A Libertarian View of CPAC: Part One
The first proper day of events at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) was underway on Thursday, February 23rd, 2017 at the Gaylord resort in Maryland. Being Libertarian was there on “Media Row,” representing an all-too-scarce libertarian presence alongside the mainstream media outlets that normally frequent these events.
But then something very unexpected happened: CPAC was friendly. It was friendly to us libertarians; it was friendly to minority activist groups who still consider themselves conservative; it was friendly to LGBT rights and non-federal intervention. In other words, the first day of events at CPAC proved to be much more “libertarian-ish” (as Dr. Rand Paul would say) than ever anticipated. Perhaps that was because we simply knew where to look, but either way, the mainstream-pushed image of the typical right-wing zealots unwilling to hear other viewpoints fades quickly upon further investigation of this conference.
At “The Hub,” which is essentially CPAC’s equivalent to Comic Con for political nerds, the many many booths of the participating organizations — complete with all their wonderful, unique swag — were lined up for mass consumption. There were think tanks such as the Capital Research Center offering internships, colleges such as Hillsdale advertising their intensive academic programs and fellowship opportunities, and newspapers like Campus Reform empowering students to bring free speech issues on their respective college campuses to light.
But in addition to these usual elements to a conservative conference, there were other groups being represented here that might have been less wise to bet on showing up: there was a booth dedicated to giving conservative atheists a voice; there was a booth dedicated to members of the LGBT community who understand and embrace the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for their protection; and there was even a small group of Republican transgender activists at CPAC raising awareness of the fact that trans people are not delusional, nor do they have to be exclusively liberal.
One such activist, Jennifer Williams, was upstairs on the main event floor housing the Potomac ballrooms. She was proudly sporting a GOP elephant pin sporting the trans rights colors, and holding up a sign that read: “Proud to be Conservative. Proud to be Transgender. Proud to be American. #SameTeam.” And she was doing all of this while also being wrapped in the “don’t tread on me me” flag. When asked her opinion on the relationship between the GOP and trans people in America, Williams pointed out that while there was still “work to be done,” she was confident that the more the trans community raises awareness about its plight and perspective, the less alien trans people will seem to traditional conservatives in America. Williams believes in a truly free United States in which one’s sex, gender, or creed does not dictate one’s politics, and where all people are free to express themselves politically however they feel right doing so.
James Spiller, a general attendee who seemed to support Williams’s cause, spoke to us about how understanding trans people in many ways is the final step toward bridging the gap between liberal and conservative voters on the social front. He pointed out, rightly, that upon receiving hormone treatment, trans athletes’ bodies transform into the body type of their borne-in gender (i.e. a trans woman on hormones loses muscle mass and experiences slight realignment of bone structure, meaning she is not unfairly advantaged against her biologically female cohorts). Spiller also cited the fact that by pointing this out, both liberals and conservatives will learn very real truths that will bring the two groups closer to an understanding. For instance, in addition to conservatives realizing the transformative effect of hormone treatments, liberals might also have to acknowledge that there are genuine mental and physical differences between men and women than a transgender person’s transition could help to highlight, and therefore unveil the real reason for the gender pay gap: women and men approach life, work, etc. differently from one another, make different choices, and have different frames of mind, so naturally different choices will be made in the workforce leading to different rates of pay.
Williams, while she didn’t comment directly on Spiller’s points, did seem to share the outlook that many liberals claim to understand trans people just to virtue signal, but that they do not own concepts like compassion and social justice — conservatives can display it, too. “I did not vote for Trump,” Williams admitted. “I was a Kasich supporter. But I would have voted for Trump had New Jersey been in play at the time.” But she clarified that she does hope Trump continues to support the LGBT community, and that any reversal on the issues would feel like “a slap in the face” to her community.
This point was touched upon later in the day during the Steve Bannon speaking event, in which he and fellow presidential aid Reince Priebus explained that President Trump still supports LGBT rights, as well as the lack of authority for federal overreach on such matters, and is therefore leaving the trans bathroom issue to the states. While much of the mainstream media has been reporting this stance as a “reversal” on trans rights, it’s actually quite consistent with the small government conservative and libertarian viewpoint. Leaving the bathroom issue to the states while still explaining one’s personal views in support of trans people is, through this lens, not a contradiction, and is still very much a pro-LGBT position for a Republican president to have.
And the best part of all of this was that the entire room erupted with applause at this statement. Let that sink in: an entire ballroom full of conservatives and Republicans cheered on a trans rights issue. And the conference itself let atheists, gays, transgenders, and other minority groups through its doors in the name of liberty, freedom of expression, and fellowship. If you are a conservative, you are welcome at CPAC, regardless of any other aspect of your person that might not historically line up with the perceived norm. That is the message CPAC 2017 has chosen to convey. And I frankly hope that sentiment continues. As our new acquaintance James Spiller noted, true understanding is the only way the left’s claim to social and intellectual superiority is going to be curtailed.
Well, to be fair, there was one minority group that CPAC chose to discriminate against: white supremacists. Alt-right leader and white nationalist Richard Spencer attempted to crash the event (much like he had done with short-lived success at the International Students for Liberty Conference last week), but was made short work of by event organizers and hotel security. Racism, it seems, has finally run its course with the Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole.
“Yeah, I see the fuck face,” one CPAC attendee could be overheard saying when Spencer first came on the scene. “It was established that it is okay to punch Nazis, right?” While back at the spot on the convention floor where Miss Williams was waving her “no tread” flag, an elderly gentleman walked up to her, shook her hand and said: “I don’t quite understand, but I’m trying to.”
No, the modern conservative movement isn’t perfect. And no, we should not drop our guard on the frontier of looking at it critically. But we also must be mindful that, just as the older man shaking Williams’s hand said, it is trying. It is trying to branch out and finally be the all-inclusive, anti-big government movement it has long claimed to be but never quite delivered on. And that effort should be commended. We should continue to hold the conservatives and the GOP accountable for continuing that, of course (and Bannon himself said at his event that the American people should hold the Trump administration accountable as well), but for now, this is more than expected, and pleasantly surprising. Especially for libertarians.