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Lost at CPAC

The paranoid style in conservative politics

We all thought Trump would walk out to “Enter Sandman.” The energy in the room shifted when it began to play: everyone stood up a little straighter, pulled out their phones, and pointed them at the stage. But the song ended, and nothing happened. “Dancing Queen” came on next. On the other side of the media pen, a couple started swing dancing; the woman, a blonde, was a reporter for Steve Bannon’s War Room. She was much more typical of the reporters present than me. Three days earlier, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, had told Bannon that “left-wing” journalists wouldn’t be granted media credentials for this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. “If you’re a propagandist, you can buy a ticket like everyone else, but you’re not in the media and we’re not going to credential you by saying you’re in the media,” said Schlapp, whose recent aversion to journalists, I suspect, may have something to do with the widely reported sexual assault lawsuit conservative staffers filed against him last year. But there I was anyway, a credentialed member of the press.

There were more songs—“Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want,” Cats anthem “The Jellicle Ball,” something by Sinéad O’Connor—and more false alarms, including an announcement reminding attendees not to hold up campaign signs during the speech, since electioneering is prohibited at CPAC. Trump was nearly two hours late, and I was getting restless, pacing around the media pen like a big cat trapped in an enclosure. Before I could finish my first lap around the ballroom, a man in the overflow section waved me over and asked where my scarf was. I thought it was some kind of joke—a jab at the effete liberal media, something about Brooklyn and, I don’t know, expensive lattes. But he asked again, insisting I’d been at the bar last night in a “terrorist scarf,” telling people October 7 didn’t happen. He refused to believe it wasn’t me, claiming he had a picture to prove it, but he wouldn’t show me. It wasn’t a very good one, he explained, and I’d just keep denying it, though he did pass it around to the other members of his crew, who were divided on whether it was really me. He told me I was a convincing actress before I walked away.

I returned to the huddle of reporters and recounted the strange altercation. One of them told me there had indeed been a woman in a keffiyeh at the bar, though she looked nothing like me. I ducked out to go to the bathroom—still no sign of Trump—and on my way there I ran into the man who had heckled me. He apologized for what he realized had been a case of mistaken identity but remained adamant that the other woman and I looked alike.

When Trump finally took the stage, it was right after the national anthem. Some of the older people in the crowd held their hands over their hearts, Pledge-of-Allegiance style. Most of them, though, gripped their phones, eager to capture the spectacle.

I’m not sure where I was during the keffiyeh incident on Friday night. I may have been talking to a woman about the “very beautiful” January 6 vigil she attended, or chatting with an older Black man from New Jersey who said the Reagan Dinner was fine, if a little dry. At some point I went out to smoke with a pair of “conservative artists” from New York, who told me their documentary about how brave it is to be a conservative artist would be screened at Mar-a-Lago in a couple of weeks. Later that night, I found myself stuck in a conversation with a man who, after imploring me to see his play, suggested we solve the “border crisis” by letting Border Patrol shoot migrants on sight.

“Are you the calipers guy?” I asked him, and his eyes lit up.

My escape route came in the form of a text from a friend who was covering the CPAC afterparty scene for the New York Times, who told me to meet him at the hotel’s rooftop bar. I excused myself and wandered around the convention center’s cavernous atrium until I found someone who looked like he knew where he was going. We used his key card to take an elevator to the highest floor; on the ride up, we spoke about how our respective jobs had brought us to CPAC: he told me he was a lobbyist for the Catholic Church, working mostly on reproductive issues and school choice. All we found on the seventeenth floor was a hallway lined with dozens of doors and a gray-haired woman standing barefoot, holding her rhinestone-studded red, white, and blue heels in one hand, looking just as lost as we were. Before I went back downstairs, my new lobbyist friend wished me good luck. “You too,” I said, though I didn’t mean it.

When I finally tracked down the reporters, they were on the deck of an uncannily decorated ’80s themed bar, talking to a man in breeches and lederhosen who, a few hours earlier, had giddily shown me the portrait of Hitler set as his phone background. He was with a younger blonde guy I’d met the night before, a preternaturally well-mannered twenty-five-year-old who, I’d later learn, had been a member of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa. We were joined by two other friends of theirs: Greg Conte, a former ally of white supremacist Richard Spencer who had been at the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, and another man in breeches, who I’d been told was into phrenology.

“Are you the calipers guy?” I asked him, and his eyes lit up—unfortunately, though, he’d left his tools at home. Without them, he wouldn’t be able to accurately take my measurements, but if I let him touch my skull, he might be able to tell me what shape it is. As he ran his hand along the ridge on the back of my head, one of his friends returned, three bottles of Stella Artois in hand, and asked if he was doing phrenology again. “No, phrenology is a pseudoscience; craniometry is a real science,” he said. My head, for what it’s worth, is brachycephalic, or short. He told me that if I had children with someone who was dolichocephalic—long-headed—our offspring would need braces.

It wasn’t the first time my features had been scrutinized that weekend. On the first night of the conference, while I waited for the Lyft that would carry me back to normalcy, I asked a group of younger guys in trench coats if any of them had a cigarette. They didn’t, but together we bummed some from another CPAC attendee. While we smoked, one of them—the apparent ringleader, his face in a perpetual scowl—said I had an “interesting physiognomy.” The four of them insisted on guessing my ethnicity, running through all the European countries along the Mediterranean before arriving in the Middle East. “Wait,” one of them said, “you’re not white?”

The trench coat boys told me they were “National Socialists,” and they looked the part; their outfits were giving Hugo Boss circa 1933. These were the “CPAC Nazis,” who, NBC News would later report, had not only secured conference tickets despite the ACU’s alleged anti-extremist stance but had also “mingled with mainstream conservative personalities” at a Young Republicans mixer on Friday afternoon. (Last year, CPAC kicked out far-right streamer Nick Fuentes and condemned “his hateful racist rhetoric and actions.”) The more ambitious among them had come to CPAC to identify and court potential allies, while others—including Conte, who was at the mixer and the various hotel bars but hadn’t actually purchased a ticket—were explicit about their desire to talk to the media. And there we were, falling right into their trap, giving them the attention they craved. After NBC News’s report, Schlapp, the CPAC chair, denied that any Nazis had been present at the conference. “CPAC has made it absolutely clear that we stand with Israel and the Jewish people . . . and against the hatred of Jews,” he told Politico, in a familiar conflation of all Jews with the Israeli state. “We hosted a special event at CPAC in celebration of and solidarity with Israel, and we are leading an ongoing initiative as an organization supporting Israel.”

In the end, everyone got what they wanted: the reporters got a story, the Nazis got attention, and the less overt extremists behind CPAC got to accuse the liberal media of smearing all conservatives as white supremacists. There had, in fact, been Nazis at CPAC; eight or nine of them, based on my own observations, including Jared Taylor, the editor of the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance, who registered for the conference under the name “Samuel.” But they were vastly outnumbered by MAGA boomers and more normie-presenting Young Republicans. Though some of the latter have ties to the far right, unlike Taylor and the trench coat boys, they have plausible deniability: they may crow about the Great Replacement and bow at the altar of Steve Sailer, but they aren’t literal Nazis.

At the mixer, one of the trench coat boys told me he and his friends were outcasts even here. He had been forced out of an executive position at his university’s chapter of Turning Point USA, though he later explained the ouster was really “personal beef” disguised as a political disagreement. As he told me about his expulsion from the club, I wondered again to what extent the difference between the out-and-proud white supremacists and the more run-of-the-mill young conservatives were aesthetic rather than ideological; they were, after all, partying together. Then again, maybe they were all just here for the open bar.

A few hours earlier, at a breakout session hosted by the College Republicans of America, another member of Bannonworld had advised the young, mostly male audience to win people over by being normal. “You guys have done such a good job of turning CRA into something that’s actually cool, that you want to be a part of,” Natalie Winters, the cohost of War Room, told the crowd. “I look out and see a bunch of clean-cut, in-shape, good-looking guys.” Winters urged them to grow their ranks by talking about issues that actually matter to young people, like inflation, rather than alienating them with arcane discussions about tax policy. “That’s not why the cost of living is going up,” she explained. “We’re up against a diabolical plan for social control.” The perpetrators: “globalist organizations” like the World Economic Forum and the World Health Organization. The method: forcing us all to live in “fifteen-minute cities” which are really “fifteen-minute ghettos.” The endgame: “They want to hollow out the middle class; they want to make having single-income families basically impossible.”

Winters’s euphemistic speech wasn’t substantially different from what your typical conspiratorial white nationalist believes: shadowy forces are running the world and decimating American families—whose implied demographics you can probably infer—in the process. Still, her harshest words were reserved for the conservative establishment, personified by now-former Republican National Committee chair (and Romney relative) Ronna McDaniel. A “civil war” is brewing within the Republican Party, she said; to win, they’d have to seize control of the narrative.

Less than a dozen miles north, the establishment was holding a conference of its own. The Principles First Summit, which organizers billed as an “anti-CPAC,” attracted a more sober crowd. Speakers included Never Trumper and former Ohio governor John Kasich, Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle, political theorist Francis Fukuyama, and Sarah Matthews, a Trump-era press secretary who resigned in the wake of the January 6 riots. On the other side of the Potomac, the message was about reining in populist excess.

CPAC, meanwhile, was “where globalism goes to die.” Nonetheless, there was a strong international showing: a delegation from Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, as well as a small squad of die-hard Bolsonaristas. Trump was the main attraction, but Latin American populists stole the show. Nayib Bukele, the far-right president of El Salvador, who described himself as the “world’s coolest dictator,” walked out to cries of “we love you!” in both English and Spanish, which went on for several minutes after he attempted to start his speech. Javier Milei, the newly elected, wild-haired president of Argentina whose brief tenure has already caused poverty rates to skyrocket, was praised for bringing the MAGA ethos to his own country.

In addition to the committed ideologues, the convention also welcomed a cadre of MAGA-adjacent grifters who were there to hawk their wares: “woke tears” bottled water, stylized portraits of Trump, a “conservative marketplace” called Mammoth Nation. The first night culminated with a screening of Cabrini, a biopic about the Italian nun who established orphanages and hospitals for impoverished immigrants in the late nineteenth century, by Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, the director behind The Sound of Freedom. I skipped the movie to drink with a gaggle of D.C. Young Republicans, who let me hover in their orbit but, for the most part, declined to actually talk to me on the record. An aviation attorney—who had previously asked if I’d ever heard of alt comedian Nick Mullen—joked about “rounding up the journos” and shooting them (us) in the back of the head. Other than that, they were pleasant enough, if a little cagey in my presence.

Some of the attendees who weren’t fantasizing about extrajudicial violence were instead worried about my safety—not while I was in enemy territory, but back home in New York. One man asked how I could stand to live in such a dangerous city. At the bar, I complimented an Australian woman on her green Balenciaga bag and asked about the hat she was wearing, which was festooned with bunny ears and rhinestones that spelled out 2024. The woman, a milliner who bragged that Jay-Z’s stylist often wore her creations, said she made the hat for New Year’s Eve but wound up staying in that night because she no longer feels safe in Manhattan. “It’s such a shithole now,” she told me.

They were pleasant enough, if a little cagey in my presence.

By the third night, I’d spoken to dozens of people and had very few interviews to show for it. Justin Cleary, the founder of the right-wing influencer marketing firm Red Voices, attributed people’s hesitancy to speak on the record to the fact that many don’t work in politics and are afraid of being canceled. I met Cleary at a barbecue restaurant and bar a few hundred yards from the convention center, where the Young Republicans had gathered to watch the South Carolina primary results before heading to Bannon’s afterparty. One of Cleary’s friends interrupted our conversation to whisper something in his ear, after which the pair abruptly walked away. Later, Cleary told me there were rumors that I was affiliated with the Southern Poverty Law Center. As he and I talked, a former niche internet celebrity who initially appeared sympathetic to my quest for sources had been walking around the bar, holding her phone up to silently deliver a message: THERE ARE REPORTERS HERE.

Two people did eventually agree to speak—a member of the Bergen County Republicans and a libertarian college student who told me he’s a huge fan of Rand Paul—and once my interviews wrapped up, I decided to try my luck at Bannon’s soirée. I went to go grab my jacket, only to realize it was missing. I had left it at a table in the back corner of the bar, along with a tote bag that contained my laptop, which was still there. I asked the other journalists if they had seen it, then approached table after table of Young Republicans and pleaded for their help. As I made my rounds, the niche internet celebrity asked if I was looking for something; she mentioned that she had seen my jacket earlier, but, would you look at that, it’s gone now. I created a mental list of suspects: the Nazis, the Young Republicans, the niche internet celebrity herself.

Eventually I gave up and went out into the cold. At the invite-only Bannon party, two of the Identity Evropa guys let me in through a side door. Once inside, I asked a trench coat boy if he and his friends had stolen my jacket, then apologized for being so paranoid. He told me he understood: “It’s what being in right-wing circles does to a person.”