By Alexander Hinton
In early March 2023, I mixed with the Make America Great Again faithful at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference – a popular meeting, often known as CPAC, for conservative activists and political figures.
I walked, ate and sat with the attendees at the National Harbor in Maryland over the course of four days. Many of them were dressed in MAGA and pro-Trump gear such as sequined hats and shirts that said things like “Trump won” the 2020 election. A few had tattoos of Trump’s face.
Media reports show that CPAC, which did not publicize the number of attendees, had lower-than-normal attendance and fewer high-profile sponsors.
Approximately 62% of CPAC attendees participating in a straw poll said they support Donald Trump for president in 2024.
Many commentators and others have labeled CPAC extremist. The program was loaded with sometimes incendiary figures reviled by the left, including Republican Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz, as well as former Trump political advisers Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller.
I am a scholar of extremism in the United States and went to CPAC for two reasons. First, I wanted to hear firsthand what conservatives, and especially Trump followers, said. At a time of high political polarization, it is important to understand different positions.
Second, almost half of people in the U.S. fear political violence and civil war. I wanted to take the pulse of the conservative right and assess points of division ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
The conference’s theme was “Protecting America Now.” Who and what were the perceived threats? And, amid the polarization, was there any common ground shared by conservatives and liberals?
I discovered five frequent demons at the conference: there were China’s Communist Party and border criminals – including Mexican drug cartels and undocumented immigrants. “Radical left Marxists” and the ideologies of “wokism” and “transgenderism” were also frequent targets.
While I also found a few glimmers of hope for political common ground between the left and right, it was apparent that Trumpism – and the election denial, misinformation and scapegoating that come with it – is stronger than some think and, I believe, remains a threat to U.S. democracy.
China was one of the biggest common enemies identified at the conference. Just days after senior U.S. intelligence officials said that China is the United States’ biggest national security threat, speaker after speaker at CPAC harped on this theme.
The first day included panels titled “Caging the Red Dragon” and “No Chinese Balloons Above Tennessee.”
Such language plays to the growing number of Americans who view China as the country’s biggest enemy.
The focus on China connected to another target at the conference – Mexican cartels that engage in human and drug trafficking. This includes groups that bring fentanyl – a drug that is Chinese-manufactured or made from Chinese-produced chemicals – into the U.S.
Many speakers accurately noted the staggering number of fentanyl deaths in the U.S., including over 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021. But they did so in often apocalyptic terms.
They were quick to blame the Biden administration, ignoring that these issues have a long history and also existed under former President Donald Trump.
The crisis, CPAC speakers said, includes large numbers of undocumented migrants crossing the border – who they sometimes derogatorily referred to as “illegal aliens.” Oddly, those crossing the border were depicted both as victims of the violent cartels and as criminal and economic threats to Americans.
CPAC speakers and attendees spotlighted what they saw as equally dire demons lurking within the country.
“Radical leftist Marxists” – a stand-in for all Democrats – stood at the top of the list. These leftist radicals, CPAC speakers suggested, were intent on turning the U.S. into a socialist country like China in which the state controlled bodies and minds and quashed individual rights and freedoms.
The Democratic Party “hates this country,” Fox TV personality Mark Levin claimed on the CPAC stage.
“This American Marxist movement,” he continued, his voice raising, “took off big time during COVID” and then “rode the wave of Black Lives Matter, Antifa and the cop-hating, to advance this racist, Marxist, bigoted, socialist, anti-American agenda – which is everything today the Democrat Party today stands for!”
The crowd responded with loud applause and cheers – ignoring that these often repeated claims have little basis in reality.
This anti-American agenda, Levin and other CPAC speakers argued, was illustrated by “wokism.”
Being woke generally means understanding societal issues like racial and social justice. But CPAC speakers, who didn’t define the term, suggested that these efforts were really part of a “radical leftist” plot to control what people think and say – an idea that the right has derided as “political correctness” in the past.
There was also an emphasis on gender and the perceived threat of transgender people. Some of the anti-transgender sentiment was casual, such as when Rep. Gaetz quipped, “We had to spend four, five days asking the Chinese spy balloon what its pronouns were before we were willing to shoot it down.”
Perhaps the most strident remarks were made by conservative political commentator Michael Knowles, who stated, “for the good of society … transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
Despite his inflammatory language and use of “transgenderism,” a derogatory term suggesting that transgender people have “a condition,” Knowles received loud applause.
So, too, did other speakers who disparaged transgender identity – an issue that has become a culture wars flashpoint.
The Anti-Defamation League, among other human rights groups, has shown that the idea transgender people are predatory “groomers” or pedophiles is false and is being circulated by some Republicans only for political gain.
In March 2023, Tennessee became the first state to pass a law that restricts drag performances in the presence of children – a move that likely violates the First Amendment’s free speech protection and, in my view, is based on fear, not facts. Other Republican-led states are considering anti-drag legislation.
By the time Trump took the stage, the CPAC crowd was primed. People danced and waved “TRUMP WAS RIGHT!” placards.
Trump offered an apocalyptic vision of the country’s future.
“Sinister forces” are seeking to turn the U.S. into a “lawless open-borders, crime-ridden, filthy, communist nightmare,” Trump said.
Trump promised to fight back against these forces. “I am your warrior,” he told the adoring crowd. “I am your justice.”
The rocky ride ahead
I went to CPAC to find areas where the left and right might find common ground. Both sides worry about issues like inflation, fentanyl and crime. And, even as they may disagree on the path to get there, both want a better future for the country.
But politics is another demon lurking in the room. Most of the speakers at CPAC seemed to be there to rile up the crowd, which included many activists.
This was especially true of Trump, whose divisiveness was on clear display at CPAC.
All of this suggests the U.S. faces a rocky ride to the upcoming 2024 election.
Alexander Hinton is Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and the Director of the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights at Rutgers University in Newark.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
And the vast majority of that confederacy of dunces are white people. It’s easy to see why the men long for those halcyon days of white male cultural hegemony to which the G🙄P is dedicated to resurrecting- no one likes to be dethroned-, but what drives the majority of white women to vote for their 2d class citizenship that goes w/ it?
Jackson1955: I have no idea! The most disappointing Trump supporters are women. The ignorance is staggering.
Jack Gallagher says
I believe Tulsi Gabbard was there, along with Ivory Hecker and those two are far from dumb.
China's son Joe says
I also fear China as the greatest threat to America, I feel like we are financing our own destruction, every time I buy a worthless made in China bright colorful plastic $6 item from Dollar General or Walmart for a kids birthday party, or a cheap $25 tool on Amazon or Harbor Freight, I know the lack of regulations in china means they can pay peasants in rice to pump out this garbage and dump waste chemicals and trash into rivers, The Chinese garment industry alone is pumping millions of gallons of dyes and solvents into chinas river systems. China has a full size outline of a Nimitz class nuclear aircraft carrier built in a bombing range, and young Chinese are training bombing it today in airplanes built to compete with our best F15/22/35 air superiority jet fighter with Stolen technology gleaned from CCP funded advanced industrial espionage. The Many reports of Joe Biden and his family receiving money under the table from a hostile foreign government should be the first news story of every day, but it is like pulling teeth to get to the bottom of this story, why is that?
Nephew Of Uncle Sam says
You are to blame too for Communist China and their goods filtering into the United States, besides American corporations sending production to Communist China and Communist Vietnam all for the shareholders. Buying goods made in Mexico, Sri Lanka, Haiti, Bangladesh, etc..does not help the American economy either. Look for Made in USA of USA parts before making your purchase, it’s harder than you think but I try to do it all the time. Sometimes I’m quite surprised by where an item is made as well as most people would be if they looked closer. As for President Biden please prove he takes money under the table otherwise it’s a meaningless comment.
Would love to see the timeline for trump’s business in China while he was president, and trumps change of attitude to Xi. We know trump was paying significant taxes in China while he was president. We know trump did a sweet NY condo deal for a top Chinese official while he was president. He started out liking China, then turned. Did his business dealing in China go south?
Remember. When Jared Kushner 1st started working as a White House “Advisor”, he was holding events that guaranteed Chinese Investors Green Cards for $500k.
Was Ivanka still under review for 19 trademarks at the time? You know. In China
China’s son Joe: I agree with most of what you said, but not so much when it comes to Biden. Guess who made China rich? Americans! Thank you, Nixon, for opening the door. The other major threat is Russia, but *conservatives,* Trump and lying Tucker Carlson don’t see it that way. Trump admires Putin, and believes him over our own experts. If China and Russia gang up, we’re in World War Three. The current Republican Party are way too busy disparaging people like Dr. Anthony Fauci (for crap’s sake) rather than Putin. Trump is calling half of Americans (Democrats) “the enemy.” He cannot be more irresponsible.
Kick his ass, along with Green’s, Gaetz’s, Jordon’s, DeSantis’, Hutson’s, Renner’s, Santos’, Scott’s and many other who support the lies of Fox Entertainment, out the damned door, and slam it hard! Enough!
The dude says
Wow… such bravery in your admission that China’s ascent was, and still is, directly assisted by you buying cheap China made crap.
Do your MAGA brethren know about your direct assistance to China’s ascent and continued quest for world hegemony?
I imagine they do as they too shop at Walmart.
I applaud your honesty, something that is sorely missing from most MAGA, and encourage you to continue to be honest, both with yourself and in your dealings with the outside world.
Politics. Partisan politics. The root is PART, as in only a part of the whole. All parties are just parts. They advocate for their viewpoint, but there are many viewpoints. Each party wishes the other would disappear. If that happened the whole would be lost for real. As it is now the whole is lost only to the other side, all other sides. The I’m right and you’re wrong gap is what needs to be bridged for true political progress.
Each party has it’s own demons. Each party scares its followers by referencing those demons. The scared followers then are willing to be led by their ‘betters’ in the party leadership. Progress never results. More of the same results.
The solution is to work on your own inner peace, not blame others, seek true coexistence, not just the bumpersticker variety.
I just hope all of the MAGA, trumpty dumpty lovin sheeple stage a mass demonstration and march together in a huge mob to the end of the earth as they know it and walk right off the edge into the abyss.
I learned how to say “Trump” in Spanish: sinvergüenza or canalla
In Italian: mascalzone or canaglia
In Yugoslavian: mertzinia (mertzinya)
@Please stand on your head for the Floriduh national anthem — humping the stars and bars (like trump) is welcomed
Republican lawmakers push forward bill to protect Confederate, other monuments
“…”I think that history, good or bad, should be available for everybody,” said Sen. Jonathan Martin, R-Fort Myers, the bill sponsor…”
FFS!!! Let that poor old horse alone. Go home and get some rest. You’re gonna need it to earn your so-called living.
All this MAGA talk triggered some thoughts…
Methinks that Florida is the perfect venue (the best) for a modern-day Roman colosseum.
Imagine the entertainment value of watching lions tear people apart, with the
governor in attendance cheering the lions.
A typical day at the Floriduh State Colosseum would consist of:
– Beheading of people who protest the government
– Forcing spelling bee winners to use ALL-CAPS
– Torturing scholars because they’re too smart
– Forcing intelligent people to listen to Sean Hannity
– Bonus stoning passes allowing spectators to throw rocks at classical musicians (sissy music)
– Chopping hands off of those sissy peace lovers too
– Impaling mask-wearers
– Killing puppies
– Tortoise crush challenges
– Lessins on bein a real ‘Merican!
– Elmer Fudd clone competition (lots of contestants, beware)
– Rounding out the day’s festivities is a bodily-function sounds symphony conducted by Gov. DeSantis
– Loudest belchers and yes, gas-passers. If you can pass gas and make it into a country song then dang, ya win sump-tin!
– Fried bologna samitches at the winners’ circle with some “pop” to wash it all down
Just an all-around great experience for the MAGA folks and their families for just 20.00 per seat. Senior discounts (over 7-1/2)
I can just envision all the light-haired people from above in my blimp packing the new Flori-duh State Colosseum.
That place would attract all the snot-eaters in the area, and that’s a whole lot of plebians…
Man, my thoughts are scaring me…
My laugh of the day. . . all the way from South Africa! Thanks Geezer! Yes, I’m the one who sent you that yummy candy from Spain!
I love you Sherry! How could I ever forget you?
I’m sorry for vanishing from your inbox.
We’re still talking about the Turrón you so generously sent.
Geezer. . . so very wonderful to see your amazing comments on FL again! I love, love, love them!
You’ve moved from Fascist Florida and now we’ve moved to wonderful Sausalito, CA. It’s so great that we are both supporting FL and the “thinking” community in Flagler County.
Thurston Howel III says
You all can talk trash but all I have to say is TRUMP 2024!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
We LOVE Donald Trump!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
And the pope is still Polish…