The group that puts on the Conservative Political Action Conference is called the American Conservative Union, but the first two days of speeches at this year’s CPAC in Orlando suggest the right-wing activists who attend the annual conclave have embraced a foreign political ideology.
It’s not that the event wasn’t patriotic. Each day began with the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem and countless speakers professed their love of country. Instead, it marked the further transition of the American right away from its libertarian roots to a more European model of populist politics. Government no longer was the enemy, but instead a tool to combat threats like big tech and “cancel culture.”
This political shift was most notable in what was not mentioned onstage. While the House of Representatives was passing a $1.9 trillion COVID bill that would, if enacted, be the most expensive piece of legislation in American history, there was little discussion of it or the national debt or a host of other former right wing bugaboos. When speaking onstage about the legislation, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy was riled that spending in the legislation was misdirected in his view. He didn’t criticize the underlying cost but instead “waste” — like what he termed “a Silicon Valley subway,” a provision to extend a mass transit line from San Francisco through to San Jose.
Instead, the focus was on the type of culture-war red meat that had been a staple of Trumpism. There were strident warnings about Marxism and Black Lives Matter, hardline stances set out on immigration and the rise of China and newfound zeal to combat and regulate social-media companies.
Politicians took turns touting their willingness to take on the left as they all tried to tap into the “but he fights” ethos that fueled Trump’s rise.
This is not to say that libertarian tendencies disappeared. The mandate that all attendees at the event wear masks provoked ire among some attendees and required prominent signs and a reminder onstage. Speaker after speaker celebrated that they were in Florida, a state with relatively lax restrictions in place due to the coronavirus. Kristi Noem, the governor of South Dakota, heralded her state’s approach to COVID, saying proudly that she “never mandated masks” or “ordered a single business or church to close” to loud applause. More than 1 in 500 South Dakotans have died of COVID-19 in the past year and the state has the second highest rate of cases in the country. But as COVID restrictions have become a culture war battleground and mask-wearing a political signal almost as potent as a hybrid Subaru or a pair of cowboy boots, these attitudes seemed to be as much about “owning the libs” as libertarianism.
Another sign of the Europeanization of the American conservatism was the growing presence of the international far right at the conference — and even the looming specter of white nationalism. There were recorded video messages from Eduardo Bolsonaro, the son of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, as well as hard-right politicians in Spain and Croatia.
During breaks in the conference, a video from “samurai futurologist” Gemki Fuji repeatedly played proclaiming Trump to be “a real American samurai” while a right-wing South Korean politician claimed his country saw left-wing voter fraud too.
Perhaps most unsettling was the appearance of Congressman Paul Gosar of Arizona on Saturday. Gosar, a hard right-wing backbencher who touted false claims of voter fraud before the assault on the Capitol on January 6, appeared on a panel on immigration less than 12 hours after appearing at a separate white-nationalist event sponsored by those who found CPAC full of squishy sellouts.
At that gathering, the six-term Arizona Republican’s speech was followed by remarks from a Holocaust denier who said America needed to protect its “white demographic core” and called the attack on the Capitol “awesome.” While onstage at CPAC, Gosar’s first remarks, without prompting, were “I want to tell you, I denounce . . . white racism” before shifting to the topic at hand.
Gosar is still an outlier at CPAC, but the annual event traditionally follows where conservative activists lead it, and the “new nationalism” of politicians like Josh Hawley has clearly replaced what Florida governor Ron DeSantis derided as “the failed Republican Establishment of yesteryear.” The party of Lincoln is looking more and more like the party of Le Pen.