OXON HILL, Md. — Among the slow-moving wave of conservative faithful winding through the halls of CPAC this year was one James Damore, looking a lot more like a Google engineer than an attendee of something called the Conservative Political Action Conference.
And, indeed, Damore doesn't fit neatly into either category.
Fired from Google last year after drafting a memo that challenged progressive notions of gender diversity, the software engineer has been embraced by free speech advocates on the Right, landing him among a crowd of awkwardly besuited students and grassroots activists at the annual gathering of conservative disciples.
"It's definitely pretty foreign to me. I've always been pretty apolitical, so it's a new experience for sure," Damore told me on Thursday, reacting to his unlikely journey from Silicon Valley to CPAC in a matter of only six months.
But unlike the folks surrounding him here at the conference, Damore says he "[tries] to not identify with one side too much," arguing partisanship makes people "a little too tribalistic."
"You are kind of blind to the biases that come with that," he argued.
It's Damore's commitment to objectivity that got him in trouble. The uproar over his memo last summer was "definitely an illustration of the tribalism that was present at Google and a lot of these tech companies and elsewhere, where they're totally unwilling to see evidence that went against ideology," he reflected.
"I think they misread it in many ways. They were trying to read into it too much. They thought I was putting dog whistles in there. They really thought I was trying to say more than what I was," said Damore, still working to understand the mindset that brought about the unraveling of his co-workers.
"They thought I was saying that because we were hiring women, we were lowering the bar or something," he explained.
Soft-spoken and even-mannered, Damore gets more animated when revisiting the contents of his memo.
The 28-year-old earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois and a master's in systems biology from Harvard. I wondered whether he saw similarities between the campus culture of microaggressions and safe spaces and the culture of Google.
"Most of the people at Google were pretty young, and Google was often their first job. It was very much like a college campus," Damore explained. "And they tried to make it like a college campus where you would live at Google essentially, where they have all your food and all the amenities, and once you start living there you aren't able to disconnect, and so you feel like my words were a threat against your family. That was part of the fervor, I think."
Does he worry a similar phenomenon could spread to other workplaces?
"Yeah," said Damore, "although, I'm also optimistic that people see how much of a problem that was."
Still on the hunt for another job, he remains cautiously committed to the cause that rocketed him from anonymity to national headlines. "I will fight as long a there's a problem, but it is draining and I'm not totally sure that I'm built for this," Damore admitted with a quiet laugh of disbelief. "But I guess I was put in this situation."
As for Google, Damore would be happy to return to his old gig. "I think that I would be able to make things better," he said. "But I don't think they'll take me back."