At CPAC, A Fractured and Chaotic Conservative Movement

At this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump, Pence and leading Republicans try to unite conservatives ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, urging different factions to come together against a common, external enemy: the left

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Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES: It’s The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore. The Conservative Political Action Conference or CPAC is taking place this week in National Harbor, Maryland. It is an annual conference that the American Conservative Union started back in 1973. One of its main founders was the conservative intellectual William F. Buckley. On Friday, President Donald Trump was one of its featured speakers.

DONALD TRUMP: We’ve confirmed a record number, so important, of circuit judges. And we are going to be putting in a lot more. They will interpret the law as written. And we’ve confirmed an incredible new Supreme Court justice, a great man, Neil Gorsuch. Right? We’ve passed massive, biggest in history, tax cuts and reforms.

SHARMINI PERIES: Other speakers included Vice President Mike Pence, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre and Marion Le Pen, the granddaughter of the founder of France’s National Front far right party, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Joining me now to discuss this year’s CPAC in the context of the US conservative movement in Larry Grossberg. He is the Morris Davis Distinguished Professor in communications and cultural studies at the University of North Carolina. His latest book, which was just published by Pluto Press, is Under the Cover of Chaos: Trump and the Battle for the American Right. Welcome, Larry.

LARRY GROSSBERG: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, let’s take up some of the themes that came up in President Trump’s speech today.

LARRY GROSSBERG: Well, this was obviously an election speech. I think the Republicans are very nervous about the upcoming elections for all sorts of reasons that lots of journalists and reporters have been talking about. On one hand, one of the major themes was get out and vote. Trump said, “We have to fight in 2018 like never before,” and Trump talked about the fact that usually the party in the White House loses the midterm elections, which he then talked about and blamed on, oddly enough, the success of the White House, whoever’s in office, which seems odd, but more likely the kind of exhaustion and complacency that follows.

The most interesting theme, I think, came in Pence’s talk, in a kind of hidden way. There was a very surprising moment when Pence, when the vice president said, “We are too polarized. There’s too much division and anger, and therefore we lose sight of who we are. And that there’s more that unites us than divides us. We need to reconnect.” This is obviously something people have been saying about the United States polity for some time, but I don’t think Pence was talking about the United States. I think Pence was talking about the conservative movement and the Republican Party. I think the main theme of both of their talks was the need to unite as a conservative movement because it is, in fact, so fractured.

It’s interesting, because one of the functions, probably the major function of CPAC, and certainly the major function of the American Conservative Union when it was formed, William Buckley was one of its founders, was the idea of conservatism as a kind of umbrella movement that could encompass lots of different versions of conservatism. This was, of course, Ronald Reagan’s 11th Commandment. “Never attack another Republican. We all belong under the same umbrella.” That sense of unity was always somewhat limited, and in particular, the American Conservative Union at CPAC has always had a hard time dealing with what I call and many people before me have called the reactionary conservatives, that is, Buchanan in the past, Patrick Buchanan, the John Birch Society, the KKK. These groups were always at best on the margins of the ACU and CPAC, and of course, as many people have talked about, they’ve now entered into the mainstream of conservatism. This has become a difficult problem for conservatives because they have very different agendas, very different styles and very different politics.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, you’ve written about how Trump fits into the conservative movement in the US. So, based on this speech and how the CPAC crowd is responding, do you think he’s now been accepted based on his, I guess, conduct in the last year?

LARRY GROSSBERG: That’s a question. I’m an academic, so before I answer questions like that, I like to have some evidence and data. I don’t know, and I think we won’t know the answer to that, in part, until we see whether or not the variety of groups of conservatism in this country come out and support the Republicans in 2018. I think that will be the real test because I think Trump is the perfect figure for this kind of chaos in conservatism for the moment.

If you listen to his speech and if you listen to Pence’s speech, two things were very interesting and obvious to me. They listed all their accomplishments. Fine, but almost all their accomplishments had nothing to do with Congress. The only two things Trump has managed to accomplish with the cooperation of Congress have been, and they’re important, the appointment of a Supreme Court justice and the tax reform, tax cuts that he put in place. Otherwise, he’s been at odds. He has not been able to unify Congress, and of course, the upcoming election is all about Congress. The question is, why is Trump the figure that, for me at least, emerged to power at just this moment when the conservative movement is so at odds with itself?

If you listen, the other thing about both Pence’s and Trump’s speech, if you listen to it carefully, was that almost all the accomplishments they listed for having done over the past year were very much out of the tradition of what we used to call the new right, the Reagan to second Bush administrations. The version of conservatism that William Buckley put forth, a kind of anti communist, pro global capitalist. Most of their accomplishments were the things Republicans, including tax cuts, have been talking about for 20 or 30 years. Even immigration has been on their agenda for 20 or 30 years. In many ways, Trump’s politics are not a break with conservatism in the past.

Many of the things that the left accuses him of doing, lying, attacking the media, they were part of what Reagan and Bush did all the time as well, even back to Nixon. We accused Reagan of being the great liar. All of these conservative Republicans have gone after the media. But Trump has brought something new to the mix, which is a style. He’s taken the style that in a sense the Tea Party has done, in his performance, in the kind of emotional way he talks about these issues, in which when he talks about gun control, he sounds emotionally like the NRA. When he talks about immigration, he sounds emotionally like the Tea Party.

So, it’s that, I think, combination of a kind of reactionary conservatism style when he talks about draining the swamp and throwing out the playbook, and when he talks, he and Pence both made a very explicit, careful attempt to identify themselves with the common people and with common sense. Pence described himself as the Joseph A. Bank wing of the White House. He talked about growing up in his house and when a $1,000 bonus meant Christmas. Oddly enough, his wife talked about it and said that if he could buy one thing, he would buy a horse. One would think that the vice president of the United States could afford a horse. Presidents have had horses in the White House, but that sense of connecting to the common people.

Trump also started out by saying, “I think I’ve proven I’m a conservative.” Kept talking about common sense, which apparently the Democrats don’t have any of. Talked about how CPAC, the people in the audience, were what he called the forgotten people. It’s that construction, as if the people at CPAC were what Republicans talk about as the white working class, which I doubt. And constructing the right, the conservatives as operating with common sense,and the Democrats, as he said, having only one platform, which is to resist, ignoring of course, the fact that during Obama’s administration, the entire platform of the Republican Party, including the conservatives, was summarized in the word resist.

There is a real sense, I think, of trying to walk a thin line between these fractured groups of the conservative movement, and a real attempt to bring them together and unify them because there are a lot of conservatives, I think, who don’t like Trump stylistically, ethically, morally, don’t like his politics, don’t think that he has kept his promises. He said he was not going to engage in silly wars, but we are now engaged in more wars around the world than we ever have been, think he’s bought into global capitalism when he has. So, there are a lot of conflicts. I think Trump was trying to stylistically and emotionally bring them together.

SHARMINI PERIES: Now, let’s talk, Larry, a little bit about the other speakers that were there that brought a certain conservative element to CPAC, and that’s Marion Le Pen, for example. She comes from what is considered to be the far right party in France, The National Front. Here’s a clip where she talks about how France has lost its independence.

MARION MARÉCHAL-LE PEN: I want America first for the American people. I want Britain first for the British people, and I want France first for the French people. French are not free to choose their policies, whether they are economic, monetary, on immigration or even diplomacy. Our freedom is now in the hands of the European Union.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, what does her appearance at this year’s CPAC tell you about how the conservative movement in the US has evolved in the past 10 years or so?

LARRY GROSSBERG: I think it has evolved into more and more disagreements and fractures. I know, I do have friends, interlocutors, people I speak to, and I do follow various organizations and groups in the conservative movement. There were lots of people who were opposed to bringing Le Pen to CPAC. We have to remember that in 2016, when Trump was scheduled to appear at CPAC, there was a brouhaha about it, over whether or not he should appear at CPAC. There are these very deep divisions and there are some committed conservatives who would not go along with the kind of Steve Bannon, ultra nationalism of the Le Pens, and some of the authoritarian populist movements in Europe. There are many who are very nervous about some of the racism of some of the conservative groups.

I think bringing Le Pen in was a kind of gesture to some of those groups because CPAC’s function and the ACU’s function has always been to try to hold the movement together. And so, it brings in the NRA, and it has a memory of Billy Graham, and it makes nice to all the different groups. So, I think Le Pen’s presence there was a kind of gesture to those people who support this kind of what is ultimately ultra nationalist and racist anti immigration policies. I’m not saying that all anti immigration policies or supporters are racist, but I think the Le Pens are, and I think there are versions of it that are deeply racist. I think bringing that in is a kind of gesture of unity. And they’re trying to walk a thin line between these groups.

SHARMINI PERIES: Larry, I thank you very much for your insights and I hope you join us again as we continue this discussion about the conservatives in the United States.

LARRY GROSSBERG: Thank you for having me.

SHARMINI PERIES: And thank you for joining us here on The Real News Network.