OXON HILL, Maryland — If you want to take the temperature of the conservative movement at CPAC, you need to know where to stick the thermometer. It’s not in the onstage speeches, or the myriad policy panels, or the boozy after-parties—it’s inside Exhibit Hall D on the ground floor of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center.
Here, in what conference organizers have dubbed “The Hub,” hundreds of blue-blazered and high-heeled young conservatives roam the cavernous hall—crammed with booths set up by right-wing think tanks, media outfits, pressure groups, and publishers—shopping for future careers. The general vibe is that of a trade show, with attendees perusing pamphlets about D.C. internships, swapping Twitter follows, and taking selfies with minor cable news celebrities. They buy t-shirts with cheeky messages on them (“God is great, beer is good & liberals are crazy”), and the lucky ones make off with a satchel full of swag (the Sheriff David Clarke bobblehead was a particularly hot item this year).
This is where the right wing’s marquee annual conference most nakedly displays its true animating force— not conservatism, but careerism. Once a pep rally for rank-and-file grassroots activists, CPAC has mutated in recent years into a networking event for young ladder-climbers and fame-seekers looking to get ahead. And this year, an army of aspiring pundits, politicos, and policy wonks are being tempted with an exciting new professional path: Trump-style nationalism.
Take, for example, Lisa Jones, a Capitol Hill intern who idolizes Nikki Haley and dreams of one day working in high-level foreign affairs. She was no fan of Donald Trump during the election, and actually voted for Evan McMullin, the independent candidate she felt better represented her brand of conservatism. But now that Trump is in power, she told me, she’s giving his message and platform a second look.
“Trump and his administration are really pushing this more nationalistic approach,” Jones said. She conceded, diplomatically, that the president’s agenda marks something of a departure from her own more traditionally conservative foreign policy ideas—but she’s also taken note of how quickly Trump’s worldview in gaining popularity within the party. For now, she’s keeping her mind (and her career options) open. After all, she says, “We don’t agree on everything, but for conservatives this is an electric time right now.”
Sarah Caplin, a research intern at a political advocacy group who’s mulling a future in conservative media, tells a similar story. She was put off by Trump during the Republican primaries, strongly preferring candidates like Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, but now finds herself searching for something in Trumpism to get excited about. It hasn’t been easy. Her focus is on criminal justice reform, a bipartisan issue that has excited some Christian conservatives and libertarian types, but has found little support in the ascendant law-and-order wing of the GOP. Still, she’s savvy enough not to trash her party’s newly elected leader while talking to reporters.
“Definitely since being in D.C. I think I have become more open to some of the conservative ideas that [Trump] has been setting forward,” Caplin told me, tentatively. “I think we do have some common ground, and at this point we just need to find a way to work with that.”
None of the young CPAC-goers I talked to told me definitively that they were undertaking a wholesale career recalibration in response to Trump’s rise. Instead, most seemed like they were hanging back, cautiously assessing the landscape, trying to stay flexible.
One attendee, who requested anonymity because he was manning a booth at the Hub and didn’t have permission to go on the record, said he’d noticed that some of his amateur blogger friends have begun to adopt a more Trumpian posture lately in hopes of making it big. For those aspiring stars of the conservative media considering a rebrand, there’s no lack of successful role models. Talking heads like Kayleigh McEnany, Scottie Hughes, and Jeffrey Lord went from relative obscurity to cable news fame during the 2016 election by emerging to fill the void of pro-Trump pundits on TV. Meanwhile, a new journal called American Affairs launched this week offering a platform for intellectuals seeking to defend Trump’s vision. And next year’s midterms are likely to feature a slew of primaries pitting orthodox conservative incumbents against Trumpian challengers. These are boom times for Trump’s brand of politics, and the savvy young strivers at CPAC have taken notice—even if they’re not all happy about it.
Daniel Tellez, a senior at Boise State, noted with a hint of dismay that the rising Trumpist faction of the party seems to have pushed his fellow libertarians back to the fringes of the movement. He doesn’t plan on altering his own politics—but neither does he expect the dynamics to change anytime soon. “As far as jobs go, I’d say that young nationalists now feel like the Republican Party provides an ideological home.”
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