WASHINGTON — Remember when conservatism meant deep thinkers and big ideas? Get over it.
Today, conservatism means get your Miley (Cyrus) on and show us your tongue, shout Trump to the rafters, if you can pony up the privilege of "free speech," and young — very young — "love."
Or so it would seem judging by this year's lead-up to the annual CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) that began here Wednesday. If young conservatives came looking for mentors and for values confirmation, they may have wasted their ticket.
A variety of false starts and weird moments suggests that American conservatism is reinventing itself along lines that stray far from original intent. R.I.P., if you can, Bill Buckley.
An ad on the CPAC webpage prominently features nouvelle conservative vamp Dana Loesch, a conservative radio host in Dallas and yet another protege of Breitbart News. In the photo, Loesch is doing her best imitation of the "Miley," tongue super-extended and is making the sign of the devil with her hand — two middle fingers tucked into the palm, pinkie and pointer extended like two horns.
Presumably, this is considered cool to a certain demographic, though Loesch, at 38, might be considered post-cool. Her message, if I may dare an interpretation: It's safe for the cool and hip to attend a convention dominated by gnarly grown-ups, although, fair warning, President Trump is also planning to attend.
In another sign of conservative disruption, the speaker lineup is missing many of conservatism's most interesting voices. Sometimes getting a turn at the lectern depends on one's willingness to contribute to the CPAC's parent organization, the American Conservative Union (ACU). Oftentimes, sponsors want to speak and/or direct the agenda.
Also necessary is one's ringing support of Trump. Those who entertain subversive thinking, also known as thinking, aren't invited.
Finally, the straw that broke the elephant's back was CPAC's intended keynote speaker, Milo Yiannopoulos, or just Milo for ease of spelling. For the uninitiated, Milo is a provocateur infamous for saying anything. He makes Trump seem like a paragon of restraint by comparison. Think of him as a British hybrid of Howard Stern and Ann Coulter.
His penchant for the outrageous backfired on him when a video from last year surfaced in which Milo praised sex between 13-year-old boys and adult men as "life-affirming" in the gay community. Ruminating on his own sexual prowess, he boasted that he wouldn't be nearly as good were it not for his own alleged childhood molestation at the hands of a Catholic priest. Milo denies that this constitutes pedophilia or pederasty.
Did CPAC officialdom not know whom they were inviting? Milo's record is hardly obscure. He, too, was a Breitbart fellow. Are you noting a trend here? On Monday, Milo's CPAC invitation was rescinded following loud protests. Then on Tuesday, Milo resigned as tech editor for Breitbart News.
His utterly bizarre selection fairly yawns with Republican irony. Recall that in 2015, the gay Log Cabin Republicans weren't allowed to participate in CPAC. Apparently eager to show that conservatives aren't anti-gay, this year the organization invited an alt-righter who happens to be gay.
Matt Schlapp, CPAC organizer and ACU chair (as well as lobbyist and political commentator), defended the invitation, saying Milo could talk about his recent experience at the University of California at Berkeley, where he was canceled as a speaker following student protests.
It seems no one outside of a comedy club wants to hear what Milo has to say. Yes, suppression of unwelcome speech and all the attendant snowflakery on college campuses deserves a passionate challenge, but there are plenty of others who could make the case for intellectual diversity without engaging the perverse.
Clearly, Schlapp wanted a glitzy headliner to draw a crowd. This isn't a criminal offense, but it might be craven. This year's CPAC suggests a certain desperation to be relevant and the unwinding of core conservative principles, which can't be separated from the imperative to seek out and exercise our better angels. If the brilliance of your ideas won't draw a crowd, then maybe you need better ideas.
Meanwhile, the ACU, the oldest conservative lobbying organization in the country, has betrayed the greats of conservative thought and tradition and become just another political party, trading its heraldic mission for money, fame and power.
It's an old story — still and always sad.
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