Communing With Ronald Reagan's Ghost at CPAC 2016 - Rolling Stone
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Communing With Ronald Reagan’s Ghost at CPAC 2016

The GOP more or less believes Reagan is still alive, as was clear from his former assistant’s packed presentation Thursday

CPAC; Ronald ReaganCPAC; Ronald Reagan

Ronald Reagan at CPAC 1967.

Cynthia Johnson/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

If you have a white-collar job, you’ve probably been to a national conference, sitting through a weekend of presentations, held mid-winter in a warm-weather state. By day, you sit in a convention center and eat $20 sandwiches in between racking up accreditation or business cards. Later, bei Nacht und Nebel, you get ripshit on margaritas and maybe commit adultery.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC, held in frozen mid-winter Maryland, is nothing like this. For one thing, everyone at least pretends to be against adultery. For another, this is a conference of desperate, existential true believers — like if the guy at the American Dental Association conference showing off a new dental bonding believed, literally, that without that glue the core of civilization would be ripped apart.

While the suits and the Powerpoints might look like an ADA talk, the mental and spiritual effect is a lot more like a militarized pep rally or a last-ditch USO show on American soil. You can always see one person dressed like a mascot, and everyone on stage is either a coach or a cheerleader. Our team cannot lose, but someone is always trying to stop us. We have simultaneously never been in a greater state of danger or institutional perfection.

Imagine trying to hold a class under such circumstances.

Folks watching 24-hour news at home see the big keynote speakers: Ted Cruz, Sarah Palin’s Statler-and-Waldorf act with a Big Gulp, a gun whose laser sight projects an image of a minority with a voter ID card. What they can’t see is day after day of activist training seminars and open discussions, all conducted under the tortured logic of an orthodoxy that grows ever more rigid even as it gets more simplistic. This is like taking classes in counting angels on the head of a pin while also taking it as an article of faith that there are No Fat Chicks and that math is bad.

Let’s get the easy jokes out of the way first.

There was The Blaze‘s Oliver Darcy hosting a seminar called “Become the Press,” perhaps because “The Blind Leading the Blind” was taken. One way into the media: “You can become a contributor. At The Blaze, we have a contributors program.” Darcy also sagely noted that people have cameras in their phones now, which means that information is more democratized. If you don’t want to fiddle with YouTube or have your own distribution platform, he suggested that you can send videos to journalists. You know who has journalists? The Blaze has journalists! 

After surfing a tide of uptalking? interrupted by um/like/yaknow as little as every eight seconds for a grueling almost 20 minutes, Darcy threw things to Q&A, where we had to discuss whether Twitter removing the verified checkmark from a Breitbart assclown’s account was the first step in the liberal social media’s plans to silence right-wing voices. The audience seemed to think it was, but Darcy, to his credit, demurred and only speculated about media double-standards.

But if it’s social media you wanted, your best bet was a seminar called “Engaging Millennials.”


Despite being scheduled for 30 minutes, the biographical introductions and general pitches took 26, which seems like overdoing it even if your point all along is that millennials are somehow generationally uncharacteristically self-absorbed. Let’s look at those bios/pitches:

Lawrence Jones: I became a conservative, and why don’t we talk about hip-hop because it mentions money?
Zuri Davis: Here is my biography, and if you talk to people like me, they will listen.
Anthony Rodriguez: We don’t all support Bernie Sanders, because we are different.
Iris Somberg: This is a direct quote: “I’m Iris Somberg, and I work at a boutique PR firm in Georgetown.”
Kirk Higgins: (This guy wore a button-down and had a thick but trimmed beard, which made him look like playoff Kyle Orton. Then he stated that he — millennial — rarely uses the Internet and has never sent a tweet, and suddenly he seemed a lot more like Al from Home Improvement or one of those soft-rock 1970s ballad-mongers who always sang ambiguously enough about passion that it could have described a lover or Jesus Christ.)

Following the biographies, one millennial ran down some key strategies for addressing millennials. For instance, “We’re emotional!” This puts them in rarified company with everyone in the United Federation of Planets who isn’t a Vulcan, V’Ger or Mr. Data. 

Next, we were on to things to focus on during millennial outreach efforts, including: be authentic, be forward-looking, have a vision of positive goals rather than focusing on negatives, recognize prospective voters’ individual interests, then stress freedom and opportunity. In short, talk to them like every other prospective voter in the same way as every campaign in modern history.

Things not addressed: college debt, how repealing Obamacare would make almost all millennials uninsured, the dearth of quality blue-collar jobs for millennials who forego college and potential debt, and the paucity of jobs for everyone else. Oh well. At least in this respect millennials are being underserved on the issues as much as anyone else.

The day’s most informative seminar, by far, was Mike Madrid’s “Talking to Minority Voters: Making the Case for Conservatives Nationally.” Madrid is a messaging expert in California, specifically on Latino issues, and you could see the horrible bind he was in.

Madrid outlined a ton of great news for conservatives: that there’s a new Latino voter every 30 seconds in the United States — from birth, he emphasized, rather than immigration — but that Latino immigrants tend to have high military participation rates, come from very religious countries and that Latinos overall have the highest entrepreneurial rate in the country. Better still, while Latino registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans 4:1, Latino Republicans are far more reliable voters. 

“I’m not saying there aren’t undocumented people on welfare,” he said. Then he added, “People do not put themselves and their families through all that to go on welfare. They do. not. come. to. this. country. to. get. on. welfare.”

He’s right, and to hear him tell it, the Republican Party could sit back, stamp their boilerplate ideas and watch Latinos mint election win after election win.

The second part of his seminar’s title, “Making the Case for Conservatives Nationally,” was where Madrid’s presentation hit a snag. He welcomed questions, and when people started asking them, the rosy picture he painted began to wilt away and leave a coiled field of thorns in its place, like concertina wire. 

Ted Cruz; CPAC

“I was upset to see that the media didn’t pick up on the fact that Ted Cruz was the first Latino to win a primary in this country. I think we should be pointing that out,” a member of the audience said.

“Ted Cruz was that,” Madrid agreed, “but he also said he’d deport 11 million people — who are already here. What are people going to listen to more? They’re gonna listen to that.”

Madrid then outlined something hundreds before him have said: that the Republican Party can win elections simply by eating into the percentage of the Latino vote, without even bothering to grow the overall numbers — that, in fact, if the Republican Party had only maintained the small increasing trend in Latino voters it had enjoyed just a few decades ago, it would be winning now. What reversed that trend was the Republican Party. 

Unspoken, hanging in the air, was the name Trump. But alongside it sat the names Cruz and Rubio. And Bush, too. And Romney. And Kris Kobach and Jeff Sessions. And Jan “Headless Bodies in the Desert” Brewer, and Steve “Calves Like Cantaloupes” King, and a long, long list of national leaders who have said the same and worse.

Mike Madrid was, at heart, conducting a seminar in decades of systemic, relentless self-sabotage. Unspoken, too, was that he has no answer. Because his party will not accept it.

Immediately on the heels of Mike Madrid’s stone bummer came a bit of a palate cleanser: Peggy Grande’s “If Reagan Ran Today: What 2016 Activists Must Learn from Reagan’s Leadership Style.”

“I’m going to talk about this man, this person. He really showed me how to lead, how to live,” Grande began. “There were not two Ronald Reagans. He was the same man before the cameras and behind them… 

Ronald Reagan

“He never takes a bad picture, by the way…

“He was a man of authenticity…

“There was nothing like seeing the president behind the wheel of his Jeep…

“He lived a life of humility…

“Sometimes his eyes would even mist with tears as he sang about his beloved America.”

These were the lessons activists could learn about leading today. Really. Along with, apparently, bring thank-you cards with you, so you can begin writing your thank-you card for winning the Medal of Freedom on the flight home on your private jet.

Grande’s presentation was one of those rare offerings that instantaneously roasts itself. She illustrated the intimacy of their relationship by talking about their “wonderful system of communication and scheduling,” including mentioning how she would make sure he had cash in his pocket when he went out for haircuts. It’s heartwarming until you remember that this is a person who was in charge of the free world and who almost certainly suffered from Alzheimer’s disease as early as 1984. 

If you wanted to be a hater, you could focus on Grande mentioning all the global political leaders who insisted on visiting Reagan at his ranch, all of whom were by then either loathed or irrelevant in their home nations and thus the sort of people who traveled abroad but had no reason to stop in DC. Or her recounting of pre-Reagan history as, “Morale was low. Taxes were high. Interest rates, right?” Or her reading her own prompt, “Now I’m going to convict all of you the way he convicts me.”

After leading the room through multiple presidential yuk-yuk ain’t he just like one of us, and with such a sunny disposition! anecdotes, Grande grew hushed describing his funeral.

“You could hear the clip-clop of hooves and the whinny of horses. Sounds that you knew he would love so much. And we had to reluctantly say goodbye.”

On its own, this shouldn’t seem too bad. Everyone has their heroes, and everyone lays it on a little thick when it comes to legends within their particular fandoms.

But the Republican Party has spent the last eight years condemning Democrats for treating Obama like a rock star (there was even a 2008 campaign ad about this) and later as the “Obamessiah.” The conservative vision of Democrats is of people with such insipid loyalty that they adopted a mindless cult of personality as their only moral and philosophical lodestar.

The sort of people only too happy to issue those condemnations spent 30 minutes Thursday essentially watching a slideshow conducted by the personal secretary of a man who died 12 years ago and hasn’t been in office for a quarter-century. On multiple occasions, she lapsed into present tense, as if Reagan were still alive, which the GOP more or less believes.

Grande’s seminar was held in the same room as Mike Madrid’s. The attendance for hers was much better.


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