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CPAC 2024: This Year America, Tomorrow the World

Sure, Donald Trump was the star. But the real story was the global coalition preparing to cast the world into darkness that is Steve Bannon’s brainchild.

Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference
Kent Nishimura/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Steve Bannon at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday

Walking through this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, it was easy to be underwhelmed. Attendance appeared to be down from its heyday numbers, and the exhibit hall, dominated in years past by enormous displays by the now absent National Rifle Association, had a thin and vaguely pathetic feel, featuring tables full of bedazzled Trump hats, a stall selling hand-knotted hammocks emblazoned with the MAGA slogan, a Christian cell phone provider, and a pair of easels featuring depictions of Christ in his suffering painted by a woman as she performed a trance-like dance.

To be sure, personalities and politicians beloved by Donald J. Trump’s voter base—Representative Jim Jordan, Senate candidate Kari Lake, and former Fox News host Megyn Kelly, to name a few—were plentiful. Not to mention Trump himself, who appeared on Saturday. Although the roster of speakers on the main stage featured stars of the MAGA right, this conference was really not designed for the on-site audience, whose presence served as mere cover for a bonanza of right-wing media opportunities and a convening of thuggish leaders of authoritarian governments and movements throughout the world.

In CPAC’s post-Covid, post–January 6 diminishment, one figure is notably ascendant: Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former chief White House strategist. It has long been Bannon’s dream to smash up the European Union and most international institutions, dating back at least to his involvement, via the now-defunct data-mining firm Cambridge Analytica, in the Brexit campaign that led to the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. A tagline in illuminated red lettering above this year’s CPAC main stage read: “Where globalism goes to die.”

In a hotel ballroom on Wednesday, the night before the conference kicked off in earnest, Bannon presided over a gathering billed as CPAC’s International Summit. Seated at a rectangular arrangement of tables set end to end were former Trump foreign policy and national security officials, a former U.K. prime minister, Hungary’s ambassador to the United States, Argentina’s security minister, and the heads of CPAC organizations in Japan, Australia, and Hungary. At the head table, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes, a former Trump communications official, sat flanked by Bannon and Rick Grenell, the former acting national security adviser and disastrous ambassador to Germany. Later in the week, the CPAC main stage would host speeches by the son of Brazil’s defeated autocratic former president, the president of Spain’s far-right Vox party, and the authoritarian leaders of El Salvador and Argentina. (Earlier that day, the Daily Beast reported that subpoenas had been issued to a CPAC staff member as part of a lawsuit against Schlapp, alleging the sexual assault of a young man.)

Assuming his imagined mantle of Great Man of History, Bannon, clad in a rumpled olive-drab jacket and pants, made a bold declaration. “We’re the last thing from isolationists,” he said. “We believe in the Treaty of Westphalia and the Westphalian system. We will make sure we bequeath that system and our constitutional republic and your great countries to generations.”

Westphalia is a word that pops up with some frequency in Bannon’s lexicon, a favorite perhaps for its Game of Thrones sort of vibe. When he speaks of the Westphalian system, Bannon is talking about the inviolability of national sovereignty, a concept born of a 1648 peace agreement between the Holy Roman Empire and the states of Europe. In 1648, it was an innovation. Today, it’s basically a highfalutin’ rationale for the aggressive rejection of all international governance structures and policy-producing bodies.

Though Bannon’s gathering of global deplorables took place only days after the death of Alexei Navalny, a fierce opponent of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, in a Siberian prison, the dissident’s name never came up. But that doesn’t mean the participants weren’t aware of the optics of looking too cozy with Putin at just such a moment—especially following Trump’s February 11 hanky-drop for the Russian leader with an invitation to invade NATO countries that haven’t met their defense-spending commitments. After all, Putin himself, with a figurative wink and nod, created a permission structure for his American and European fans to play-smack him when he told Russian television on February 15 that he would prefer Biden over Trump as the next U.S. president.

C’mon, like who believes that? Probably not the people in this room. But they know that most American people really dislike Putin: Of the 15 “newsmakers” that Gallup asked survey respondents to rank in an August study, 90 percent viewed Putin unfavorably. So the Russia fans at the Trumpist summit now devised a way to distance themselves from that contemptible leader while working feverishly to elect his vengeful acolyte, Donald Trump—a pathway Putin likely opened for them deliberately.

“Let’s remember,” Grenell told the group, “we should start every conversation and finish every conversation by saying, ‘Vladimir Putin wants Joe Biden to be reelected.’” His eyes shined with glee. Given this, it wasn’t really surprising that a resolution drafted by the CPAC board condemning “the police-state tactics of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Lula de Silva, and Joe Biden” was agreed to by voice vote. About an hour into the proceedings, Senator Tommy Tuberville sauntered in and was invited to offer a few words. “Our country’s in trouble,” he said. “You think you’re in trouble? We’re in trouble. There’s not one thing that we’re doing right since President Biden took office.... We’re broke. We have no borders. Our military is woke.” This was the man who single-handedly held up the promotions of hundreds of career military personnel for months because of his disagreement with the Department of Defense policy on abortion.

Taking place at a momentous time in global election cycles, this year’s CPAC was closely tied not only to the U.S. presidential contest (Trump being the conference keynote speaker) but also to the June elections for members of the European Parliament, or MEPs. Hungary is currently locked in dispute with EU leaders in Brussels over Hungary’s draconian laws against queer people, which are justified by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán under the guise of preserving the nation’s great culture.

“And the [EU] countries, although they are coming with this democracy and rule of law bullshit, sorry for using this word … their core problem is that there is a country, there is a government, there is a right-wing force in the heart of Europe, in the center, standing up firmly for those values,” said Miklos Szantho of CPAC Hungary. “So … the ultimate goal that we do have in this election—for the MEP elections and for the American elections—is to build a global coalition against the globalists.”

Democracy did not have a good week at CPAC. It wasn’t just Szantho. On Thursday, video emerged of podcaster Jack Posobiec with Steve Bannon at a side event, announcing the end of democracy, adding, “We’re here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on January 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it and replace it with this right here.” Posobiec fishes something small out of his pocket, perhaps a religious medal, and holds it up. “Because all glory is not to the government; all glory is to God.” Bannon chimes in with, “Amen.”

On Friday evening, a group of Nazis and other white supremacists gathered at a CPAC party, according to Ben Goggin of NBC News:

At the Young Republican mixer Friday evening, a group of Nazis who openly identified as national socialists mingled with mainstream conservative personalities, including some from Turning Point USA, and discussed so-called “race science” and antisemitic conspiracy theories.

Turning Point USA is a national group with chapters on college campuses that is aligned with the Republican Party and led by right-wing influencer Charlie Kirk.

At Bannon’s Wednesday night anti-globalist globalist confab, former U.K. Prime Minister Liz Truss (who lasted six weeks in office in a contest with a head of lettuce, sort of) called for coming down hard on protesters against Israel’s actions in Gaza. “The problem is we are not cracking down on people who are openly supporting terrorism,” she said. “… So often, it’s the extreme anti-capitalists, the extreme so-called environmentalists who are also peddling antisemitism. And what we need to do is, we need to make sure that they are just not allowed to have these massive protests.”

From the main stage on Saturday, Javier Milei, the newly elected neolibertarian president of Argentina, ranted against “unlimited democracy” and accused pro-choice organizations of having “a murderous agenda.” Milei ran for office on a campaign modeled on Trump’s—complete with “Make Argentina Great Again” caps—and has echoed Trump’s false claim of a stolen 2020 U.S. presidential election. On stage, the two enjoyed a close hug after Trump name-checked Milei from the podium.

Eduardo Bolsonaro, son of Brazil’s former president, Jair Bolsonaro, used his speaking slot to decry the treatment of his father during an ongoing investigation into the storming of Brazil’s federal government buildings by a mob after the elder Bolsonaro lost his bid for reelection in 2022. He asked the U.S. Congress to conduct a hearing into the matter.

For his part, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele, a cryptocurrency enthusiast known for his brutal, often indiscriminate round-ups of citizens and mass incarceration, sought to make a distinction, based on a falsehood, between himself and, presumably, Biden, when he laughably claimed, “In El Salvador, we don’t weaponize our judicial system to persecute our political enemies. And now, who’s the dictator?”

Throughout the conference, two main themes were hammered for the benefit of the Trump base: demonization of trans people (or denial of their very existence) and straight-up anti-immigrant xenophobia. In other words, attacks on people whose voices are rarely given a platform anywhere; people who are among society’s most vulnerable.

Nigel Farage, the happy Brexiteer, told the International Summit, “Religious sectarianism now beginning to dominate British politics. Parliament Square as we speak is full of thousands of people waving Palestinian flags.” The problem, he contended, lay in Britain’s immigration policies, which had simply allowed in too many Muslims, threatening British culture.

“If we lose our borders, we lose a significant part of our culture,” he said.

Truss laid the issue at the feet of her political opponents, implying that current immigration policies thrive to feed the electoral needs of the Labour Party. “The British Labour Party needs Muslim votes,” she said.” It relies on Muslim votes. It had 86 percent of the Muslim vote at the last general election. It needs to keep those Muslim votes.”

In the summit room, Bannon explained how the Trump people are already recruiting replacements to take over some 3,000 civil service jobs a Trump administration would empty in order to place its own people.

“So on the afternoon of the 20th, in the transition, we’ll have beachhead teams and landing teams that will be able to go get that second and third level where the work really gets done and where the administrative state actually makes a difference,” Bannon said. “If we want to save our country, we have to take down the administrative state.… So I think this fight, that internal fight, is going to be absolutely vicious, and we have to win it.”

And one more thing, he added: “We’ve learned collectively that we don’t need the legacy media.” He has a point.

Along the hall opposite the main hall, podcast, video, and radio sets line the wall for the length of the space. None are from mainstream media outlets; rather, they’re from the panoply of right-wing and far-right platforms from which Republican activists get their news: The Epoch Times, NewsMax, RightSide Broadcasting, The John Fredericks Show, and the like.

During the final session of CPAC 2024, after Trump had left the main stage following a nearly two-hour rant, Bannon returned to the podium to declare Trump “the greatest president of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries,” and to repeat the lie of a stolen election.

“Lock ’em up!” he said. “All of ’em: Garland, Wray, Biden, Mayorkas!”

The crowd obliged with the requisite chant.

Although the room wasn’t terribly full, it all looked great on the livestream and in the videos taken from it that will live in perpetuity, be sliced and diced and repackaged for messaging, and generally serve as a well of material shot with high production values—lighting, sound, set.

Fascism does not require a majority of support in order to win. Its willingness to trample norms allows for massive cheating and manipulation of the public. CPAC is a neofascist enterprise, and the fascists are getting organized. They’re telling you what they want to do—and they want to do it all over the world. Scoff if you care to, but keep a close eye.