After my two pathetic failed attempts to sneak into the VIP area of the 3NINE nightclub for the Kick Off CPAC Weekend party in Orlando, Florida, the bouncer took pity on me and waved me through anyway. I left the dark pulsing fluorescence of the interior and emerged into the soft night air of the swank poolside bar. Beneath the palm trees, enraptured fans jockeyed for drinks and snapped selfies with various right-wing celebrities.
I had arrived too late, apparently, to catch Michael Flynn, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Jack Posobiec, or many of the other far-right luminaries promised by the event flier. But Madison Cawthorn made an appearance flanked by handlers as James O’Keefe chatted with fans by the bar. Down by the pool, a hand-painted custom motorcycle straight from a 12-year-old’s classroom doodles stretched resplendent in front of a One America Motorsports media backdrop. Its handler cautioned me not to scratch the intricate hand-painted American flag detailing or the oddly Clintonesque Trump portrait as I climbed aboard the chopper for a photo.
I saw Lady MAGA USA from across the bar as I climbed down. She was impossible to miss—seven feet tall, at least—with voluminous blonde hair and meticulous padding and a blue tulle dress any Disney princess would be proud to wear. Lady MAGA, a.k.a. Ryan Woods, lamented the Florida heat as she kindly posed for a photo with me. “I want to make America great again!” the drag artist declared cheerfully as I bade her farewell. “Not gay again.”
“My rights should never infringe on the rights of anyone else,” the drag artist told The Washington Examiner earlier that day, after explaining her opposition to gender-affirming care for trans children. “Just because you’re gay and just because you’re different does not mean you have to join the Communist left and hate this country and attack everyone else in the name of victimhood.”
I know what you’re thinking. But the longer you spend in spaces like this, the less weird everything seems. I’m well past experiencing shock at meeting someone who aligns with political forces that would, at first glance, seem explicitly aligned against them. But perhaps I have finally spent too much time in spaces like this to be shocked by running into someone like Lady MAGA. I have definitely been around long enough to know how deeply annoyed queer conservatives and conservatives of color become when those who occupy the polite left-of-center either ignore them entirely or dismiss them as victims of self-loathing: too damaged or too stupid to know better.
This explanation is infantilizing, and worse, it makes no sense. There are far too many MAGA devotees from the margins for this to be only self-hatred or confusion. Something else is going on here. What?
The theme of CPAC 2022 is “Awake, Not Woke,” but after four long days of speeches and panels, I am still not entirely sure what that means. Wokeness is “a virus,” according to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, but also “the new religion of the left.” Newsmax host Eric Bolling’s explanation suggested something soy-based: “Our leadership is more concerned with being woke than powerful and effective.” Former Trump Sr. adviser and current Trump Jr. girlfriend Kim Guilfoyle sees something more active at play; she urged the audience to “stop Joe Biden’s far-left woke agenda dead in its tracks.” Combat veteran Cory Mills blamed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on “the woke and weak Biden administration.”
As though political and military wokeness weren’t bad enough, the disease apparently threatens the economic sphere, as well. “Even corporate America has gone woke,” lamented former Congressman Mark Walker. A three-pundit panel spent 25 minutes discussing ways to fight back against woke multinationals like Amazon and Coca-Cola but never fully explained the parallels between workplace diversity training and Eastern European land grabs.
Fortunately for confused leftists such as myself, CPAC 2022 booked Vivek Ramaswamy to explain further. The self-styled health care entrepreneur recently stepped down as CEO of Roivant Science, a multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical company, to join the ranks of right-wing political thought leaders; his opening salvo in his new career was his New York Times bestseller, Woke, Inc.: Inside Corporate America’s Social Justice Scam.
Ramaswamy defines woke ideology as “a cultural cancer” that “says that your identity is based on your race, your sex, your religion, your national origin, or sexual orientation. It says that you are a prisoner of the color of your skin. The characteristics you inherit from the day you were born tell you what ideas or thoughts you’re allowed to have.”
Ramaswamy has drawn thematic battle lines with one of the right’s current bugbears: Ibram X. Kendi, the author of the even-more-New-York-Times-bestselling How to Be an Antiracist. Not coincidentally, Kendi’s tome also deals with a cultural cancer that says your identity is based on race. He calls this cancer “racism.”
As with regular cancer, Kendi believes you cannot treat racism without properly diagnosing it. “It’s critically important for [Americans] to admit the times in which they were being racist because there’s no way they can change themselves if they’re still in that denial,” Kendi told Vox in a 2020 interview, shortly after the George Floyd protests began. The real change, however, has to be systemic. “The problem is power and policy,” Kendi says, “not people.” Anti-racist work does not seek to make people feel guilty, the historian and anti-racist scholar explains, but to change society to eliminate racism forever.
Ramaswamy understands this premise behind anti-racism. He also rejects it. “I happen to not believe that the United States is a systemically racist country,” he declared on the CPAC stage. “It’s the country that allowed me to achieve everything I ever have.”
Like Lady MAGA, Ramaswamy belongs to a category of people often considered disadvantaged. He is the brown-skinned son of Indian immigrants who arrived in America “with almost no money in their pocket.” Instead of demanding handouts, his parents worked hard and did well enough to send their son to Harvard. Ramaswamy, in turn, worked hard enough to achieve top honors, then took advantage of networking opportunities to found several successful business ventures.
The multimillionaire has tasted the fruits of the American dream, and he seems to believe there’s enough for everyone. “Capitalism isn’t racism but the best system to lift people out of poverty” he says. “No matter who you are or where you came from or what your skin color is, you can achieve anything.”
America as a land of opportunity loomed large and explicit for nearly every CPAC minority speaker. At local school boards, “black parents are coming out and saying things like, ‘Excuse me, my little girl is not a victim,’” National Review contributing editor Deroy Murdock told Candace Owens. “‘My little boy is not oppressed.’ These are little Black boys and little Black girls who have every opportunity if they take advantage of that opportunity to succeed beyond their wildest dreams.”*
“[The Left] wants you to believe that this is the home of systemic racism,” Central State Oklahoma Highway Commissioner T.W. Shannon explained. “That we’ve been racist from the start, we’ll never be anything but racist. Friends, let me tell you today: This is not the home of systemic racism. This is the home of systemic opportunity!”
Charlie Gerew, the first vice chairman of the American Conservative Union, or ACU, was adopted as a baby from Brazil. His mother insisted he go to an American family so that he might learn to read. “So when I talk about opportunity and freedom,” he says, “you know that it comes from the depths of my heart and the bottom of my soul.”
Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson of North Carolina offered his audience a story of opportunity in action. His sonorous voice transformed the lectern into a pulpit as he told the audience about his mother, who worked as a janitor to support her five children after his father died. “My mother could have laid down. Went on welfare and collected all kinds of checks and just sat there and waited for the government to take care of her. But she didn’t do that. My mother worked!” Like everyone else at CPAC, Robinson has no time for so-called “critical race theory,” which he believes “[sets] Black children on one side of the room and white children on the other side and [teaches] them to despise each other.”
Robinson, Gerew, Shannon, Ramaswamy, Lady MAGA, and countless others are not rounding errors who got lost on their way to the social justice lunch table. They, like most other conservatives, are true believers in the American fable of meritocracy in which we, like William Ernest Henley, are the masters of our fate and the captains of our soul. We succeed or fail as individuals based on choices that we make. Attempts at explaining failure by pointing to external forces is as verboten as crying in baseball, and for the same reason: It’s weak, it’s unproductive, and it is certainly not sporting.
Conservatives do not approve of systemic racism. They do not condone it. They do not even ignore it, any more than skeptics ignore the ghosts they never see. They simply do not believe in it. They do not see it. To them, it is not real.
Interpreting American capitalism as a more or less even playing field of infinite opportunity, in which you really can do anything you set your mind to, regardless of circumstances, is one hell of a drug.
In a pure meritocracy, success indicates pure merit: a very flattering situation for someone like Vivek Ramaswamy. As of 2016, Forbes estimated his net worth at $600 million. His work in the biotech field has won many awards, his business decisions have gone well, and now he finds himself center stage at one of the most high-powered political events in the United States.
But there’s comfort in the idea of meritocracy for the rest of us, as well. It offers a sense of cosmic justice. Jeff Bezos has untold billions of dollars because he is good and has done good: That’s a much more comforting perception than one in which he got there by exploiting the merit and the labor of others and taking advantage of a system designed to funnel wealth into a handful of pockets.
“I am not a victim,” Lady MAGA declared to The Washington Examiner, and there was an edge of both pride and defiance in her voice as she said it. Whether you have a lot or a little, there is pride in earning the things you own. The idea that you might owe some of your success to luck, or a system set up to help you at the expense of others, or family resources, is deeply distressing.
On the other end of the spectrum, it is horrifying to realize that you face obstacles you should not have to face and which you will never fully overcome. Self-recrimination for failure is painful, but helplessness feels worse.
Several hours before I crashed the CPAC afterparty, talk show host Benjamin Ferguson and elderly neurosurgeon Ben Carson sat down for a 15-minute discussion on how Covid-19 restrictions are a money grab by Big Pharma and a power grab by Big Lib. But before they could really get into the weeds on whether omicron is God’s vaccine, Ferguson started with some friendly banter. “So I was sitting there the other day watching the Super Bowl,” he said, “and I thought to myself, man, this halftime show. I know Ben Carson’s getting down.”
The half-beat of silence that preceded Carson’s dry, forced laugh was, for me, a CPAC high-water mark instantly surpassed mere moments later when Ferguson, oblivious, continued. “Who was your favorite?”
This second silence lasted quite a bit longer until Carson, in a slow and profoundly patrician voice, stated that he always cheers for the winner. Ferguson laughed, fumbled for his talking points, and began asking uncomfortable questions about ivermectin, as God intended.
Do hundreds of thousands of moments of friction just like this one add up to a far more alienated and challenging existence for Carson than he might enjoy with a different skin tone? If yes, then Ferguson’s hilarious assumption that a Black septuagenarian must enjoy the musical stylings of Snoop Dogg carries greater significance. For conservatives, however, the answer is always no. Moments of friction like this can only ever add up to circumstances, and individuals can always overcome circumstances. Only overt, physical force against someone else for the crime of being a different race truly counts as racism in the conservative worldview.
The fact that I even noticed the Snoop Dogg incident is, doubtless, a sign of my liberal desire to divide the conservative movement and emasculate Dr. Carson by implying I think him weak enough to be thwarted by external forces. I am introducing crying to baseball. Until I observed it and named it, this problem did not exist. I have become the real problem.
I am a problem that can be solved, fortunately, and Senator Rick Scott is on the case. Step 2 of his 11-step Rescue America Plan, “Color Blind Equality,” vows to “eliminate racial politics in America” by making it illegal for the government to ask citizens to disclose their race on forms. Diversity training in the military will be outlawed and affirmative action by universities severely punished.
Scott is not explicitly trying to make it impossible to determine whether discrimination is happening (though the bill would, of course, do exactly that). He is following conservative logic to its ultimate conclusion. If the problem America faces is its belief in the concept of systemic racism, destroying the means by which that concept can be believed will eliminate the problem and allow everyone to succeed or fail based solely on their own merits. The moment we are no longer able to observe the evidence of systemic racism, it flashes out of existence.
Naturally, even if Rick Scott does the impossible and cancels basic statistical analysis and eliminates the means by which the facts that shape our lives are accrued and recorded, he cannot cancel our eyes and ears. However color-blind you claim to be, it is difficult not to notice that Black people tend to be poorer than white people. They get arrested more. They have lower rates of education.
If individual choice reigns supreme, that means a lot of Black people are making the same bad individual choices that lead to incarceration and impoverishment. And if an entire group of people seems hell-bent on making terrible individual choices, eventually you have to ask yourself: Why?
I later found out that I had not missed Marjorie Taylor Greene at all. The Georgia representative decided to ditch the party in favor of the America First Political Action Conference, or AFPAC, happening just across the street.
AFPAC is aspiring charismatic leader Nick Fuentes’s answer to CPAC: an alt-right conference that features overt racism and strong fascist tendencies. Also in attendance: Jarad Taylor and Peter Brimelow. Fuentes himself, founder of the Groyper movement, is not coy about what he believes. In his own words: “All I want is a total Aryan victory. All I want is revenge.… I’m just like Hitler.”
I spoke to two conference attendees who confessed to having friends who attended AFPAC. Both were young men in their early to mid-twenties. Both had a good understanding of what Fuentes is about, and both professed to find him unpleasant. And yet they also seemed comfortable with their friendships with his adherents. Something about Fuentes jibes well with the conservative worldview.
What is it? For once, Marjorie Taylor Greene is a subject-matter expert on something other than Crossfit.
“Being truly America First means rejecting the Democrat obsession with skin color, sexuality, and gender,” she tweeted in response to the predictable media shitstorm that followed her decision to hang out with 1,200 of the worst people on earth. “It means having the courage to stop agonizing over fake divisions and disingenuous allegations from our godless and gutless mainstream media.”
Nick Fuentes—a man who opposes mixed-race marriages and describes his fair skin and blue eyes as “the king phenotype”—does not, according to Greene, have an obsession with skin color. It is the social justice advocates, with their desire to point out systemic racism, who pose the real threat.
Anti-racists spend so much time talking about discrimination, microaggressions, cultural difference, prejudice, and so on, that it is easy to see how a casual observer would mistake that focus with obsession over racial difference. Look closer, however, and you’ll see that the underlying assumption behind anti-racism is that we are all the same. With large enough sample sizes, individual differences ought to average out. Because race differences are entirely cosmetic, we should see similar levels of employment, incarceration, education, success, and health across all ethnicities. When we don’t, the left assumes that since there are no fundamental differences between races, something external must be causing it.
Conservatives, on the other hand, avoid talking about race whenever they can, to the point that some of them would like never to think about it at all. Refusing to see color feels like the true anti-racist stance. And yet, followed to its logical conclusion, color-blindness eventually leads somewhere far darker. After all, if external oppression does not exist, then any disparity in achievement between races stems entirely from individual differences. The problem is not society. The problem is the people.
And that’s where the alt-right comes in, with a ready-made and cogent explanation for why Black people fill America’s prisons but not our universities. An ugly, retrograde, abhorrent ideology that genuinely embodies everything Republicans say they oppose in woke leftism.
All of this is terribly complicated, but here, at the 3NINE party, things are quite simple. A drunk guy scales the rocks behind the Trump motorcycle and waves a Let’s Go Brandon flag like a demented La Liberté. The crowd screams the slogan delightedly.
Marjorie Taylor Greene and others like her know exactly what they’re doing. Odds are good, though, that many of these conservatives do not know what a phenotype is and never think about Aryan victory. Their biggest sin is dreaming a beautiful dream and refusing to wake up.
“Joe Biden has spent a year telling this country that we are broken, that we are backward, that we are racist, that we are weak,” Senator Josh Hawley declared from the CPAC stage on the first day of the conference. “He thinks the heart of America is warped and wicked. Well, I’m from the heartland of America … I know the heart of this country, and it is true, and it is good, and on the basis of America’s heart we will rebuild our strength. There is nothing wrong with America.”
I am a leftist now, but I grew up in a family of objectivists—people who follow the teachings of Ayn Rand. Objectivism is an intensely individualistic philosophy that rejects all forms of collectivism and believes passionately in America as the land of meritocracy and individual responsibility. I’ll be honest: I miss that dream every day.
I have made some friends at this party and later, after the big names have departed for bed or for parties too swank for me to crash, we wander back inside and onto the dance floor, decorated with enormous portraits of Donald and Melania Trump for the occasion. The D.J. begins spinning the fun stuff, the bubble-gum stuff, songs from when Nazis and nuclear war were both things you had to buy movie tickets to see. Over the speakers, Katy Perry joyously attempts to reconstruct her own life: “It’s a blacked-out blur, but I’m pretty sure it ruled. Damn.”
Outside, Russian paratroopers are preparing to jump into Kiev and Nick Fuentes is giggling about Hitler. The clock strikes midnight, and it is now Saturday, February 26: the 10-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. “Yeah, I think we broke the law, always say we’re going to stop. Woah.”
We were born into a world with its back nearly broken by the burden of history. Dropped into a system we never asked to be part of, bearing gifts and curses we never asked for or deserved. Slavery and Jim Crow and redlining and mass incarceration. Everyone on the dance floor here is young. None of us made those things. The injustice of it is overwhelming. The knee-jerk indignation at the work it would take even to begin to undo that damage comes from a very understandable place. What right do the generations that came before us have to ask us to clean up a mess that was too big for them?
Better not to think about it. Better to take another shot. The headache tomorrow will be ours alone to bear: individual choices, individual consequences.
* This quote has been updated to more accurately convey the context of the speaker.