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CPAC 2023: Conspiracies, Bigotry and Courting Violence

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CPAC presents a disturbing picture of the trajectory of the GOP and its barely contained fascism. 

Over the first weekend in March, many of the top figures in and around the Republican Party gathered just outside of DC for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). From start to finish, the stage was littered with election conspiracies, eliminationist rhetoric, and references to the white nationalist “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracy. Leading figures in the Republican Party shared the stage with bigots and wanna-be despots with thinly veiled xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry casually woven in from speech to speech. The conference presented a party engaged in an almost entirely self-referential debate boiling with rage, paranoia, and grievance directed at an alleged imminent existential threat posed by migrants, “globalists,” “communists,” and “gender ideology.” 

Retribution, instead of unity, was the message from the top-billed speakers at CPAC as this leading wing of the GOP worked to drag the Republican party yet closer to the darkest corners of the hard right. “If you are somebody who believes that we need to meet and sit down and break bread with the left on these various topics and figure out how to come together, we don’t need you,” said hard right influencer Candace Owens to rapturous applause as the closing speaker for night one. “There is no middle ground.” On night two, Steve Bannon asserted, “we don’t need unity, we need victory.” And to close out CPAC, Donald Trump concluded, “This is the final battle…If they win, we will no longer have a country…I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.” Actively hostile to an expanding coalition, this iteration of the Republican party’s vision for a better future for America is viewed solely through attacks on their perceived enemies. An outlook that should give us all pause.  

White nationalism conspiracy theories were one of the throughlines at CPAC. The conference kicked off with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) amplifying the white nationalist great replacement conspiracy theory. “The biggest problem is, what is happening to our border over the last two years is intentional,” said Jordan, invoking the racist lie. “There is no other way to interpret it. It’s premeditated, it’s done purposefully, and it’s why we have had 5 million illegal immigrants come into the country,” he continued. 

Jordan was far from the only one invoking the deadly fiction throughout the conference. 

  • Talking about his casual dismissal of the congressional power of the purse to fund his vanity wall project, Trump said: “I took it from the military because I considered it an invasion. So, Marjorie, you know what I am going to do, I am going to take it right out of the military because they are invading our country.”
  • On a panel, Rep. Wesley Hunt (R-TX) made the willfully naive assertion that, “a man from the left said if you call what is happening at the border an invasion, you’re a racist. And I have been black for a long time, and I consider what is happening at the border an invasion. And I can assure you I am not racist.”     
  • On a Thursday panel, the hate group-aligned former Acting Director of ICE, Tom Homan said: “This is by design, they open this border up because they see some future political advantage of letting millions of people in, are they future Democratic voters, maybe? But what else did he do? Biden overturned the census rule so that means millions of more people will be counted in sanctuary cities, which will result in more seats in the House for the Democrats.” Rep. Mark Green (R-TN), who was on the panel with Homan, nodded along and compared a misleading statistic about the number of migrants at the border to the size of five states. 
  • On a panel titled, “Congress Learns the Art of the Deal” right-wing strategist Todd Starnes set up a question in conspiratorial white nationalist terms, characterizing migrants seeking asylum as an “invasion,” saying we “used to fight wars over that,” to which Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) and Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC) agreed, doubling down on the dehumanizing racist fiction. Perry even jumped in to ensure Starnes’ was characterizing migrants as an “invasion” as he was setting up the question.
  • Former Senior Advisor to Trump and white nationalist Stephen Miller warned in a Saturday panel: “This is the next great threat to our sovereignty, buried within this border nightmare we have been living through for two years … now you see leftists moving to allow illegal aliens to vote … my fear and my prediction is that you are going to see one municipality after another in this country realize the extraordinary political power the left conceives by letting illegal aliens and non-citizens vote and city after city after city creating a massive political constituency comprised entirely of illegal aliens”
  • In an interview with right-wing media at CPAC, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) compared migrants seeking asylum and safety along the southern border with the war in Ukraine.“What our military should be doing, our military should be defending the southern border because we are being attacked every single day,” said Greene. 
  • West Virginia Attorney General, Patrick Morrissey, said on a Saturday morning panel, “every state is a border state. We are seeing massive numbers of people slaughtered in West Virginia …and I think it’s a deliberate effort because they could stop it if they just enforce the laws.”
  • CPAC gave a speaking spot to Tom Fitton, the president of the hard right organization Judicial Watch, which he used to echo the racist conspiracy saying: “The left is attacking our sovereignty and the notion of citizenship with Biden allowing a not-so-slow-motion invasion of America” called for mass deportation  … “if the left got their way, tens of millions of foreigners would be able to vote”

It is worth remembering that the white nationalist “invasion” and “replacement” conspiracy theory repeatedly echoed on the CPAC stage was chanted in the streets of Charlottesville in 2017, posted online before a man murdered 11 in Pittsburgh in 2018, shared in racist screeds before the murder in Poway and the murder of 23 in El Paso in 2019, believed by those who attacked the Capitol in 2021, and copied by the gunman who killed ten people in Buffalo in May 2022. When large public figures use their power to amplify the white nationalist ‘invasion’ and ‘replacement’ conspiracy theory, they put a target on the backs of Americans because of the color of their skin or the accent they speak with and dare every American with a gun in their hand and hate in their heart to take their words literally.

Beyond amplifying white nationalist conspiracy theories, speakers throughout the conference continue to peddle other pernicious xenophobic falsehoods and anti-immigrant attacks. In the opening plenary with Rep. Jordan, Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the organization that hosts CPAC, solicited cheers from the crowd supporting the push for the sham impeachment of DHS Secretary Mayorkas. Throughout the three days, speakers repeatedly made passing reference to the fiction that the Biden administration is presiding over an “open borders” regime, when in reality it is quite the opposite. Tom Homan also defended family separation saying, “I’m sick and tired of hearing about the family separation. I’m still being sued over that … I don’t give a shit,” followed by cheering from the CPAC crowd.”  

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump and Stephen Miller pushed their apocalyptic narrative about the border from the CPAC despite the fact that it is untethered from factual reality.  Trump warned of “open border zealots” who have allowed “millions of illegal aliens stampeding across our border.” He also demagogued legal forms of immigration alleging that “refugee numbers are through the roof and spies and terrorists are infiltrating our country.” Trump also ominously warned: “Under my administration, we will use all necessary state, federal and military resources to carry out the largest domestic deportation operation in American history.” 

Earlier at CPAC, the crowd booed the mere suggestion of expanding pathways for legal immigration from the moderator at the panel Miller was on. And Miller was visibly giddy at the prospect of the support of his proposed complete “pause” on all legal immigration for the foreseeable future. Ending all immigration is the unabashed position of the Trump/Miller wing of the GOP. Miller also echoed the xenophobic scarcity narrative he was peddling throughout the 2022 midterm elections with diminishing returns. “It’s a violation of everyone’s civil rights that you have millions of illegal aliens competing for your jobs you healthcare, your public benefits, spots in your kid’s local school, crowding your emergency rooms, and on top of that, committing heinous crimes as we see time and time and time again,” Miller demagogued. He also foreshadowed the nativist funding fight he is itching for this September as he hopes congress will hold DHS funding hostage for the complete elimination of the nation’s asylum laws: 

“To seal the border, the more important thing we are going to be able to do, there is an appropriations fight coming up at the end of the fiscal year around September, and we are going to need 218 rock-ribbed members of congress, like Congressman Hunt, to say we are not going to fund the Department of Homeland Security absent a complete legal requirement that every illegal alien that crosses that border gets shipped back where they came from.” 

Border Patrol union president Brandon Judd was given a slot on a panel titled “Open Borders Kill” moderated by Fox News’ Sara Carter. Judd and Carter performed a reaffirming duet of the pernicious fallacy that the fentanyl crisis is an immigration issue.  Before launching into a nativist narrative about fentanyl contrary to the evidence, Judd ridiculously asserted, “the liberal left want to deceive you, they are constantly lying to you, they tell you one thing that in reality, the exact opposite is happening.”  Judd continues, “They are going to say it’s a ports of entry issue,” which it is, as almost all the fentanyl entering the US comes through legal points in commercial traffic mostly smuggled by US citizens. This isn’t what the “liberal left” says, but what the DEA, DHS, and CBP say supported by the facts. And while Judd conceded the fact that almost all the illicit fentanyl is seized at ports of entry, he alleges that “the cartels flood our resources with illegal immigrants and that pulls our agents out of the field,” and they traffic fentanyl through those “artificial gaps in coverage.” The evidence, however, does not support the claim Judd made on the CPAC stage. Adding on his conspiratorial framing, Judd asserts: “The worst thing is they are being aided by the liberal left. They are being aided because they are constantly lying to you.” Judd concluded the panel, stating, “everything starts with illegal immigration… it circles back to what does the liberal left want? They want this chaos, they are continuing to push the chaos.”

The fear mongering and bigotry was, of course, not contained to their anti-immigrant attacks. A casual transphobia pervaded throughout the conference. While transphobic bigotry was a stand-in for wit or charm for many who took the CPAC stage, it was the central topic of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and hard right influencer Micheal Knowles’ speeches. Knowles used eliminationist rhetoric in his speech, asserting that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.” He continued, “there can be no middle way when dealing with transgenderism, it is all or nothing.” This rhetoric should be extremely alarming. Alejandra Caraballo made the point powerfully, writing, “Michael Knowles is openly calling for genocide against trans people at CPAC.” Caraballo continued, “What exactly do you think “eradication” entails? If you ever wondered how we get from hate speech to genocide, this is it. This isn’t some fringe figure, this is a Daily Wire host speaking at CPAC. This is how pogroms start.”  The dehumanization is at the step where mass eradication can be a “joke” between two leading hard-right influencers as they follow up on CPAC.  

Coded anti-Semitism repeatedly reared its ugly head throughout CPAC. From Donald Trump, who has a long history of trafficking in antisemitic tropes, proclaiming “We will drive out the globalists” and fear mongering about “the George Soros money machine,” in the closing CPAC speech. Previewing her keynote Ronald Reagan Dinner speech, Kari Lake described the threat from globalism, claiming, “they want the destruction of America, that’s what this is about. This is how we bring Americans together: we tell them what globalism really looks like, it looks a lot like communism… this is about globalism versus Americanism.”  In a Thursday panel, Rep. Scott Perry claimed, “their goal is actually the globalization of the United States of America, destruction of our sovereignty, so this is all intentional.” Fmr. Acting United States Attorney General Matthew Whitaker warned about “Soros prosecutors” in a panel titled “Law and Disorder 

Election denialism and efforts to downplay the failed violent coup at the US Capitol on January 6 repeatedly made their way to the CPAC stage. Trump continues to suggest that the 2020 election was fraudulent. Steve Bannon claimed the 2020 election was “illegitimate.” Kari Lake also reiterated her false claim that “they stole an election in broad daylight“ and “they stole another election in Arizona” in reference to the 2020 and her failed gubernatorial bid in 2022. In a panel erroneously titled, “They Stole it From Us Legally,” failed New York gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin argued that Republicans must have better “ballot harvesting” operations than Democrats – a pejorative reference to the legal practice of having someone else drop off absentee ballots at the polls. An idea both Trump and Jr. both pushed as well. In a not-so-subtle nod to the fallacy that Democrats cheat to win elections and laying the rhetorical groundwork to further erode trust in the democratic process. 

Donald Trump and Steve Bannon also used their speeches to move the Overton Window on anti-Chinese bigotry. Trump continued his dangerous bigotry around COVID-19, asserting that “China set off a bioweapon” and that China “unleashed the China virus.” He also warned against  “China-loving politicians.” Immediately following up with the line, “You listening, Mitch McConnell?” And in a Joseph McCarthy-style line, Bannon alleged a warning about “all the infiltration of the Chinese communist party.” 

CPAC also turned over the stage to several other hard-right influencers with deep track records of bigotry and associations with white supremacists. Like Jack Posobiec, who took the opportunity to downplay the failed violent coup at the US Capitol on January 6. CPAC turned over the final Friday night speaking slot to Nigel Farage, who has a long history of racism and xenophobia. Farage praised the current leader in Italy, who has a concerning history with fascism and warned about the “catastrophe at the southern border.” Farage also ruminated that “maybe we have lost everything. Maybe we lost the Judeo-Christian principles on which our civilizations were founded, are under attack.” Former Democrat turned hard right influencer Tulsi Gabbard peddled white supremacist tropes about Democrats “fomenting anti-white racism.” 

The performance of the absurd may have some trying to dismiss CPAC as a sideshow best ignored. But this is not marginal kooks spewing hate in the comment section on an obscure internet forum, the speakers spewing the dangerous, dehumanizing rhetoric from the CPAC stage have power and massive megaphones. Ignoring this powerful bully egging on political violence is not an option. The embrace of white nationalism, the hostility to a multi-racial democracy, the ubiquitous transphobic bigotry, and the seething xenophobia is an urgent problem inside the GOP that CPAC merely put on display. These ideas have and will continue to motivate deadly violence towards marginalized communities and be a threat to every American’s public safety. In her book, “Fascism: A Warning”  the late Madeline Albright explains, “What differentiates fascism from other ideological movements is the use of violence and anger to achieve political ends.”   

Max Boot aptly described CPAC 2022 in terms of a “New Fascism” writing in his Washington Post column, “the most apt phrase for this American authoritarianism is the New Fascism, and it is fast becoming the dominant trend on the right.” And what is, unfortunately, quite apparent after watching CPAC 2023 is that the GOP has continued this disturbing descent towards fascism. The violence, the anger, and the bigotry boiling just under the surface in the Republican party and put on stage at CPAC is something none of us can afford to downplay as politics as usual, but the ideas must be forcefully condemned, combated, and confronted from all corners of society.   

The troubling performance of CPAC 2023 calls for reflection on the warning from Umberto Eco, an Italian intellectual who grew up in fascist Italy, who wrote a 1995 essay describing the ideas and social structures that could germinate into a Fascist state, what he called “ur-fascism.” Eco wrote:

“Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plain clothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, iI want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.’ Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.”