The specter of communism — and along with that, socialism — Bernie Sanders, Chinese expansionism, big tech corporations, the national popular vote compact, and a host of other conservative hobgoblins haunted the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. But the coronavirus? Whatever.
The threat of the potential pandemic did not cause any angst at the annual gathering. Although the COVID-19 novel coronavirus has crippled much of China and quickly spread across the world, sparking significant outbreaks in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East — prompting a nearly 13 percent decline in the stock market over the past week — the worries at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in Maryland were minimal.
“Everything is really under control,” proclaimed President Trump on Saturday, in one of his trademark rambling addresses that freely mixes riffs demeaning political opponents with strident, right-wing rhetoric fed from a teleprompter. He went on to claim that his response to the outbreak has been “given very good grades, like an A-plus-plus-plus” from unnamed experts. Trump also claimed that some critics of his policy to fight the pandemic “wanted to let infected people pour in our country.”
Trump received a rapturous response at the event, where red MAGA hats have become as mandatory as the khakis and blazers that earnest young conservatives have always worn. CPAC is a Trump gathering now. Skeptics have been banished from the event, while D-list Trump-world luminaries like Diamond and Silk and Seb Gorka are treated like stars.
The event can serve as a parallel universe at times — not just for the security barriers penning attendees in and leaving them few options besides a $20 chicken-salad sandwich or $10 hot dog if they expect to see Trump or Vice-President Mike Pence speak on a full stomach. In the hallways, unread palm cards lie around hyping Sean Spicer’s new talk show on Newsmax and “#EpsteinCoverup” baseball hats are freely handed out as coveted party favors.
The president’s remarks served as the grand finale of the event. In addition to discussing the disease, he squatted behind the podium to mock Michael Bloomberg’s height, complained about losing Time’s “Person of the Year” to teenage climate-activist Greta Thunberg, and embraced and kissed an American flag on the stage.
The president’s speech came one day after he called rising concerns about the coronavirus and his administration’s response a “new hoax” from Democrats, likening it to his impeachment as yet another attempt to undermine his presidency.
Other Trump aides openly dismissed concerns about the coronavirus while speaking at CPAC on Friday.
Mick Mulvaney, the longtime acting White House chief of staff said onstage at the event, “The reason you’re seeing so much attention to it today is that [media organizations] think this going to be what brings down the president.”
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow sounded a similar note and warned the real threat to the U.S. economy was “socialism coming from our friends on the other side of the aisle.”
In contrast, Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent out a letter on Saturday afternoon calling the outbreak “a public health emergency” and laying out a plan to quickly pass a bill with emergency funding to combat the disease. Meanwhile in Washington State, health officials announced the first U.S. death from the virus, confirmed additional cases with no known links to other infections, and warned of a possible outbreak in a Seattle-area nursing home. Governor Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency.
So far, over 85,000 people have been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, which has spread to more than 50 countries and resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths.
Attendees at CPAC were blithe about the disease and some compared it to the 2014 Ebola outbreak, which was almost entirely contained to West Africa. Samuel Garrett, a freshman at Regent University, was one of them. “I don’t think it’s a legitimate concern for most people,” he said, “but it’s a legitimate concern for Asian countries, of course.”
Jack Hunt, a senior at East Carolina University, struck a similar note. “Obviously you don’t want a new virus spreading,” he explained, “but from the research I’ve done and looked at, the death rates are pretty low for it, so I’m not worrying about it being a deadly virus.” He did, however, express concern about “the impact it has on production and the economy.”
Alario Martinez, a volunteer for the event from Easton, Maryland, saw the disease as “a typical thing that always happens.” His view matched the president’s: The outbreak was overhyped by the media, and he pointed to other ailments as counterexamples. “People die of fever. How many people die of fever? A lot of people. AIDS, look at AIDS. Look what happened to AIDS. It disappeared.”
According to the most recent data from the United States government, nearly 38,000 people were diagnosed with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, in 2018.
The risk of fever is less clear, but CPAC’s already got one, and the only prescription is more Donald.
This post has been updated.