Yet CPAC does not bear all the blame here. If organizers were confused about how someone like Yiannopoulos fits into the conservative movement, they are by no means alone. The rise of Trumpism has scuttled old conservative alliances and values. The right has largely abandoned free trade and open markets. In 2015, CPAC presented a united front against Vladimir Putin; his popularity among Republicans has since surged. Trump himself—profane, scandal-ridden and uninterested in conservative ideas—has become the leader of the Republican Party and a wildly popular figure in conservative circles. The conservative resistance to Trump is vocal but small. Most of the rest of the movement set aside their values to embrace Trump, smashing their ideological compasses in the process.
How were CPAC organizers supposed to know conservatives would be put off by Yiannopoulos? After all, it was largely a small anti-Trump conservative faction that opposed the invitation at first, before the remarks about pedophilia (remarks that Yiannopoulos responded to first with defiance, then contrition, stressing that he had not meant to suggest sexual contact with underage children and teens was acceptable). For Trump supporters—and the vast majority of conservatives support Trump—the distance between the president and Yiannopoulus was not significant. He has said deeply offensive things about women and Muslims. So has Trump. He writes for Breitbart, “the platform of the alt-right.” The site’s former chairman, Steve Bannon, is Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. He has criticized sexual consent and celebrates sex with underage teens. Trump starred in an Access Hollywood tape that made clear he wasn’t a huge fan of sexual consent himself, and that he had no qualms with forcing himself on women. Trump and Yiannopoulos are brothers-in-arms in the fight against “political correctness,” drawing heated criticism from liberals and select members of the conservative establishment. Even now it’s not clear that the majority of conservatives were put off by Yiannopoulos’s comments, just that the firestorm had gotten a little too uncomfortable. Looking at it this way, the shocking thing isn’t that Yiannopoulos was invited. It’s that CPAC felt pressured to drop him.
With Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, conservatives have more political power today than they have had in a decade. Still, conservatism as a political movement is disintegrating, held together not by a shared commitment to ideas like democratic governance, stability or a distinct moral vision, but rather a desire for power.