The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is not the Republican Party. The gathering has increasingly become home to fringy political figures and attendees who don’t speak for the wholeÂ GOP.
But what just happened with CPAC and Breitbart’s Milo YiannopoulosÂ does speak to something broader in the conservative movement in the age of Trump: that it’s strangely stuck in opposition mode.
Yiannopoulos carved a profile for himself in the Republican Party not because he’s particularly conservative â he eschewed that term as recently as this weekend on Bill Maher’s show â nor because he offers a cogent political point of view or new ideas. He earned his speaking slot at CPAC because he pisses people off â liberal people. And that was apparently good enough.
(For those in need of a refresher, Yiannopoulos lost both his CPAC keynote speaking slot and his Simon &Â Schuster book dealÂ Monday after his comments apparently justifying pedophilia in certain circumstances went viral.)
It’s an outgrowth of the âenemy of my enemy is my friendâ approach to politics that has become so popular with Trump. Trump’s GOP has come to be defined as much by what it’s not â politically correct, playing nice, a friend of the mainstream media, adhering to political norms and facts â as what it actually is. It’s a long-standing middle finger to the political establishment, and in that way, Yiannopoulos very much fit the mold.
A couple of pieces this weekend â one from the New York Times and one from Andrew Sullivan in New York magazine â happened to look at this phenomenon even as the Yiannopoulos drama was unfolding.
The Times piece made the case that some people who don’t love Trump feel pushed to support him because of the over-the-top rhetoric and smugness of his opponents:
Jeffrey Medford, a small-business owner in South Carolina, voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican. But some things are making him feel uncomfortable â parts of Mr. Trumpâs travel ban, for example, and the recurring theme of his apparent affinity for Russia.
Mr. Medford should be a natural ally for liberals trying to convince the country that Mr. Trump was a bad choice. But it is not working out that way. Every time Mr. Medford dips into the political debate â either with strangers on Facebook or friends in New York and Los Angeles â he comes away feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority.
âWeâre backed into a corner,â said Mr. Medford, 46, whose business teaches people to be filmmakers. âThere are at least some things about Trump I find to be defensible. But they are saying: âAgree with us 100 percent or you are morally bankrupt. Youâre an idiot if you support any part of Trump.â â
He added: âI didnât choose a side. They put me on one.â
Sullivan’s piece, meanwhile, diagnoses something similar for what we see today with Yiannopoulos and top Trump policy adviser Stephen Miller, whose appearances on the Sunday shows two weekends ago were unapologetically in-your-face and factually challenged. Miller even said Trump âwill not be questionedâ when it comes to his national security decisions.
Here’s how Sullivan, a self-described conservative, said the likes of Miller and Yiannopoulos are cultivated by liberal America:
Think of it in some way as reactionary camp. Think [Laura] Ingraham and [Ann] Coulter and Yiannopoulos. They are reactionaries in the classic sense: Their performance-art politics are almost entirely a reaction to the suffocating leftism that they had to endure as they rose through the American education system. As a young, lonely conservative in college, I now wince at recalling, I threw a Champagne party to welcome Reaganâs cruise missiles to Britain. Of course I knew better â and could have made a decent argument for deterrence instead of behaving like a brattish d–k. But I didnât. I wanted to annoy and disrupt the smugness around me. If you never mature, this pose can soon become your actual personality â especially when you realize that it can also be extremely lucrative in the conservative-media industrial complex. I think of Ann Coulter, whom I met recently, backstage at Bill Maherâs show. What struck me was her sincerity, searing intelligence, and grasp of the facts. In another universe, she could have become a reasoned defender of a sane conservatism. Instead she ended up writing In Trump We Trust. In exactly the same way, Miller really is a product of Santa Monica and Duke â their living, breathing, raving antibody.
Back to Yiannopoulos now. His ascent is pretty oddly timed, in that the Republican Party is now the party in power. The need for no-holds-barred criticism of political correctness and liberal culture might have made more sense during the Obama presidency. Yet here we live in a country withÂ a nearly unprecedented amount of Republican power nationwide, and the party’s conservative elements are still acting like the opposition party.
Yiannopoulos’s invitation to CPAC was even more remarkable when you consider that, just six years ago, there was a large-scale boycott of the conference because a gay Republican group, GOProud, was allowed to sponsor it. In 2017, though, a gay man who doesn’t even define himself as theÂ âCâ in CPACÂ was picked to keynote the event because he shared common enemies with the Trump movement.
Yiannopoulos’s rise may beÂ a fluke in the grand scheme of things, but it was made entirely possibly by the factors described in the Times and Sullivan pieces â the things that created an appetite for Trump’s brand of politics in the first place. But it was an overreaction to this appetite for opposition without thorough vetting, and it came back to bite CPAC.
The question for the Republican Party is how long it continues to define itself by what it’s against. When that’s your guiding principle, we’ve seen what pitfalls can present themselves.