Before spring break, I decided to opt out of my usual weekend regimen of moral decline (I’ve yet to bottom out, so high-fives all around) and instead attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1973 as a small gathering of the conservative faithful, this year’s “CPAC” was ready to host thousands of attendees, the majority of them college students. So, with a handful of like-minded meatheads (and one girl, who was an honorary meathead for the weekend), I drove to Washington with the intention of shouting the national anthem at 3 a.m. by the Reflecting Pool and seeing as many high-profile speakers as possible.

We arrived late on Friday, and so we missed Gov. Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani. Apparently, we also arrived after Ann Coulter quipped, “I was going to have some comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘faggot’ — so, kind of at an impasse, can’t really talk about Edwards, so I think I’ll just conclude here and take your questions.” I didn’t hear about that until the following week, when, more than her name-calling, I was disappointed in her disingenuous rationalizations for it. On “Hannity and Colmes,” she argued: “‘Faggot’ isn’t offensive to gays; it has nothing to do with gays. It’s a schoolyard taunt meaning ‘wuss,’ and unless you’re telling me that John Edwards is gay, it was not applied to a gay person.” I give Coulter too much credit to believe she thought the word “faggot” was cleanly dissociated from, you know, the gays. At the same time, though, I don’t give her credit enough to take her seriously as a political thinker — she lapsed into self-parody a while ago, so there’s not much point in getting huffy at her latest clowning. More disconcerting was the response of the CPAC crowd, which burst into applause at her remarks.

Now, it’s fun and easy to join the conservative clique at Yale — all you have to do is arch your eyebrows skeptically when that kid in your seminar complains about the terrible injustices of market capitalism. It’s pretty undemanding. At CPAC, though, I found that this conservative milieu, of which I was nominally a part, was as alien to me as Yale’s leftiest leftists.

It should hardly be a surprise that CPAC’s speakers were catering to the base, but the radically different frame of the debate was still a shock. Aside from the cheering acceptance of Coulter’s comments, there was also the uncritical reception of talking head Michelle Malkin’s disconcertingly vitriolic attacks on “the Left” at a reception we attended; the rhetorical strategy of presidential hopeful Jim Gilmore, which amounted not to articulating a unifying vision for the country, but instead to repeatedly and explicitly affirming his inflexible adherence to conservatism; and the spontaneous jeers from the crowd whenever anyone mentioned Sen. John McCain, apparently despised for his heterodoxy and (probably intelligent) choice to avoid the conference.

This is what “playing to the base” really looks like — a sort of ideological Ourobouros, cannibalizing itself as it sheds the insufficiently faithful. I was utterly mystified as I watched David Horowitz lay out the inner workings of “the Left,” as if it were the plans to some sort of skinny, passive-aggressive Death Star. Horowitz introduced Tom DeLay, who literally diagrammed a web of interconnected liberal organizations forming a “shadow party,” the sinister conspiracy apparently responsible for his fall from office. This sort of idea might be a convenient means of rallying the true believers (and avoiding personal responsibility for ethical misconduct), but, to any right-minded person, it’s pretty transparently insane. This conspiracy-theory nonsense is why I ignore the Bush administration’s far-left critics, who often slip into doom-saying hysterics. This is the kind of thinking that only thrives in an intellectual backwater.

Of course, this isn’t to say that the conference wasn’t worth attending. I regret missing Giuliani and Romney, but Gilmore was interesting, and closing speaker Newt Gingrich was a champ. Gingrich delivered a speech that managed not only to encourage an intelligent, issues-driven presidential campaign and discourage demonizing the opposition as cathartic but unproductive; he also articulated conservative principles in terms that would mean something to folks without tin-foil hats and official CPAC decoder rings.

I hope to go to next year’s conference, as I’d like to see the contenders for the Republican nomination during primary season — but it’ll also be important to take a look at my fellow attendees. It’s easy at Yale to see left-wing groups like the UOC and sort of stare slack-jawed at the degree to which they’re totally out of their heads; apparently, though, “the Left” has no monopoly on extremism.

Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.