Special thanks to Karlyn Borysenko for contributing this piece. 

I have a few theories about what made my article about being a Democrat who went to a Trump rally go massively viral. Perhaps it was the novelty of the social justice crazy going on in the knitting community. Perhaps it was the experience of someone successfully overcoming Trump Derangement Syndrome when most people just seem to double-down. Perhaps it was that the conservative community wanting to celebrate luring a previously-staunch Democrat over to the “right” side of the aisle.

But mostly, I think that a message of civility was simply what a lot of people were craving after three years of constantly being called nazis and white supremacists by those they disagreed with politically. In so many of the messages I’ve received, there was a profound sense of relief and a renewed sense of optimism that perhaps it will be possible to bridge the political divide. People expressed hope that they could re-establish their relationships with their friends who had cut off contact, or even that their marriage could be saved if they both supported different political candidates.

Though I’m not a religious person, I am a deeply spiritual one. I believe that we all come from the same Source (God) with specific goals and experiences we are seeking to fulfill in this lifetime. I believe we plan our experiences before we get here and then have to discover them on our journey. That’s why some things just seem to happen so easily, while others are far more difficult: The things that are the easiest to accomplish align with the road we should be traveling, whereas the things that are difficult tell us we’re getting off track.

When I wrote my article about the rally, it was one of the easiest things I’ve ever written in my life. And to me, that’s a sign that it didn’t come from me. Rather, I believe it came through me from God because it was something that was needed in the world. And if that’s true, then I really had no choice but to lean into the experience.

And that’s exactly how I ended up at the notorious gathering of conservatives: CPAC2020.

In many of the phone calls I had immediately after I published my article, people kept telling me that I simply HAD to go to CPAC. Finally, I thought “well, if someone gives me a ticket I’ll make the trip.” Ask and you shall receive, and a few days later I was boarding a plane for Washington DC.

Here are a few of my key takeaways from the event.

It was a genuinely inclusive environment.

I certainly had a stereotypical image of what CPAC attendees would look like. White, obviously. Male, probably. A typical frat boy (the ones I always hated in college) came to mind, definitely sporting a red hat and engaging in laddish behavior after hours.

And while some of those things are absolutely true, there was also much more diversity than I expected. The attendees came in all shapes and sizes. There were lots of college students who came with their young republican chapters, but they were balanced out by lots of middle-aged and older attendees as well. The gender divide looked to be pretty evenly split, and there were far more people of color than I was expecting, as well as members of the LGBT community.

But what was so refreshing was that there was very little talk about race or gender or orientation or anything that would indicate a collectivist mindset. People viewed each other as individuals and engaged in discussions of ideas.

In theory, I knew this would be the case, but experiencing it in practice was different. You must understand that right now in the land of the Democrats, EVERYTHING is about identity politics. Every. Single. Thing. And race is at the top of the list. If you’re white, no matter what you say or what you do, you are expected to be contrite in your inherent racism and continually re-affirm your shame in how you were born. It does not matter if you grew up poor, or how you’ve struggled, or any hardships you’ve had to overcome. All that matters is the color of your skin. Or your gender. Or your orientation. Or your ableness. It is exhausting to have to live in a constant state of self-deprecating purity and to perceive everything in your experience as a struggle between those who have power and those who are “oppressed.”

It wasn’t like that at CPAC. People didn’t see others as a race, or a gender, or an orientation, or a disability. They saw each other as people who were fully capable of stepping into their greatness without a handout. And some of the standouts at the whole event were those who the woke left would call “marginalized.”

Diamond and Silk brought down the house with their talk about personal responsibility and empowerment. Candace Owens was treated like a rock star. Benjamin Watson gave a deeply touching talk about the importance of family. Brandon Straka from the #WalkAway campaign and activist Scott Presler, both openly gay men, had crowds lining up to take photos with them.

If CPAC was really a group of racist, misogynist, homophobes, none of these things would have been true. But they were. And it wasn’t because the attendees were trying to score virtue points by being more inclusive: They genuinely loved them and admired the contribution that each person was making. No one talked about their immutable attributes. They talked about their ideas and their efforts.

It’s about the liberties, stupid.

Sure, there were a lot of sessions about how unfair impeachment was, the evils of socialism, and discussions of the deep state. But perhaps one of the most striking things about my CPAC experience was the emphasis on individual liberties and privacy. This was a major theme that was consistent across the majority of the talks I attended.

Since I abhor cancel culture with the fury of 1000 suns, it should be no surprise that one of my favorite sessions was a panel called What’s The Right Path Forward on Big Tech?, featuring Senator Josh Hawley, Leader Kevin McCarthy and Donald Trump Jr to address social media censorship. Their argument was simple: It wasn’t that they wanted special treatment by these companies. They just wanted conservatives to be afforded the same treatment their Democratic counterparts are used to.

As a Democrat, I never had to worry about social media censorship and had never received a violation or a warning on any platform. I do think it’s interesting to note that within days of my article going viral, I received not one, but two, community violations on Instagram. The crime? I called a woman brilliant, talented, and empowered. And, though I reported a lot of posts where I was the target of clear harassment and bullying, Instagram chose not to do anything about it.

The freedoms they discussed extended into the business world as well. One of the points that I’ve always had to give Trump the thumbs up on is his handling of the economy. As much as Democrats have almost willfully tried to create a recession have something to run on, things are going well. Ivanka Trump and Larry Kudlow discussed viewing their roles as crafting policies that support an environment that provides everyone the opportunity to achieve their dreams. Ivanka said, “We’re not going to be able to provide them [the dreams], but we can create a playing field that enables you to realize your success.”

That line was very striking. As a small business owner, I have to admit that last year was my best year ever and the tax cuts really helped. I remember feeling guilty about how much they helped me at the time, thinking I didn’t really deserve this when so many other people are struggling. But I can’t deny that it has absolutely enabled my success. The bonus my husband got from his employer after the tax cuts didn’t hurt either.

Are conservatives the new liberals?

I remember exactly why I decided to join the Democratic party. It was back in the 1990s before I was even eligible to vote. I saw Republicans trying to control what I could say, what movies I could watch, what music I could listen to, what video games I could play, what I could wear, what art I could look at, or who I could love. I was so proud of my home state of Vermont for passing civil unions, a precursor to full marriage for the LGBT community.

And I haven’t given up many of my liberal sensibilities, though I may be more closely aligned with classical liberalism. Here’s where I stand on a few issues: I am pro-choice with limits because, as a woman who has been raped, no one should be able to tell me that I need to carry and deliver the child of my rapist. I oppose the death penalty because I don’t believe it’s a deterrent and I never want an innocent person to die for a crime they didn’t commit. I’m in favor of the legalization of marijuana because it’s just silly not to and the taxes from it can be used for great benefit. I’m in favor of assisted suicide because everyone should be able to die with dignity. I support some regulations for businesses because I’ve worked with them enough to know how shady they are and that they tend not to do the right thing unless they are forced to. I’m in favor of reforming healthcare because no one should go bankrupt for getting sick. And as the wife of an immigrant who was once illegal and was almost deported, you better believe I’m in favor of reforming immigration, protecting the Dreamers, and creating a path to citizenship.

But there is a problem: Of all the values I hold dear, freedom of speech is actually the most important. If you want to make me really angry, try telling me what I can’t say. When I bought my home nine years ago, the very first thing I did on move-in day was to throw a magnet on my fridge with the first amendment on it. When I was a teenager, I really thought I would go to law school and then eventually join the ACLU to fight to protect freedom of speech. Now they aren’t even doing that anymore.

So, as I sat at CPAC and listened to all their talks about individual liberties and freedoms, it dawned on me that, although there are many things we differ on, I had been looking towards the wrong group of people to protect the things I care about the most.

Attacks on civil liberties are not coming from the right — they just want the government to get out of their business. The attacks are coming from the left. They’re coming from people who have convinced themselves that “words are violence.” They’re coming from people who are seeking to ban so-called “hate speech,” as if the speech that everyone agrees on ever needs to be protected. They’re coming from the social media giants who continue to ban conservatives for absurdly minor things while allowing progressives to harass and bully them with no repercussions. They’re coming from far-left groups like Antifa, who think that violence against your political opponents is always justified.

The conservatives I met at CPAC don’t care what the color of your skin is — they care about the content of your character. They don’t care who you love, or how you worshipped, or what you have between your legs. They believe in self-sufficiency and empowerment and about not paying taxes to support your lifestyle (but in return, they won’t ask you to pay taxes to support theirs). And they may not agree with everything you say, but they will defend your right to say it.

Don’t worry, I’m not running right out to join the Republican party. I just escaped the grasp of the Democrats and am perfectly happy sitting in the land of the politically homeless for a while. But if I end up needing to choose between liberty and authoritarianism, I know exactly where to go.