Everybody’s drunk, and Sean Hannity is absolutely loving it.
“You guys have really been hitting the sauce, haven’t you?” the conservative pundit asks, looking down from the lip of the spotlit stage to the rowdy crowd of mainly millennials below. They’re all attendees at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and right now, they are freshly buzzed after hitting the happy hour upstairs. In an hour and a half, hundreds of them will take their seats to watch a live broadcast of the Republican Debate on two giant screens in the vast convention center ballroom.
But for now, they’re feeling feisty and heckling Hannity. Of course, he’s heckling back.
“Can I get you another beer?” he asks one rabble rouser. “Would you like a Fireball shot?”
But it’s not just the crowd Hannity’s roasting. He saves some of his snark for Mitt Romney, too, who, just that morning denounced Republican frontrunner Donald Trump as a “con man, a fake.”
“I did not like what I heard,” Hannity says, positioning the former Republican nominee as a tool of the same Establishment that so many conservatives already resent. The crowd seems to agree. When one lone hero shouts out “Romney for President!” the audience begins to boo.
“Romney for President?” Hannity asks, astounded, then points. “It’s this guy here in the American flag shirt,” he tells the crowd.
Hannity warns the crowd that tonight’s debate is going to be “a bare-knuckles, bloody, MMA brawl.” But in the hallway outside the ballroom, it looks like the fight for the heart of conservatism has already begun, as one young bespectacled Cruz supporter and his boozy crew face off against an older gentleman in a “Make America Great Again” baseball hat.
“Trump’s a racist!” the Cruz fan calls out, before cheekily hiding his face and scurrying away. The Trump supporter yells after the kid, calling him a “stupid shit,” then turns back around to a producer who has had a video camera trained on him throughout the encounter. “Cut that part out,” he instructs the cameraman with a chuckle.
By 9 p.m. ET, the real battle begins, and the screens at either end of the ballroom light up with the faces of Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich.
Three questions in, and they’re already talking about the size of Trump’s junk. “Look at those hands. Are they small hands?” Trump says, in response to Rubio’s recent jabs about the size of Trump’s extremities. “He referred to my hands, if they are small, something else must be small. I guarantee you there is no problem. I guarantee.”
The CPAC crowd absolutely loses it. Some leap to their feet to cheer, other to boo. Still more curl violently forward in their chairs, hands over their faces, wondering, I can only imagine, why and how it ever came to this.
Throughout the night, the cheers and jeers reveal the deep divide here. Save for a few vocal crusaders, it’s clear there’s not a lot of love in the room—or at CPAC in general—for Trump. When Cruz tells Trump, “Count to 10, Donald. Count to 10,” during a heated argument over the Trump University lawsuit, the CPAC crowd gives Cruz a standing ovation. And when Fox News shows Trump slide after slide of how his plans—if you can call them that—to eliminate the federal deficit don’t add up, the audience eats it up, too.
But by around 10:30 p.m., the cycle of emotion that has typified this election season is beginning to play out in miniature in the ballroom: Extreme outrage, eventually replaced by shattering fatigue, both amplified by the booze. Half the room has wandered out, and the roar of the crowd settles into a rumble.
Soon, but not soon enough, the debate ends, and whoever’s left filters out into the hallway, where Hannity, surrounded by a sizable throng, is about to film his post-debate segment. The crowd is full of Trump hats, chants of “Cruz Cruz Cruz!” and one guy who keeps angling forward in an effort to get Hannity to sign a weathered copy of his Barry Goldwater biography.
In the midst of it all a lanky representative of the College Republican National Committee holds a glass of red wine in his left hand, hoists his right hand into the air and invites everyone to the bar across the street for more drinks.
It’s been a long day of defending ideologies. Now it’s time to cope.