NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The "Stand With Rand" shirts were out and the "Make America Great Again" hats were in among the younger crowd at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference.
Libertarians, who normally make up the loudest and most vocal faction at the annual nationwide gathering of conservatives, had a noticeably diminished presence at the 2017 political confab.
"I think it's disheartening," said Michael Hall, a spokesperson for Students for Liberty. "I'd like to see more libertarians here."
In previous years, armies of supporters swarmed the conference halls championing Sen. Rand Paul — and formerly Ron Paul — as the future of the Republican Party. These attendees argued that an embrace of libertarianism would usher in a wave of youth support and rescue the GOP from assured death.
But, after President Donald Trump's surprise November victory, the CPAC program conspicuously changed, underscoring nationalistic ideals while tepidly moving away from principles of small government that were popular among conservatives during President Barack Obama's eight years in office.
The ideological shift at the conference aligned with the dominance of a new populist strain that took hold of the Republican Party in the 2016 campaign.
Matt Kibbe, president of Free the People, a nonprofit organization that promotes libertarian principles, said this year's agenda and lineup of speakers may, in part, explain the lack of libertarians present.
"I was shocked when I looked at the schedule and, except for Ted Cruz, there are no liberty Republicans on the stage," he said. "There's no Rand Paul, obviously there's no Ron Paul — but there's no Justin Amash, there's no Thomas Massie, there's no Mike Lee."
"So maybe part of the reason the liberty youth is not here is there is no liberty on the stage," he added. "It's very much driven by Trumpism and nationalism."
Nick Gillespie, former editor-in-chief of the libertarian Reason magazine, agreed, contending that the American Conservative Union, the organization that hosts CPAC, had "started squeezing out" those who believed in libertarian ideals.
"During the Obama years, Paul pere et fils were the only ones offering a serous critique of mainstream Republicanism, which the party recognizes is drifting," he said an email. "Trump's victory, however narrow, allows the GOP regulars to go about their business as if nothing is wrong."
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the ACU, denied suggestions CPAC had abandoned libertarianism, insisting in a brief interview that it was a "very big and important part of the conference."
Asked if he sensed a smaller libertarian presence from previous years, Schlapp replied, "No, not at all."
Yet, despite his claims, Students for Liberty was perhaps the only libertarian-minded youth organization advocating for libertarian ideals at CPAC. Other groups, like Young Americans for Liberty, chose to forego the conference this year.
Cliff Maloney, president of YAL, said his group's purpose in the past has primarily been to "deliver a win for liberty minded folks in the CPAC straw poll" and that with Trump in the White House, influencing the straw poll would not achieve much.
"I'm interested if it makes sense for us to be there, if the straw poll matters," Maloney said, pushing back against the idea that YAL aimed to make a statement by skipping this year's conference.
Others also rejected the idea that the sizable decrease in numbers was reflective of how popular libertarianism is more broadly among the American people.
"Rand isn't there and we have a newly elected president who is," said Doug Stafford, who served as chief strategist for Paul's 2016 presidential bid. "I don't find this at all mysterious or any indicator of the broader fight for liberty."
Still, the absence of a vocal faction of libertarians left many attendees disappointed and dismayed. Kibbe said he was "surprised by the lack of liberty groups," and others who have been active in the movement said they too were disconcerted.
"As someone who came into this movement through Dr. Paul's 2008 campaign, I'm disappointed more of my libertarian friends aren't here," said Matthew Hurtt, a libertarian activist and former Ron Paul-supporting delegate at the Republican National Convention.
He added: "We need their voices at this event now more than ever."
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