Take a moment to browse the CPAC agenda, and guess which event today was most likely to devolve into a roomful of conservatives yelling “Can I just say something?” and “Stop lecturing us!” If you guessed “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?”—a panel organized by the Tea Party Patriots—then pat yourself on the back.
The panel's intended star was KCarl Smith, a conservative speaker who tours the country telling audiences that Frederick Douglass was a conservative. (And not just any conservative, but one with a knack for predicting the future. The publicity materials for the event said that Douglass believed in school choice and marriage as defined by God, a century before school vouchers and gay marriage were political issues.) Smith offered up Douglass as the modern conservative movement’s original black friend, a person whose name his Tea Party audience can forever invoke to prove that they are not racist. “Frederick Douglass was not a racist,” Smith said. “What we believe is in lockstep with what Frederick Douglass”—a capitalist, a rich man when he died, and an adviser to Lincoln, a Republican—“believed.”
Where everything went off the rails was Smith’s examples of Democratic racism. “The 16th Street Church bombers were Democrats, because they were a part of the KKK,” who were Democrats. This was too much for Kim Brown, a host and producer for Voice of Russia, who was in the audience. “Are you kidding me?”
You can imagine how things went from there. The crowd’s loud demands that Smith “sit down” and “get that women's studies stuff out of here"—this, after Brown correctly identified the year in with Sojourner Truth died—emboldened attendee Scott Terry, of North Carolina, to question the wisdom of Frederick Douglass Republicanism. “Why can’t we become, like, Booker T. Washington Republicans?" he asked, citing Washington's pro-segregation views. "It seems like your message is reaching out at the expense of young white Southern males like myself. I feel like my demographic is being disenfranchised.” When Smith recalled that Douglass wrote a letter to his former slave master forgiving him, Scott yelled, “For giving him food and shelter?” (Scott had some charming things to say about women, too.)
“Martin Luther King was a Marxist!”... “SHUT UP!”... Suffice it to say, there was plenty of screaming until Smith wrangled a microphone and calmed everybody down.1 Audience members, still piqued, reached the consensus that Brown and Terry were both plants paid by George Soros. “Was that the liberal media?” one elderly woman asked another. “This event ... has been ruined,” said another.
Smith tried to make the whole disaster instructional. This is what he means when he says that Republicans are losing an unfair, virulent liberal propaganda war to make “conservative” a word connoting radicalism and racism. The secret weapon is Douglass. Mention Douglass, and “the race card comes off the table. Class welfare comes off the table.... You can’t out-victimize Frederick Douglass.” Unless you’re a conservative.
As I write this, Brown and a huddle of red-faced adversaries are at it now, out in the hall. The fighting has become infectious. Matthew Heimbach—a sweaty young man in a Confederate Flag shirt, and president of the Towson University Youth for Western Civilization—is yelling at an old Tea Party woman about Lincoln. “He allocated millions of dollars to send Africans back to Liberia! Look. It. Up."