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In the Belly of the Beast

CPAC's carnival of groups offers a glimpse into the conservative universe.

While the speeches by various conservative bigwigs at the annual CPAC conference in Washington, D.C., are always fun—who doesn’t love listening to Ron Paul rail against foreign aid or Mitt Romney explain that, unlike Barack Obama, he wouldn’t need to ask his Treasury Secretary for economic advice?—that’s not all that's on offer. Down in the basement of the Marriott Wardman Park is a convention hall lined with various groups hawking pamphlets and piles of swag. The melee offers a glimpse at the varied organizations that compose the conservative universe.

The usual suspects, of course, have booths—The Weekly Standard, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the FairTax folks. The NRA has a video skeet-shooting game, where staid young conservatives in blazers take turns handling the dayglo-orange shotgun. “I © FRIEDRICH HAYEK” shirts go for $10. The Collegians For a Constructive Tomorrow let passersby hurl eggs at pinup photos of Al Gore and Penn State paleoclimatologist Michael Mann; I saw one girl chuck an egg so vehemently that she has to leap back to avoid the splatter. In another room, on Friday, two authors—Loren Spivack and Patrick Field—were selling a Cat in the Hat parody book for $20 called The New Democrat, featuring Obama as the mischievous (and suspiciously Che-resembling) cat and Glenn Beck as the scolding fish. (Sample line from the Cat: “We can bail out the banks / I’ll find the money with ease / We can borrow it all / From my friends the Chinese!”)

The convention hall is a perfect site for lesser-known groups to try to enlist the hordes of impressionable young conservative college students who have traveled to Washington into their ranks. For instance, in addition to booths for the Pepperdine School of Public Policy (a conservative outpost in Malibu, California), there is also the brand-new Free-Think-U, which offers free online courses in topics like “Radical Islam 101” and “Capitalism vs. Socialism.” Enrollees can earn “points” by signing up for video courses and inviting their friends—all with a goal of earning thousands of dollars in scholarships. (One of the volunteers mentioned that they were trying to get 1,000 students signed up.) Meanwhile, conservative journalists-in-training can sign up for a 12-week course with the National Journalism Center, which gives young reporters a crash course in “objectivity,” unlike what you’d find in the liberal media (alumni include Ann Coulter and, notably, Malcolm Gladwell).

One lesser-known group with a big presence at CPAC this year is the Poker Players Alliance, which claims 1.2 million members and is fighting to legalize online poker. The group’s pitch is persuasive: In 2006, Congress passed a law that tried to indirectly ban online gambling—and ended up pushing online poker offshore. “It’s a classic example of the unintended consequences of big gambling,” says Greg Raymer, the 2004 World Series of Poker Main Event Champion, who was at the group’s booth on Friday signing T-shirts. When I ask one organizer if the alliance ever clashes with anti-gambling social conservatives, he frowns. “Nah,” he says. “Well, maybe a few of the crazies.” (In related news, the poker community is ecstatic that Arizona Senator Jon Kyl—an online gambling foe—is retiring.)

Also trying to gin up attention is the 50,000-member Safari Club International, which had the misfortune of setting up a booth right by the NRA’s big video display. The Safari Club, while also a big opponent of gun control, has a more subtle goal—to enable the hunting of various types of big game. As such, they’ve lobbied hard to weaken restrictions on the imports of various species. (You know how you can now hunt polar bears for sport in Canada and bring them back to the United States? Thank the Safari Club!) The group has also moved to edit the Endangered Species Act and has a variety of conservation programs aimed at setting up big-game hunting refuges. 

Wandering through the hall, I spotted a few sparsely attended booths that wouldn’t look out of place at a liberal convention. There was the Prison Fellowship, for instance—a group founded by Chuck Colson (after his Watergate-related stint in prison) to reform prison policy. A related group—Right on Crime—has the support of Newt Gingrich and Grover Norquist, and has been promoting policies, like one in North Carolina, to reserve prison beds for serious crimes and use community supervision for low-risk offenders. Meanwhile, down in a dark corner sat Muslims for America, a group founded by Muhammad Ali Hasan, a Bush supporter who spoke out in favor of the Cordoba House mosque in New York. Alas, his booth seemed to be getting less interest than the glossier American Center for Law and Justice, which touts itself as “THE LEGAL GROUP TRYING TO STOP THE GROUND ZERO MOSQUE.”

One of the major storylines at CPAC this year has been that a bunch of social conservative groups boycotted the event because of the inclusion of the gay-friendly GOProud. One group that seems to have no problem with GOProud is PFOX, the Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays, which also has a booth in the convention hall. The group counsels families with gay members and refers them to “treatment” services. When I asked PFOX’s president, Gregory Quinlan (who calls himself an ex-gay), why he didn’t join in the boycott over GOProud, he said, “We’re not against gays—many people couldn’t change even if they tried for their whole life.” That seemed fair enough to me. As I was about to leave, a bunch of conservative college students showed up to argue with the PFOX folks about whether being gay was a choice or not. The argument got heated: At one point, Quinlan shouted, “You can’t point to a single gene that makes you gay! You just can’t!” The students sounded skeptical.

From there I wandered over to a booth run by the recently formed Crispus Attucks Tea Party. “We’re not the black Tea Party,” insisted founder Earl Johnson, even though it sure looked like a Tea Party aimed at African Americans. I asked Johnson why, if race didn’t matter (and hey, that's what it said on his pamphlets), there had to be a separate Tea Party group for black voters. “I can walk into neighborhoods that you can’t,” he said, “and go up to the hustlers who are pimping their liberal views, and I can say, ‘That’s bullshit!’ No one can call me racist.” I asked him whether CPAC was fertile ground for recruitment. Sure, he said. And how many members does he have? “I’m not going to say,” Johnson said with a grin. “Everyone always wants to know that!”

It wasn’t all think tanks and politico training, though. For levity, there was a booth for the BigDawg Music Mafia, a social networking site meant to bring together conservative musicians (including Victoria Jackson, a former “Saturday Night Live” star who once had a gig on Johnny Carson standing on one hand while reciting poetry). Coincidentally, earlier on Friday, I had sat in on a panel discussion on “Engaging America Through Conservative Pop Culture.” (The audience had been promised that Stephen Baldwin—of Bio-Dome fame—would appear, but it turned out, alas, that he had to take a meeting with “Survivor” producer Mark Burnett.) The broader theme, basically, was that conservatives were winning the war of ideas, but that liberals had infested Hollywood and the music industry and so forth, luring voters away. The right needed to reclaim cool. Alas, BigDawg Music Mafia probably wasn’t the answer: Most of the music was second-rate country.

It was clear from the convention hall that the right has, over the years, done an exceptional job setting up a solid infrastructure for recruitment and publicity. There are myriad student-training organizations and think tanks and publishing giants and alternative media outlets, all pushing a conservative creed. Pop culture, however, is still a tough nut to crack. Maybe next year. 

Bradford Plumer is the associate editor for The New Republic.

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