to 2009, and then again in 2012 when he became the Republican nominee. Donald Trump only won it once, in 2019, when he was president. But since the Tea Party burst on the scene, except for 2012, every winner has been a populist. Former Congressman Ron Paul won twice (2010 and 2011, at the height of Tea Party activism), and his son, Senator Rand Paul, has topped the list three times (2013-2015), a winning streak that was only stopped by Ted Cruz in 2016.
Many of these straw poll votes are cast by the hundreds of young white people who form part of the party’s current base. This year’s theme is particularly tailored to them, and the nurturing of grievances that conservative populists hope will bring Trump back from the dead. No, it’s not the economy— it’s “America Uncancelled” – a topic that puts into play everything from social media censorship and the legitimacy of impeachment to the puritanism of the woke campus left.
Being silenced may be new to Donald Trump, but it is the Original Grievance and a key recruiting tool for conservative youth. CPAC is a great place to put your finger on the pulse of the alternative and right-wing media that conservative college students turn to when asking questions about, “why things are the way they are?”
Their friends and teachers tell them they are stupid and hateful people for asking those questions in the first place. But here’s a word of warning if you are planning to attend: be prepared to deal with the aspects of conservative populism that are stupid and hateful, and have your social skills in order. For example, no matter how open-minded you want to be, that will be challenged when you turn a corner and run into a college student wearing a prison jumpsuit, handcuffs, and a Hillary Clinton mask.
That was one of the many whiplash-inducing sights I encountered as I wandered the halls of CPAC three years ago.
But I also saw Donald Trump speak, and I saw the connection he forged with his audience, and I came to understand why he is mesmerizing to young people who are normally not moved by dumpy men in their seventies.
I explored the exhibition hall where major sponsors like The Heritage Foundation and the National Rifle Association staffed with polite and articulate white kids, shared space with conservative college blogs, and libertarian anti-death penalty advocates. College kids took selfies with #LockHerUpHillary, with a cardboard Elizabeth Warren in a faux Native-American head-dress.
I followed them to a book signing with the real-life David A. Clarke, Jr., the conservative African-American sheriff who resigned in 2017 to work for a pro-Trump PAC and is currently advising people who attended the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the Capitol not to cooperate with law enforcement.
Needless to say, as a liberal professor from a very left-wing school in New York City, I was a fish out of water. MAGA joy was in full flower, and I was still mourning what I hoped was the temporary collapse of democratic governance in the United States. But in another sense, I was comfortable because one of the things I know how to do is talk with and listen to students.
And here is what I learned and what we need to think about moving forward from the 2020 election.
Conservative youth are mesmerized by right-wing media celebrities for a reason: they appear to care about them, and they are engaging, ‘successful’ people.
In front of a friendly audience, people like Ann Coulter, Laura Ingraham, and Ben Shapiro can be charming, funny, and knowledgeable, not deliberately rude or insulting as they often are when they are trolling the libs. They take conservative kids seriously in a way that many college professors do not, in part because they were also conservative outsiders when they were young. Ingraham, a keynote speaker in 2018, began her activism in the 1980s Reagan years and told that story to motivate young Trump supporters for the 2018 election cycle. David Clarke is a powerful, charismatic speaker, not profane and violent the way he is, for example, on Twitter, which has banned him enough times that he has finally migrated to Telegram.
While conservative pundits shock and insult “the left” to grab center stage in our clickbait media environment, conservative youth sift through that noise and identify ideas that speak to their sense of frustration and alienation in a world where the college is paid for by loans and a real career is hard to come by.
Ben Shapiro, best known among liberals as the speaker universities least want to host because he deliberately drives radical students into a frenzy (which causes him, in true playground fashion, to ridicule them as “pathetic morons”), is a superstar on his home turf.
He is handsome, zealous, optimistic, and a mesmerizing speaker. But you will never understand any of this, or why conservative college students idolize him, from the snippets of Shapiro’s speeches that appear in the media, his tweets, or his appearances on Fox. You have to listen to a whole speech from beginning to end with college students—and you have to talk to them about it afterward.
And brings us back to the Original Grievance. Speakers like Shapiro are frequently banned, disinvited, or shouted down in liberal-environments. Conservative students believe their speech rights on campus are under attack, and they aren’t wrong.
For example, the threat of anti-fascist violence forced the University of California at Berkeley to pay $600,000 in security costs to protect Shapiro when he spoke there in 2017; the University, in turn, charged the conservative student group that invited him $9,000 as a “security fee” – in effect a tax on conservative free speech on campus. Indeed, the more sensational stories about de-platforming right-wing celebrities obscure the daily experience of being a republican on an overwhelmingly liberal and left-wing campus, an alienating one that can drive people who are merely conservative into the welcoming arms of well-funded, extreme right organizations.
Young people shared personal stories with me about being routinely and publicly humiliated for their views. They told me about being shamed in a class by faculty and being ostracized or ignored by classmates when they talked about their ideas.
One young woman told me about having condoms with “Nazi” written on them thumbtacked to her door. Another said she had gone to her New England liberal arts college because she wanted to be challenged by liberals and radicals. Most of her fellow students at first refused to engage with her. After Trump was elected, “it got awful,” she said. When she crossed the stage to pick up her diploma at graduation, her family watching, her classmates booed her.
I don’t subscribe to the views these students embrace. Still, it struck me that they were not just fleeing liberalism—along the way, they were also abandoning what used to stand for a mainstream conservative intellectual tradition. They embraced conspiracy theories in part because they felt conspired against—and it was not hard to see why.
It bothered me as a college teacher and an intellectual that any student would be deliberately humiliated for contrarian political views, however naive and wrong, that fall well short of hate speech, it always has. In two days, I became persuaded that many of these young ‘activists’ ended up on the radical right because they had been ostracized by their peers and had not been supported and thoughtfully engaged by faculty who might have encouraged them to cultivate their conservatism within more conventional political parameters. When I identified myself as a liberal professor, these students were surprised that I cared what they thought, much less had sought them out.
As they act on their own beliefs, college professors and college administrations have to do better because we are losing these kids to extremism. It has consequences for the larger political culture that these young people are joining. It makes talented insiders into equally talented, but resentful and angry, outsiders who hate our institutions and everything they stand for. It creates openings for conservative populist youth groups to persuade young, well-educated white youth that they are not a privileged majority but an embattled minority. It feeds the larger message of Trumpism: that white people are embattled by political correctness and need to fight back.
We have a tough job in the next four years as we try to rebuild a more inclusive and truly democratic national conversation. Winning young campus conservatives back from Trumpism is part of that task. It’s not necessary to try to convert them into advocates for social justice – in fact, that effort has already backfired. Making them part of a serious project to restore a humane and fact-based campus dialogue – that is where we should start: by listening, instead of trying to silence them.
Claire Bond Potter is Professor of Historical Studies at The New School for Social Research, and co-Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Her most recent book is Political Junkies: From Talk Radio to Twitter, How Alternative Media Hooked Us on Politics and Broke Our Democracy (Basic Books, 2020). This essay is adapted from a post on her Substack, Political Junkie.