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Beyond parody: the clown show that was CPAC 2022
In a world on edge over Russian aggression, CPAC highlighted the unseriousness of American conservatism.
With the world anxiously watching the war in Ukraine, where Russia’s unprovoked invasion has turned the country into a frontline in the global struggle against authoritarianism, the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) brought its circus to Florida.
There was lots of talk about Brandon, war with Canada, and impeaching Biden for — well, something. “Papa John” Schnatter characterized Russia’s attack on Ukraine as a false flag orchestrated by Biden to distract people “from all the real issues affecting Americans.” There were jokes about Hillary Clinton murdering people, and all sorts of Covid misinformation — including promos for hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin. Entire blocks of speeches were devoted to topics including “Fire Fauci” and “Lock Her Up, FOR REAL.”
There was lots of lying and fascistic barking about, among other topics, imprisoning prominent Democrats and public health experts.
And by the end of the weekend, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” was being read on stage like it was part of the worst slam poetry competition of all time.
To be clear, CPAC is always a clown show. But there was something especially jarring about the disconnect this year between the world-historical events happening in Ukraine and the tragicomedy taking place in Florida.
It proved Mitch McConnell’s implicit point that Republicans are better off just talking about Biden as much about possible and as little as possible about the kookiness they actually stand for. But beyond the craziness, a couple things stood out.
Trump proposed a sweeping expansion of presidential power and yet his speech was relatively tame
The weekend’s headline speech was Donald Trump’s Saturday night address. It was pretty standard fare as far as Trump speeches go. He repeatedly pushed the big lie, complained a lot, exaggerated, lied, and downplayed climate change, saying its main consequences would be to “give you slightly more seafront property.” He tried to take credit for the US getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan, even though neither of those things actually happened during his term.
While all of this would be a lot coming from any other politician, it felt like nothing special by Trump’s standards. I thought MSNBC’s Chris Hayes made a good point about this, noting that since the Republican Party has become thoroughly Trumpified, Trump himself doesn’t really stand out in the way he used to — he just sounds like a normal Republican.
Two parts of Trump’s speech were especially notable, however.
First, on the topic of the war in Ukraine, Trump at least figured out who is fighting who — an improvement from comments he made last Thursday night on Fox News, when he thought American troops were fighting Russians. But even as Trump tried to pay lip service to supporting Ukraine and denouncing Russian aggression, he couldn’t help but take pot shots at NATO and praise Putin’s alleged smarts.
Trump, who was impeached for withholding military aide from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government as part of an effort to extort political favors, has never been able to speak with moral clarity about Russian aggression. But he was much less confused about what he hopes to do if he returns to the White House.
Trump all but confirmed he’ll run again, and indicated that if he wins, he’ll push for legislation that would allow him to purge the federal workforce.
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“We must pass critical reforms making every executive branch employee fireable by the president,” Trump said. “The deep state must and will be brought to heel.”
As CBS’s Robert Costa noted, if Trump is able to get such legislation through a GOP-controlled Congress, it would dramatically expand presidential power — and we already know from Trump’s first term that he’ll abuse whatever powers are available to him.
That’s scary stuff. But considering how incoherent he is, it’s hard to know how much stock to put in it. On Saturday, for instance, Trump repeatedly took shots at the Supreme Court justices he nominated for not more reliably doing the GOP’s bidding. But those comments differed from the text in his teleprompter, which had him bragging about how he selected “great, brilliant, conservative justices.”
In any event, CPAC attendees are still buying what Trump’s selling in more ways than one. A straw poll at the event indicated that 85 percent of attendees would support him in 2024 — up from 68 percent last year — and, with 59 percent support among the 2024 GOP hopefuls, he’s more than doubling up the number two contender (DeSantis was second with 28 percent, Pompeo had 2 percent, and nobody else was above 1 percent).
In short, it’s still Trump’s party.
Marjorie Taylor Greene openly associates with white nationalists
Trump’s speech may not have generated a lot of headlines, but Marjorie Taylor Greene did when she attended a white nationalist event in Orlando hosted by white supremacist and anti-Semite Nick Fuentes the night before her CPAC appearance.
Remarkably, Greene took the stage and started speaking after Fuentes introduced her by praising Vladimir Putin.
Fuentes went on to say, “now, they’re going on about Russia, and Vladimir Putin is Hitler, and — they say that’s not a good thing.”
“I shouldn’t have said that,” he added, smiling.
Greene then gave a speech where she referred to her audience as “canceled Americans” and urged them to “stop the Democrats who are the communist party of the United States of America.”
Fuentes is so toxic that no members of Congress other than Paul Gosar have associated with him, but Greene was unapologetic when she was grilled at CPAC on Saturday by CBS’s Costa about her decision to appear with him the night before.
“I do not know Nick Fuentes, I’ve never heard him speak,” Greene said, even though must’ve at least heard him speak before she got on stage with him. “What I can tell you is I went to his event last night to address his very large following, because it’s a very young following.”
“It’s a white nationalist group,” Costa interjected.
That exchange came shortly after Greene participated in a CPAC panel and called for Hillary Clinton and others to be locked up while smiling from ear to ear.
CPAC was an ugly affair, but Sunday morning brought a reminder that although adult Republicans may be an endangered species, they still exist. During an appearance on CNN, Mitt Romney was asked about Greene’s appearance with Fuentes, and he didn’t mince words in condemning it.
“I think anybody who would sit down with white nationalists at their conference is missing a few IQ points,” he said.
Romney also spoke with clarity about the war in Ukraine, saying “this is one of the greatest demonstrations of good versus evil we've seen during our lifetimes” and contrasting the heroic example being set by Zelensky with Putin.
To be clear, I would never vote for Romney, who once described himself as “more of a hawk on immigration” than Trump and is staunchly anti-reproductive choice, among other positions I disagree with. But at least he’s a serious politician who’s grounded in reality and seems to be involved in politics for reasons that go beyond self-dealing and/or owning the libs.
After three days of CPAC, clearing that low bar made him seem like Churchill.