During President Donald J. Trump’s speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on Feb. 23. Photo: chris kleponis/pool/European Pressphoto Agency/Shutterstock
‘Make sure to check in with us!” one friend told me. “Try not to get killed,” another warned. I wasn’t off to a war zone or a spy mission in Moscow. I was riding a bus from New York to Washington to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference.
To be sure, I’m a tiny, talkative South Asian woman who spent four months on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign staff. I wasn’t exactly in my element surrounded by people in “Make America Great Again” hats chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up!“ But there was more to CPAC than that. In four days, I spoke with more than 100 conservatives, most of whom greeted me with open arms and thanked me for being there and having an open mind. They happily engaged me in meaningful political conversation and invited me for drinks and after-parties.
Where some saw a circus, I saw a big tent. I spoke with Jennifer C. Williams, chairman of the Trenton, N.J., Republican Committee and a transgender activist. Twenty feet away, I spoke with a religious leader who opposes same-sex marriage. While a panelist touted capital punishment, several attendees crowded the Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty booth. Hours after President Trump recast Oscar Brown Jr. ’s song “The Snake” as an ugly anti-immigrant parable, several influential Republicans were asking me, a naturalized citizen, how they can support my startup.
In retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how nervous I was when I arrived. I found myself singing along to “God Bless the USA” with a hilariously rowdy group of college Republicans, having nuanced discussions about gun control and education policy with people from all walks of life, nodding my head in agreement with parts of Ben Shapiro’s speech, and coming away with a greater determination to burst ideological media bubbles.
Among liberals, conservatives have a reputation for being closed-minded, even deplorable. But in the Washington Republicans I encountered at CPAC, I found a group of people who acknowledged their party’s shortcomings, genuinely wondered why I left my corporate job to join Mrs. Clinton’s campaign in 2016, and listened to my arguments before defending their own positions.
Although CPAC attendees were as passionate about policy as my liberal friends, they took a more lighthearted approach. At one after-party, they alternated between taking selfies with Milo Yiannopoulos and engaging in a thoughtful, substantive discussion with a Democrat. One notable exchange: I exclaimed, “Of course the Department of Education is necessary!” which drew the rejoinder, “Great! Let’s make 50 of them!”
As I look back on all the people who greeted me warmly, made sure I didn’t get lost in the crowd, and went out of their way to introduce me to their friends, I can’t help but wonder how a Trump supporter would have fared at a Democratic rally. Would someone wearing a MAGA hat be greeted with smiles or suspicion, be listened to or shouted down?
At Hillary rallies, we always filled the stands with our biggest supporters. At CPAC, most of the few liberals in attendance had media credentials, as I did. I’m new to this, but shouldn’t we want to engage with people who aren’t convinced of our viewpoints? Why aren’t there more conservatives at Democratic rallies and more liberals at CPAC? What are we afraid of?
Ms. Wahed is founder of TheFlipSide.io, a daily digest of liberal and conservative commentary.