Thursday marked the start of the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual hoedown for aspiring Republican politicians and activists that is also, incidentally, the most wonderful event of the political calendar. More than 10,000 conservatives have made the pilgrimage to the Gaylord Convention Center this year, gathering in an End Times hotel-city to plot their takeover of Obama's America.
Founded in 1973 in response to liberal hippy movements, CPAC is still seen by conservatives as their own Woodstock, a red-state bacchanal where they can take refuge from Obama's America. In reality, it's a lot more like Comic Con: part trade show, part media spectacle, and attended by people who have a hard time getting laid in the real world. But what makes it interesting, apart from the obvious appeal of watching white dudes in bowties lose their shit over Sarah Palin, is that it brings the full cornucopia of the conservative movement, drawing out all of the lunatic elements of the right-wing fringe. Here's a sampling of the cast of characters.
While CPAC brings out conservatives of every variety and stripe, the vast majority of the people who attend the conference are college kids, on loan from Southern state schools to shake Scott Walker's hand, attend activist "boot camps," and grind up on each other at sweaty happy hours hosted by the gambling lobby. Young people make up between two-thirds and one half of the CPAC audience, according to the event's organizers, giving the conference a spring break vibe, except without the sun or the girls.
In a party that has had a difficult time appealing to the youth, this overwhelming presence of wide-eyed twentysomething activists sets up a weird tension. Unlike the graying war hawks who put together the event, and host panels like "America's Future in the Age of Jihad," the College Republicans are refreshingly libertarian. And not the DC think tank kind of libertarians, but the kind who want to legalize heroin and prostitution and hate George Bush almost as much as they do Hillary Clinton. This explains why Rand Paul has won the CPAC straw poll for the past two years, and why his father won it several times in previous years. Needless to say this irks some of the conference's more serious attendees, who sneer as the aspiring John Galts stumble through the hotel lobby on their way to ask Grover Norquist what it's like to go to Burning Man.
A Guy in A Hat Being Interviewed
Since the advent of the Tea Party media has done a very good job of making Republican politics seem like a costume party, giving the impression that conservatives are otherwise average people whose desire to repeal Obamacare has turned them into John Adams impersonators and cowboy Ronald Reagans on stilts. The truth is there are really only two or three guys who actually show up in Tea Party outfits—they are just the only people any reporter wants to interview. The guy pictured above, for example, has been at every CPAC I can remember, dressed up as Button Gwinnet, an obscure Founding Father from Georgia, his home state. As the outfit suggests, he is something of a rabble-rouser; this year, tried to organize a walkout of Jeb Bush's speech, with limited success.
Apart from getting loose and lewd with the Young Americans for Liberty, the primary purpose of this year's CPAC is to audition candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016. A parade of suspects have come out at CPAC, revving up the base with red meat speeches and charming the Tea Party talk radio hosts camped out in the hallway. And while most haven't officially announced their candidacies, shit is definitely starting to get real. Already, Scott Walker has compared Wisconsin's union protesters to ISIS, Ted Cruz has demanded his rivals show him how they've bled for the cause, and the whole clown car has piled on Jeb Bush.
A handful of other, less believable White House hopefuls are also here, looking for a break out moment that will boost their book sales and keep pretending that they have a chance at winning something. None have managed to stand out yet, but Carly Fiorina definitely wins the award for best effort. The former Hewlett-Packard CEO, who sits on the board of the organization that puts on CPAC, is everywhere this year, shuttling between panels in a hive of staffers and speechwriters tasked with making her seem like a credible candidate. So far, though, no one seems to have noticed.
In addition to being the preferred spring break destination for conservative youth, has also become something of a nursing home for the GOP's historical relics. Newt Gingrich was back this year, with new warnings about terrorists, as was John Bolton, a former US Ambassador to the United Nations who is always threatening to run for president.
Disgraced Republicans can always find a second act here, welcomed back into the fold as heroic survivors of the liberal conspiracy. Amazingly, this is even true if you, say, sold arms to terrorists and then used the money to try to overthrow another country's government. Former Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North, of Iran-Contra infamy, was back at CPAC this year, espousing his views on what kind of commander in chief should be leading the US military, to wild applause.
Someone Who Wasn't Invited
For all its charitable forgiveness, CPAC organizers are also the mean seventh grade girls of the conservative movement. They are always beefing with someone, withholding invites from groups and people who don't align with hawkish stance on social issues. In the past, CPAC has turned away gay conservatives, atheists, and people who hate Islam, among others, causing some internal strife among the conservative rank-and-file.
Whoever got snubbed usually manages to show up anyway, and will wander around telling anyone who will listen about the CPAC scam. In previous years, Breitbart News has even hosted its own parallel conference for groups too fringey for the conservative fringe. Organizers, apparently eager to avoid these type of incidents, have made an effort to be more inclusive this year: The atheists got a booth, as did the Islamophobes, and the Log Cabin Republicans are even allowed to speak on a panel, provided it's about Vladimir Putin and not about being gay. This year's party crashers are the Democrats, including a team of trackers from Super PAC American Bridge, who have been lurking around the main ballroom, trying to catch someone saying something stupid.
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