The silent images on the screen were difficult to turn away from. Thousands upon thousands of Egyptians had erupted into a wild celebration after a variety of sources, including American intelligence officials, revealed that loathed dictator Hosni Mubarak would be leaving office later that day. What felt like a long time passed, and I tore my eyes away. I looked down at the unappealing mass of pulled pork I had wrongly ordered for lunch and cringed. All around me, excited conservatives hustled their way in and out of the hotel pub as I tried to push down my revolting $16 sandwich. Energetic babbling littered my ears, from those who could not wait to attend a panel on social security reform, to a couple who were insisting that they’d seen Sarah Palin in the lobby, despite the fact that we’d been told she would not be there.
It was the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, and over 10,000 of America’s staunchest right-wingers had trekked in from all around the country to speak of freedom and fear, optimism and doom. Few appeared to notice the news from Egypt, which would be beamed into the hotel and convention space over the next three days, most choosing instead to focus on that old time American-Made Freedom, and the current destruction thereof. As I looked once again towards the newsfeed, I took in the real chaos on the streets of Cairo. At the table beside me, two men, neither eating pulled pork sandwiches, were engaged in heated conversation.
“Last night I told Pedro, this guy from Puerto Rico, that I need a cab for 8 A.M. tomorrow, pronto,” said one of them, as the other manufactured some astonishment in his round face.
“Of course,” the storyteller continued, “this guy tells me not to worry, that there’s always cabs in the morning. And guess what? I’m down there at ten to eight. No cabs. Eight. No cabs. 8:15, no cabs!”
“Wow,” said his astonished lunchmate.
“Yeah, you could imagine how I was. Let’s just say. It got loud.”
This description satisfied both of them and they dove back into their salads. Once again, my eyes moved towards the Egyptian revolution. The protests, the sound of conservative energy and animosity, and the fervent complaints about Washington, D.C.’s taxi services made me think of what Bertrand Russell may have had to say about all of this. “Freedom in general,” Russell wrote, “may be defined as the absence of obstacles to the realization of desires.” My sandwich was cold. Lunch was over.
If the lack of interest in the events in Egypt was somewhat surprising coming from the attendees, the almost complete silence about them from the conference’s major speakers was deafening. Indeed, this was an important weekend for many of those who aspire to the Republican nomination in 2012. With the first debates beginning in a few month’s time, this was a chance to lay out their credentials, to give the conservative base an idea of how they were planning on running, and why they should be considered contenders. So, as potential nominee after potential nominee took to the stage over the three days, it almost looked like they hadn’t had time to change their speeches, or they simply did not think it was necessary to do so.
Apparently it was more important for the party hopefuls to introduce their wives to the crowd (all were said to be superior to the candidates themselves), and to hear the stories of their families, just how hard their fathers and grandfathers all worked, just how much they adored American freedom and opportunity, indeed just how American they all really were. Along with this, they mostly sprinkled in a few laughlines about President Obama, combined with promises to slash spending and get the government off the backs of the people. Without fail, they all managed to pay their dues to the myth that has become Ronald Reagan. Given that it was the 100th anniversary of the Gipper’s birth, not singing his praises to the high heavens would have been just about the gravest sin a speaker could have committed. Newt Gingrich was particularly effective at hero worship, managing to combine criticism of Obama (who had recently been compared to Reagan by Time Magazine) and the mainstream media, with a wonderful reminder that Reagan had taken his place as one of the Great Presidents. “I want the elite media to know something: I knew Ronald Reagan...and I hate to tell our friends at MSNBC and elsewhere: Barack Obama is no Ronald Reagan!” Applause rained down, and Gingrich’s delusional belief that he could, in fact, win a general election was strengthened once more.
After laying out their credentials, poking fun at our sitting President, and lauding Reagan, most of the aspirants then spoke of the incredible amount of danger facing America, from enemies both foreign and domestic. “An uncertain world has been made more dangerous by the lack of clear direction from a weak president,” said Mitt Romney, who has been running for president for the better part of a decade. Rick Santorum worried about the decay of the family. John Thune was sickened by the state of the economy. Most were convinced that ObamaCare and the EPA would lead (if they hadn’t already done so) to destruction of the American workplace and the end of the American Dream. Yet, as they all lined up to vent about the overwhelming problems this nation faces, the would-be standard-bearers all closed their speeches in the exact same manner—full of optimism, bright and glowing in the knowledge that America is an exceptional nation, that it was an objectively good place, a light to the world; that we had a duty to bring the beauty of freedom to the rest of the world. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty firmly declared that, “Might makes right,” while Romney insisted that he “refused to believe that America is just another place on the map with a flag.” Any suggestion of our demise makes these patriot’s blood boil.
Floors below the main auditorium, I took a slow walk through the exhibit hall, an expansive space that felt a little like a carnival, a veritable cornucopia of conservative special interest groups, most with cute, college-aged volunteers pleasantly needling you to sign an e-mail list or take a pamphlet. Trying to make myself at home in this bizarre atmosphere, I joined many other attendees at the NRA booth, where I shot a video game gun, not managing to hit a single virtual target that floated across the screen.
“You’ve got to work on that!” said the thin gentlemen running the competition.
As I sheepishly exited the shooting gallery, shying away from the spotlight of my own incompetence, the message of all of these groups was clear: they were there to save you, or at least save something. They could save you from killing an unborn child; they could save you from an untraditional marriage; and they could save us all from the Jihadists, the Socialists, the Communists, the Psychiatrists. They could save your gun from the burdens of government registration. They could save American entrepreneurs from meddlesome government oversight. They could save miners and industrialists from the earth’s fallibility. They could save college campuses from liberal professors with tweed patches on their cheap jackets. They could save the Constitution from its wide array of enemies. If you turned down just the right row, hell, they could save your soul too. There they were, all of them, angry and energetic, petrified but assured, all on a mission simply to be on a mission. It is no mistake that Christianity has come to be more closely associated with the conservative movement, as the ideas of redemption and resurrection are well in play here. The notion of saving anyone from anything, including us from ourselves, inspires this group to induce fear (Hell) while providing a path (Salvation).
So it is in these hallowed halls of conservatism in which we find more reasons than the obvious tactics of campaign politics for avoiding discussion on a popular, democratic uprising like the one that was unfolding in Egypt. A main problem with offering support for the cause of the Egyptians is that this sort of political event is a rarity, one that falls out of the hands of even the most powerful nation in the world. As a nation of 80 million forces its way to a new sort of freedom, a new system of democracy, the folks like Pawlenty who believe in the right of our might, of the importance of our involvement, would be forced to admit that America’s role was not a key one in the promotion of the freedoms that receive such tribute from those in the conservative ranks. I could not help but feel that the choice to ignore the situation in Egypt showed not just that everyone here would sooner give up their right to vote than praise President Obama for anything; neither did it mean that most people at CPAC wanted to support Hosni Mubarak. Instead, what frightened the assembled legions was their very irrelevance in the event. Our finest soldiers, our powerful economy, and our beautiful set of American values were nowhere present (and of course, we had helped suppress such an uprising for years through our support for Mubarak). All that was really needed on our end was a calm President willing to play a careful, deliberative part, instead of a loud, American one. Such notions undermine the right’s worldview, for it indeed makes us seem like “just another nation on a map with a flag.”
Of course, with every rule, an exception. At CPAC, the role of conscientious objector was played by the very well-represented Campaign for Liberty, or as most referred to them, the Ron Paul People. By and large, this group, consisting of so many young people you might be shocked to remember that they’re trying to help a candidate win the Republican nomination, was a welcome antidote to the proceedings. Unlike almost everyone else, they were happy to discuss the revolution taking place in the Middle East. Like their figurehead Congressman Paul, they believed it showed the fallacy of American foreign policy, and that freedom and liberty are much more likely to spread and sustain through popular uprisings, not the military and imperial intervention we have become so used to.
While refreshing to see these opinions finding some space at CPAC, it was important to know when to move on. For a few minutes, I could be in an earnest conversation about the dangers of a pre-emptive foreign policy, only to have my counterpart launch into monologues about 9/11 truth, the perils of fluoride in the water, and the four or five people over at the Federal Reserve who are the unquestioned rulers of the universe. However, it would be unfair to suggest I did not admire a lot of the acolytes. While their ideas often verge on the bizarre and paranoid (they are young after all), they do deserve some praise for the way they have changed the conversation at events such as CPAC. It would have been tough to imagine Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney being loudly booed at this conference even just a couple of years ago, but this year that is precisely what happened. Amazingly, Rumsfeld himself was there to receive the 2011 Defender of the Constitution award from Cheney. As the two took the stage, about a third of the crowd (the Ron Paul People) staged a walkout, booing loudly. Their yells were met by a series of “U.S.A., U.S.A.” chants that hysterically broke out around the auditorium, to defend the honor of the two maligned figures. Eventually, the protesters filed out, one of them being dragged away by security officials after loudly declaring that Cheney and Rumsfeld were war criminals. An order of sorts was restored, a whitewashed version of the crowd bowed humbly before the men, as they exchanged anecdotes from the early days and smiled the brave smiles of cowards.
The rancor between these competing factions went on the entire weekend, with the Ron Paul People ridiculing the antiquated notions that plague the rest of the conservative movement, particularly the hard-line neoconservatives. Meanwhile, the older, establishment Republicans were equal parts disgusted and frightened by the presence of all these youthful libertarians yelling for an end to the Patriot Act, the War on Drugs, and indeed the American Empire. Many are convinced that these young’uns are ignorant usurpers, naive to the real world, sent to by demons unknown to destroy the very fabric of the Republican Party. It is here where you see the schism between these two brands of freedom. On the one hand, those yearning for some mythical golden age of America are desiring of the freedom to still be that America. The freedom for America to retain its role as lone superpower, to be far wealthier than the rest of the world, to pick and choose which dictator stays and which goes, the freedom for an exceptional, eternal America to carry on in its countless missions. Conversely, this new generation of libertarians, with their loud voices, good looks, and extreme ideological purity, contest that such freedoms are not freedom at all, but a mirage of the real freedom that the founding fathers dreamt of, the pure freedom of liberty. The loudest moment in the auditorium all weekend was the delirious response to Ron Paul’s opening line, “I’m glad to see the revolution is continuing!” The question is: can they actually mean what they say?
In Egypt, the first obstacle for Egyptian freedom was Hosni Mubarak. By the time my stay at CPAC was coming to an end, Mubarak had fully abdicated, and was well on his way out of Cairo. The streets had erupted once more, and delirious scenes played to the thousands of conservatives shaking hands, glancing at the screen and heading on home. For so many people here, the events in Egypt simply do not square with the very worldview they stand so firmly on. They got little more from news in Egypt than a new group to fear, the Muslim Brotherhood, or a coming caliphate. There are so many obstacles to this American freedom. The environment, China, liberals, jihadists, teachers, unions—the enemies of freedom are everywhere, obstacles that must be overcome, through democratic victory or imperial strength. In fact, it seems that these obstacles in some way are inherently linked to the freedom itself. Without enemies to fear, without socialists in the government, without someone to save, without being needed for the good of mankind, and without being exceptional, there would be no freedom at all.
For the libertarians, it’s even worse. After a weekend of hearing tales of conspiracy and the imminent collapse of the dollar, the totalitarian police state, the secret intelligence community, the destruction wrought by our empire, the very undemocratic, unfree society that we’ve been tricked in to loving, it is difficult to take them seriously. Not because all of their ideas or principles are maniacal, but because if one was to take them at their word, if one was to fully believe that they mean what they say, you would be left wondering why they hadn’t taken to the Washington Mall, set up a camp city, and gone for broke. Are the obstacles they fear not grave enough for them? They sure sound apocalyptical. Maybe they’re just a little too comfortable to take such risks? The fervor of their words surely does not meet the purpose of their actions. Or maybe there’s another idea at work, subconsciously uniting people across the spectrum—namely that in this perilous moment, most people don’t really want to live in a world without government. Perhaps the folks at CPAC were just afraid to admit that behind their endless bluster lies the uncomfortable truth that most Americans, themselves included, just don’t really want to be that free.
MICHAEL TERRY has a weekly political column in Canadian magazines The Hamilton View, The Niagara Pulse, and The Echo Weekly.