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Mugged by Reality

As the chairman of CPAC during the rise of Reagan, I should have seen the grotesque display at this year’s CPAC coming. I failed to do so.
March 1, 2021
Mugged by Reality
Former U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held in the Hyatt Regency on February 28, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. Begun in 1974, CPAC brings together conservative organizations, activists, and world leaders to discuss issues important to them. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Several years ago, I was mugged and robbed as I took an early-morning walk through Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans. I should have been paying more attention, been more alert, but instead I was taken by surprise and had the bruises to show for it. That event came to mind as I watched this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). If someone had told me 40 years ago that CPAC attendees would raucously cheer a United States senator bragging about his effort to overturn a presidential election or brazenly worship a literal golden idol in the shape of a failed presidential candidate, I never would’ve believed them.

But maybe I should have seen it coming. That day in New Orleans was not the first time I had failed to see what was about to happen.

I had been active in Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign, directing a number of wide-ranging policy task forces chaired by sitting members of the House and Senate. After he was elected, I invited Reagan to keynote CPAC in 1981, as I was not only a member of Congress but also the national chairman of the American Conservative Union and chairman of CPAC. The primary was a difficult one. I had called Reagan at his home to offer my help after he lost the Iowa caucuses to George H. W. Bush and was with him in his hotel room in New Hampshire when he defeated Bush in that state’s primary. Now that the election was over and he was vice president, however, he was part of the team; I thought Bush, too, should speak at CPAC.

I was not expecting the resistance with which this suggestion was met. While the ACU is the lead organization in CPAC, other conservative organizations share in the governance and they absolutely refused to hear from Bush. In order to bring him to the event, I had to invite him as my personal guest and arrange my own breakfast meeting where he could speak the morning after Reagan’s keynote—an event to which Bush had not been invited.

Conservative resistance to Bush was so strong that James Baker, then Reagan’s White House chief of staff, asked me to serve as a bridge between Bush and Washington, D.C.’s conservative activists. I convened a meeting at Blair House, across the street from the White House, and invited the heads of the major conservative organizations to sit with Baker and hear him out. Baker, remember, was not there to argue for Ronald Reagan’s opponent: He was there, with Reagan’s blessing, to build a connection to Reagan’s vice president. The level of resistance to Bush—himself a conservative, though less so than Reagan—was something new.

About the same time, direct mail entrepreneur Richard Viguerie convened a meeting of leading conservatives at his home in D.C.’s Virginia suburbs. Included in the meeting were representatives of religious groups and the meeting focused on how to get regular churchgoers, thought to be generally conservative, at least in the Protestant denominations, to stop voting for Democrats. The attendees were from a variety of backgrounds: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Greek Orthodox. Out of that meeting arose the Moral Majority. But before long the ecumenicism was gone and the Moral Majority was largely displaced by the Christian Coalition. Again, new and narrower forces were coming to the fore. I still didn’t see the larger displacement of traditional conservatism that was gaining steam.

As chairman of the American Conservative Union, I signed, and signed off on, ACU’s fundraising materials. During my tenure as chairman I found myself forced to rewrite every letter drafted by our outside public relations consultants. The ACU, and conservatives generally, had long been focused on a few things—keeping taxes low, keeping regulation in bounds, adequately funding national defense, and, more generally (this was how conservatism was defined in political terms), prudence and skepticism in the face of proposals for sweeping overhauls.

However, what I found in the fundraising letters I was being sent to sign were harangues centered on social issues. Waging the culture war was a more effective way of raising money. I edited those parts out but failed to see, as I do now, that these rants were early signs that the ideals of conservatism were being abandoned by those who claimed to be its greatest champions. But I couldn’t see that at the time; I simply deleted the social/cultural warfare lines, rewrote each piece in more traditional conservative terms, and moved on. These fights began to creep into Congress as well, the usual partisan squabbles over tax policy, defense spending, foreign policy, assistance programs, and budget levels joined by bitter and continuous partisan fights over social issues: abortion, gay rights, women’s empowerment, etc.

After five years as ACU’s, and CPAC’s, chairman, I resigned. I resigned as ACU’s chairman, I resigned as a board member, and I resigned as a member. As the push for this new brand of conservatism—a populist and retrograde pseudo-conservatism—grew stronger, I wanted no part of it. But it still had not transformed the Republican Party, or even conservatism generally, into the ugly and malignant force it has become.

In 2008, Oxford University Press published my book, “Reclaiming Conservatism,” describing how the conservative movement had morphed into something unrecognizable. Because I had also been one of the three founding trustees of the conservative Heritage Foundation, the publisher’s promotion team wanted me to include a talk at Heritage on my book tour. I called to set it up and was turned down.

I met for lunch with Ed Feulner, Heritage’s president, and complained that as one of the organization’s founders, I had a right to speak there. He agreed. At the meeting, I was introduced by one of my former ACU staff members who noted the large crowd, including some who were not familiar with the organization, and began by telling them about Heritage, including reciting its mission statement. I interrupted her: I helped write the mission statement, I said. These parts about protecting traditional social values were not part of it; they were added years later. I gave my talk and the positive response might have satisfied my publisher, but I haven’t been invited back.

The rest of the evolution has been more recent and more visible—first the quick rise and even quicker fall of the pugnacious battle-oriented Newt Gingrich, aided by broadcaster Rush Limbaugh and newspaper columnist Robert Novak—and ultimately Donald Trump. Trump is merely the loudest and crudest of an emerging army that calls itself conservative but has no interest in conserving the most important values of all, the constitutional guarantees of a democratic republic. The drift from a coherent and defensible political perspective to an anti-egalitarian, anti-rule of law, anti-constitutional-republic form of delusion and craziness had been taking place for years, right under my nose.

And, like the mugger who came up behind me in Louis Armstrong Park, I hadn’t seen it coming.

Mickey Edwards

Mickey Edwards represented Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District in Congress for 16 years. He was a member of the Republican leadership and chairman of the party’s policy committee in the House. He now teaches at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs.