The Conservative Political Action Conference, a multiday annual event held just outside Washington that brings together conservative activists and students from around the country, has always been more than the political circus it’s often portrayed as in the press. Certainly, one can find fringe political groups and bizarre objets d’art among the tables in the Gaylord Resort’s exhibition hall each year. Nevertheless, the largest presences at the event are the very groups that form the heart of the conservative mainstream, such as the Heritage Foundation and the National Rifle Association. Typically, they’re joined by a roster of fairly well-known Republican politicians who always appear on the bill.
Part of the conference’s significance is that it’s a place where figures from the outer edges and the inner circles of the conservative movement publicly intersect, offering onlookers a glimpse at where the right is heading as a movement. In the mid-2010s, one of CPAC’s politically outré regulars was, of course, Donald Trump. He has claimed over the course of his presidency that it was his reception at the conference and his conversations with Matt Schlapp—chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the event—that convinced him to run in 2016. His rapturously received return this weekend felt like a true kickoff to his reelection bid. “I believe that this year’s CPAC,” Schlapp said in a speech early in the conference, “is really the start of the presidential campaign.”
There were, however, three days of programming before Trump arrived Saturday to take center stage. The conference’s theme this year was “America vs. Socialism,” and just about every event and panel referenced the rise of the Democratic left in one way or another. The right’s conception of that Democratic left remains ludicrously expansive. After ominously narrated black-and-white footage of the regimes of Stalin, Mao, and Hitler, an eight-minute introductory video played for attendees turned to hits against not only Bernie Sanders—whose honeymoon in Moscow and qualified praise for the policies of figures like Fidel Castro were mentioned throughout the conference—but also the other Democratic candidates, including Pete Buttigieg and Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg, in fact, seemed to take up as much or more time as Sanders in the video, which took aim at his stop-and-frisk policies and the allegations of gender discrimination and sexual misconduct levied at him and his company. This was all evidence, the video insisted, of the “bigotry” and “sexism” innate to socialist ideologies. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and antifa also made obligatory cameos.
The remarks from most of the conference’s speakers were about as predictable. In a panel titled “Prescription for Failure: The Ills of Socialized Medicine,” there were familiar lines about the rationing of care and long wait times in Canada that have long served as brickbats against Medicare for All. A variety of speeches drew a contrast between the successes of market economics and the poverty of communist regimes. The most creative speech in this vein came from congressman and former baseball player Roger Williams, who was speaking on a bill titled “Socialism: Wrecker of Nations and Destroyer of Societies.”
“Today, I’ve decided to create two all-star teams,” he said. “One is the all-socialist team—we’re going to call them the Comrades. And the other is the all-capitalist team—we’re going to call them the Patriots. On the socialist Comrades all-star team, you will recognize their players: Joseph Stalin. Karl Marx. Hugo Chavez. Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro. They’re all proponents of socialism, who made promises they could never, ever keep. They left men, women, and children starving in the streets while stuffing their own pockets with other people’s money.”
“But on the other hand,” he continued, “we’ve got the capitalist all-star team called the Patriots. You’ll recognize those players. Adam Smith. Ronald Reagan. Ben Franklin. Henry Ford. And the captain of the team, our 45th president of the United States, Donald J. Trump. They’re all sponsors of capitalism who promoted the ideas of individual responsibility and free enterprise. This team recognizes that what sets America apart from the rest of the world is the drive to reach our fullest potential, coupled with a free-market economy.”
But the most striking and well-received speeches tried, as the introductory video had, to characterize the fight against socialism as something much more than a mere contest between two economic ideologies. “Our view is it’s not capitalism versus socialism because socialism isn’t just about economics,” Schlapp said early in the conference. “Socialism, we believe, gets to the very core of violating the dignity of the individual human being that has God-given rights.” This theme was expanded upon by conservative media veteran Glenn Beck, who argued, in his speech early Saturday morning, that socialism “doesn’t comprehend the species of man.”
“It is wholly unnatural and therefore wholly evil,” he intoned. “They think that they’re the party of science. How about we ask them just to examine the species that their government system seeks to control. We were created to be free. We were created to chart our own course. But why would we expect socialists to be able to ever comprehend or understand the human species when they today insist that men can have periods?” Socialism’s war against human nature, he went on to argue, leads not only to economic collapse but to genocide. “Their revolution will result in death and misery,” he said. “Another Holdomor or another Holocaust or whatever we call the next great socialist atrocity.”
Well aware he’d made similar predictions about the Obama administration, Beck—ever gracious—tried to set the record straight. “I thought I knew what cultural and political Marxism really was, because the signals were all there,” he said. “Nationalizing medicine? Yeah. Check. Hostility toward God and the rights granted to every man? Yep. Check. War on guns? Yep. Check. So we figured we had a Marxist.”
“But here’s what I had wrong,” he continued. “Obama didn’t have the bloodlust of a Marxist revolutionary. He was greedy. He wanted money. He became a progressive Democrat who liked Marx, and he surrounded himself with Hillary Clinton’s team! That’s not a Marxist revolutionary. Bernie Sanders is.”
The kind of rambling that followed this about the subversion of individual liberty and the like has always and will always play well for the CPAC audience. But its record of success in the last decade, Beck’s incredible retconning of all he said during the last administration notwithstanding, has been poor. After two presidential campaigns built on the idea of Obama’s radicalism, Trump finally defeated Clinton in 2016 with a populist message about wealthy globalists—a theme noticeably at odds with the kind of laissez-faire economic rhetoric that still dominates events like CPAC. Still, as Williams’s speech made clear, Trump has since become American capitalism’s greatest mascot. And as the 2020 campaign begins, Trump already seems more personally invested in emphasizing the economic growth he’s presided over rather than the ideological implications of a potential campaign against Bernie Sanders.
Over the course of his hour-and-a-half-long speech at the end of the conference, Trump talked loudly and proudly about trade and jobs numbers, particularly for minorities. The bulk of his references to the Democratic candidates were revivals of some of his favorite political insults. “Pocahontas,” he mused, might have been deployed against Elizabeth Warren too early. In a brief reenactment of the Nevada Democratic debate, Trump crouched behind the podium in mockery of Michael Bloomberg’s height. There was comparatively little talk about socialism snuffing out human freedom, and there were no suggestions that Bernie Sanders will bring about the next Holocaust. For now, “Crazy Bernie” is a diminutive epithet, one that marks Sanders as a figure of fun rather than the second coming of Joseph Stalin.
Trump will, of course, deliver the requisite lines about America never becoming a socialist country. But the items on the Democratic agenda that Trump seems particularly interested in reflect the concerns of a man shaped less by the Cold War’s abstract ideological battles than by the contemporaneous, racism-inflected socio-cultural wars over urban decay in places like his native New York. So Trump spent a large portion of his speech graphically describing the violent crimes of undocumented immigrants. “In Houston, Texas, an illegal alien was charged with … murder for killing a 75-year-old grandmother in her home, stabbing her with a vicious machete knife,” he said. “In Georgia, an illegal alien was charged with murder for killing, beheading, and dismembering his neighbor,” he continued. “Yet despite these travesties, the far left supports deadly sanctuary cities where people like that get protection—that release criminal alien predators into innocent communities rather than handing them over to our great heroes of ICE.”
Trump spoke, too, about Sanders’s support for restoring the voting rights of prisoners, including Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, while jokingly lamenting that he’d broached the topic for the CPAC crowd instead of saving it for the general election. “He said, yes, he would get the right to vote,” Trump said incredulously. “You believe that? That this guy would get the right to vote? I said, I won’t use that until later on, and I used it today.”
If habits hold, it seems that as the campaign begins, there could be a division of labor between figures in conservative media and Trump himself. The pundits will offer characteristically bleak and morbid rhetoric about the ideological forces Trump is up against, while Trump will stay in his element talking about jobs and immigration, with punches here and there not just against socialism and the eventual nominee but against Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and more demographically threatening boogeymen. As a stray remark in Trump’s speech drove home, this is a strategy the right will be as comfortable deploying against the field’s moderates as they are against Bernie Sanders. Although Biden “is sort of down the middle” relative to Sanders, “the difference,” Trump said, “is Joe’s not going to be running the government.”
“He’s just going to be sitting in a home someplace,” he explained. “And people are going to be running it for him. And they will be radical left socialist! So that’s where you have to remember, he’s, there’s no way he’s going to be running the government.”
Like it or not, in the eyes of the right, we’re all socialists now.