Somewhere around midday Thursday, the first day that anyone really pays attention to the Conservative Political Action Conference, people in the media started substituting a question in the place of more conventional greetings, like "Hello." They'd bump into each other in lines or in the halls, dropping off stuff in the press room, and you'd hear it:
Has anyone said the word Trump yet?
The showman in him would appreciate it. With the exception of the Holy Spirit, nobody has ever filled a room of Republicans he wasn't even in quite the way Donald Trump has during this election cycle. Just as he dominated the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, which he didn't even attend, he dominated CPAC weekend in terms both spoken and unspoken.
First he began the unmaking of a Party. Then, just to be a dick, he unmade the Party's annual party. Then, for one last full measure of asshole, he canceled on it. And what nobody wanted to acknowledge was that, on a weekend full of speakers and presentations, the most emphatic statement came from someone who wasn't there, telling them that they are done.
Thursday's slate of speakers and discussion groups all leaned on polite allusion or vague speculation to avoid speaking of the Republican frontrunner. The conscious, constant omission of Trump's name resembled the Voldemort policy of the Harry Potter universe, or at least the caution of children of a drunk dad, who sit in the basement and refer to him only allusively lest he suspect he's being talked about and come down there.
Despite her job security within the conservative movement, Dana Loesch addressed the Trump phenomenon only obliquely, by addressing remarks to "all my Trumpkins" and "all my Stop Trumps." With an opening spot on the main stage of the cavernous Gaylord Convention Center ballroom, on arguably the biggest day of the conference, Loesch cautioned the Stop Trump movement's flirtation with talk of a brokered Republican National Convention, chiding them to "speak earlier" than midway through losing the primary process if they wanted to stop a candidate.
Loesch was a tiger compared to RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who hid behind the audience's goodwill for his interviewer, Sean Hannity. Priebus, whose nervous weasel disposition resembles what might have happened if Chip and Dale's Rescue Rangers had included a crooked pawnbroker character, seemed almost relieved at Hannity's framing of a potential frontrunner named "Candidate A." Hannity pressed for something decisive about the brokered convention talk, but Priebus retreated to legalese.
"The people will decide. There's no way the people aren't gonna decide. The people are gonna decide," he said, as if trying to form a Biblical superlative. It was nonsense in a couple ways. For one, literally everyone in every process involving either a straight-up election or a convention screwjob would be, by any legal definition, "people." For another, Priebus then repeatedly insisted that delegates are "bound on the first ballot" and that some are bound on the "second or third ballot," entirely omitting the fact that singling out when they are bound to vote with the results of a primary or caucus still leaves open what will happen on all future ballots when they're not bound to vote any particular way at all.
You could see the bind Hannity was in. Though he likes to fashion himself a bold leader, most of his observations are available on a GOP checklist somewhere, and if he strays from the herd, usually it's only to get a few paces ahead of where he's sure it will arrive soon.
Hannity's role at CPAC is playing Big Man On Campus for people with stud athlete expectations radically ratcheted downward by attendance at places like Hillsdale College and Liberty University. He throws footballs out into the crowd, his small face on his Rob Liefeld body squinching with effort at huckin' the pigskin toward convention nerds. He constantly fishes for yuk-yuks with an all-time shitty Bill Clinton impression, with less of a resemblance to its inspiration than Ted Cruz's Simpsons voices.
(At one point, he tried it during a Q&A with John Kasich, saying, "Gov. Kasich, there's some really hot girls over there if you wanna go see 'em later... That's my Bill Clinton imitation, in case you didn't get it." It took Kasich a second. "I wondered," he said, looking at the audience. "I thought Hannity had lost his mind.")
This is just a beery, hetero-friendly version of a hype man, and usually Hannity doesn't have to try so hard. Usually the tick just bounces along and doesn't have to attempt to steer the pack of hyenas. But there he was, going through the "Candidate A" rigamarole again with Kasich, awkwardly trying to resolve a brokered convention discussion in the middle of throwing warmup tosses to both sides.
This isn't the way CPAC is supposed to work. Discounts are given to college Republican activists to flood the event with 18- to 22-year-olds for the same reason that the upper limit on the draft age is usually 25: It's really easy to get hormonal dudes unaware of their own mortality rabidly amped up in peer-group settings, no matter what lethally insane shit the guy on the stage is saying. It's a lot harder to get a room of 30-year-olds to rah-rah about never having guaranteed insurance or having to kick in doors in Ramadi.
In years past, the Rand/Ron Paul kids flooded off the buses, all looking like they pulled off a night raid on the JC Penney's worsted-wool strategic blue-blazer reserves, bringing an intense group energy. But they vanished this year, along with the supporters of other failed candidates — the Fiorina boosters, the Walker drones, Mike Huckabee's large adult sons, etc. The strongest group showing came after Marco Rubio's testy Q&A, when a bunch of Rubio Men In Blue suddenly appeared in the hallway on that last day — all wearing Rubio stickers and looking as if somewhere a dorm party was missing its reason why you're never supposed to leave your drink unattended — then vanished within 30 minutes.
A year ago, the Republican Party had what it believed to be the deepest bench in history and a chance to pick from nearly two dozen prospects to reclaim the White House. This year, they were getting their ass handed to them by a real-estate developer who looks like a troll doll joined A Flock of Seagulls.
Getting a straight answer out of this crowd is tough even under normal circumstances. Any politics fan die-hard enough to pay up to $300 to register for a conference they will spend a further $200 per night in a hotel (and $20 per sandwich) attending is someone who's going to memorize the talking points memo. Add party hacks, radio show hosts and student activists, and the boilerplate starts to sound like Marco Rubio replying to Chris Christie saying, "I know you are but what am I?" for eternity.
Downstairs, however, is a swag room full of conservative dioramas and patriotic convention crap, where the folks manning the booths do this thing full time, sometimes year after year — groups like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, where part of the gig is taking the long view. They're told not to give their names, and they get lopsided smiles when explaining that they are really not supposed to talk, but they will chat whenever their booth's version of Mom or Dad is out of earshot.
"I think this has been one of the best CPACs ever," said one short, contagiously effervescing representative at a think-tank booth. "I really haven't noticed any difference. Everyone is very energetic, very excited." She pointed out an older representative from her group, who could supposedly say more (she couldn't), then darted around a row of kiosks.
"I've gone upstairs a few times, and I think it's just been great," said another think-tank rep, a man in his mid-20s wearing a half-windsor knot and a narrowish collar that looked like it signaled a forthcoming style retreat to the early Nineties. "You can tell how ready people are to take back the White House with conservative principles."
Ask another dozen, get another dozen of the same. They sounded like they had Stockholm Syndrome. We are being treated very well and by conservative values. The only problem is, a lot of people clearly don't care how faithfully the White House is reclaimed.
When the first real assault on Trump began, on Friday morning, it came from Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin. Her activist origins and effective pedigree resemble a lot of others within conservative politics: bullshit. Martin discovered the value of crying "Taxed Enough Already" after being assessed a $510,000 tax bill, just like your everyday average guy. Meanwhile, in 2014, the Tea Party Patriots paid her roughly $450,000 while declining to spend much of their revenues on actual candidates.
Martin, whose demeanor is uncannily like someone kicked out of at least a handful of scrapbooking groups for drawing a direct causal relationship between unicorns and Satan, began with the surest sign of creeping irrelevance, by stating that "rumors of the Tea Party's death are greatly exaggerated." She then went on to rail at Donald Trump for supporting eminent domain, an issue that was supposed to hamstring him in New Hampshire, where he won by 19.5 points.
Eminent domain is one of those elite concerns that astroturfed Tea Party groups that pass out Gadsden flag bumper stickers for the Ford F-350 crowd manage to swaddle in revolutionary rhetoric to make it seem like an existential threat on par with the British Army quartering troops in your mancave. But eminent domain poses the biggest threat if you're heavily invested in fossil fuels and some local government is planning to use it to seize land for a subway or a light rail system. Martin might have gone on to play that real down-home tubthumper, the "Ex-Im Bank Destroys Our Liberty Rag," but at some point it all became a blur of populist costuming on investor-class scarecrows.
By this time, everyone knew that Trump had decided to no-show CPAC, heading to Wichita perhaps to avoid a protest walkout on the CPAC floor, and speakers were quick to hit him for failing to attend a gathering of real conservatives with real conservative concern. But the blind spot on that point of view was as big as Martin's.
Because the vast majority of even self-identified conservatives don't give a shit about eminent domain, or the Ex-Im Bank, and they don't care about CPAC either, assuming they know what any of them are. If you're going to argue about where the Americans who need policy rescue live, and instead of picking a deep-red state with a cratering economy you pick a monumental Maryland resort hotel where people are shelling out a minimum of $700 for two days, you've already lost.
Marco Rubio's Q&A with Dana Bash on the third day sounded like the last gasp of a loser for reasons that go beyond even Rubio's proclivity for kicking himself in the dick. "This is the American Conservatives Union, so it's usually reserved for conservatives," he said, explaining why Trump wasn't there. He had no explanation for why Trump had been there to address the American Conservatives Union in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015.
He then went on to whine to Bash about how Trump's success was a creation of the media. Remember, when the chips were down, the fresh face of the party of personal responsibility and collector of a band of GOP Primary Participation Medals thick enough to make Mr. T blush whined that it wasn't his fault that he'd failed in the marketplace.
It's not entirely Rubio's fault. He only knows what the conservative groupthink told him yesterday, and he wasn't alone in that condition, in a festival of people bound together in allegiance to the past. CPAC is an event richly steeped in nostalgia, and the story it tells itself each year is how Ronald Reagan put it on the map in 1974. The story it was being told, 42 years later, was its unmaking at the hands of another B-list entertainer with a hogwash ideology and fruit fly's memory.
The CPAC narrative, embroidered through the decades, was formed by a patchwork quilt of loose demographic allegiances, whose antagonisms could be overlooked by the same thing that unites even the most fractious of locker rooms: winning. It allowed people who take vacations to Washington, D.C., to drop $1,000 listening to seminars to think that their concerns were universal — that plumbers sweat eminent domain, and a dude on an assembly line hates barriers to free trade, and that pipe fitters want to foot the bill to bomb Persians into political pluralism — and that the orthodoxy of their profane cult would be enough to keep winning forever.
But Trump understands something about winning in politics, and he understands that there are people who lost all their equity in America in 2008 and see no chance of getting it back. They know they'll retire with nothing more than Social Security and heal themselves with nothing but Medicare. They know, in lives of dire scarcity, that resources are limited and someone else can always take them from them. Someone did that eight years ago. Someone else can take the rest tomorrow.
They understand the elemental horseshit of someone like Rubio saying, "Conservatism has never been about fear, about anger," because people like Rubio have been stoking it for over 42 years while resolutely refusing to adopt interventionist policies that alleviate either. The very last CPAC message to get through was the conservative refrain that all politicians are frauds and thieves, and that everything else they've been told is a lie: They absorbed that lesson, reified by their own experience, and now know the safety in no longer listening.
After a while, walking through CPAC 2016 started to feel like walking through the Greek version of hell. These people, who had expected only victory and hadn't registered the moment they met its opposite, opened their mouths but could no longer give breath. The flesh moved without spirit, unable now to grasp anything before it. Donald Trump had riven this body in its softest place, and its members walked with a chasm where their viscera was, a long lamplit gathering of shades, not yet aware that they are dead.