Where’s the GOP going? There’s been a lot of coverage on this question – whether the party is the party of Trump or the party of McConnell/Cheney/Romney. I think this is largely the wrong emphasis – Trump of course remains the overwhelming favorite to win the nomination in 2024 should he choose to seek it. But if he doesn’t, the ideological forces he taps into (many of which predated him) will very likely power the coalition that selects the 2024 nominee and animate all politics on the right regardless. The wing that picked Romney over Santorum in 2012 is simply outnumbered now. The question isn’t really which side of the party will win – the question is “What are the issues that capture the attention of the ‘populist’ right, and how are they changing?” To answer this, I undertook the masochistic task of actually listening to CPAC 2021, and this is what they talked about.
The dominant complaint about the left expressed by speakers at CPAC (entitled “America Uncanceled”) is that the left (and their allies, corporations!) are responsible for a repressive culture in which we are no longer allowed to say impolite things without repercussions. DJT Jr. brought up Mr. Potato Head; Tom Cotton talked about getting canceled for his NYT op-ed; Josh Hawley complain-bragged about his book being canceled (then plugged it). The closest any speaker came to really articulating the root appeal of the issue was, surprisingly, Ted Cruz, who exhorted conservatives to “have fun“. The problem with many on the right is that they have a “stick inserted somewhere it doesn’t belong” (shots fired, Tom Cotton) and the problem with the left is that they’re “angry” and humorless. Of course, Ted’s delivery is, as usual, insincere and faintly to overtly cringe, but what he’s attempting to do is smarter than those who were just whining about getting canceled: recruit guys (it’s mainly guys) who just feel like they can’t joke about the things they’re used to making fun of. Changing habits is annoying, fuck that! Why can’t everyone else just tell that I don’t really mean it? Hey, have you ever listened to the Joe Rogan podcast?
Ted’s angle on cancel culture was also interesting in that he’s one of the few speakers that seemed to really connect with the CPAC audience on the topic. Everyone else… it kind of fell flat? When DJT Jr did his Mr. Potato Head bit (very topical!) the audience was more in appreciative chuckle mode than a “yeah that’s fucking hilarious and bullshit, dude” mode. They’d already seen it on their phones! Maybe it was because almost every speaker was talking about it or maybe it’s just that CPAC attendees are extremely online, but I got the sense that “cancel culture” is starting to get a bit stale on the right.
The new boogeymen: Big Tech, “the oligarchy”, and “corporations”
It isn’t tremendously surprising now, but what a shift to see so much corporate-bashing coming from the right. I don’t think I heard one speaker talk about “job creators” and the economy. Instead, Big Tech is responsible for censorship. Corporate media fact checkers are tip of an oligarchic authoritarian spear designed to suppress dissenting speech. And “corporate America” broadly enforces new cultural norms in thrall to the demands of radical leftists, particularly young people who just sit at home on the couch enslaved to their smartphones all day (this specific complaint about young people and smartphones came up more than once!).
The root of the complaints on the right is an objection to the idea that corporations should play any cultural role at all. They shouldn’t be out there making #blacklivesmatter tweets or engaging in advertising boycotts and they definitely shouldn’t be in the business of ever saying that I can’t say something on their private platforms. Conservatives are now fully adopting the principle that, because of their monopoly powers, the relationship between Big Tech and its users should be fully controlled by the First Amendment. Others argue that the companies should be broken up. Who said this, Josh Hawley or Elizabeth Warren?: “And I can tell you how I would start. I would start by breaking up the big tech corporations. Just break them up. Break them up in the name of the rule of the people. For the good of the American people and our liberty, we need to break those corporations up and cut them down to size.”
I’ll close this section out with another quote from Hawley that fairly succinctly articulates the anti-corporate thesis on the right. Let’s see how this morphs over time as his pre-candidacy evolves:
“This is one of the great moments of crisis in American history. We’re facing a fight for the republic itself, and we are facing an unprecedented alliance of radical liberals, and the biggest, most powerful corporations in the history of the world.”
Tom Cotton’s dog whistles
It ain’t a gathering on the right without implicitly evoking racism! (For explicit racism, you had to go across the street to Nick Fuentes’ joint, as Paul Gosar (R-AZ) did). CPAC speakers loved bashing the BLM protests! These were all riots, or “fiery peaceful protests” and we of course have to back the blue. Tom Cotton leaned the heaviest on this. Some quotes of his:
“After all, we’ve seen what happens when people lose the nerve to defend America. Last summer, chaos and riots engulfed our streets. Police stations were firebombed. Buildings, businesses were looted. Courthouses were attacked. Statues to our heroes were toppled.”
“Have you seen that Joe Biden wants to ban the term illegal aliens? What does he want to replace it with? He wants to replace it with undocumented non-citizen. Very words. True, I’m not making up. Why are they undocumented? Because they’re illegal.“
“America truly is a great country. It is worth fighting for. It is worth dying for, and it is worth defending our history.“
“there is no more pernicious threat to America than the rejection of our founding principles and our heritage and our tradition.“
To be sure, you can find enough technically exculpatory context around these quotes. But it’s also a pretty straight line from protecting “our heritage and our tradition” to “we must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” Such is the nature of dog whistles.
Aside from playing these hits, he had a section here that didn’t really connect with the audience but that I had never heard before and thought I’d highlight:
“Now, many on the left have concluded that America is a fundamentally flawed, irredeemable, wicked place. They have a lot of names for it, but whatever banner it flies under, it gets back to that anti-American idea. You can call it woke-ness or political correctness, cancel culture. You can call it critical race theory, critical gender theory, critical whatever. Some people call it systemic racism, but here’s their point. The key word is not racism, the key word is systemic. It doesn’t matter so much what the system is guilty of, only that the system is guilty and it needs to be burned to the ground.”
A full-throated defense of “the system”? Is this what the newer elements of the right, who were told by Trump that the system was rigged against them, want to hear? I am skeptical, but I do think it says a lot about how Tom Cotton thinks about the world (and also basically communicates: “hey, you know the America you grew up with where you didn’t have to feel guilty about Black people? That’s the real one.”).
The continued rise of anti-trans rhetoric
Anti-trans sentiment is nothing new (historically or otherwise) but it is now notable how strongly it registers as a wedge issue on the right. At CPAC, I’ve heard very little about abortion (some! at least one panel!) or church/religion (mainly from the Black speakers at CPAC that center their conservatism in God and particularly education/how to raise kids). Guns are mentioned in throwaway bits about the Second Amendment. In the 2012 Republican primary, whether or not same-sex marriage should be left to the states or banned via a constitutional amendment was a dividing issue – in 2021 and beyond, this will be supplanted by anti-trans content. Some thoughts on this:
- It hooks with anti-“cancel culture” because joking about men dressing as women or men thinking they’re women is a thing a lot of people want to laugh about (either in ridicule or because the idea of trans people makes them deeply uncomfortable). Here’s Ted Cruz‘s anti-trans joke: “In 2020, the New York Times reported that 60% of women named Karen voted for Joe Biden. That’s actually real. You can look it up, the fact checkers. That’s what the New York Times reported. And I’m willing to bet 80% of the men named Karen voted for Joe Biden. Just have fun.“
- The GOP is a boomer party, but a lot of this anti-trans stuff is emerging from the younger wing of the right. It’s looong been a topic for young men on the right to mine for clicks on YouTube (since at least 2015/2016; see the entire career of Ben Shapiro). For history on the topic, of course you must watch ContraPoints.
- Mainstream GOP last touched anti-Trans stuff during the whole “bathroom bills” saga of 2017 and 2018. It’s now back with Senators proposing legislation banning trans women from playing women’s sports (of course, trans women are called “biological boys” by this cohort). Look for this to intensify.
- Most of the rhetoric aims at trans women rather than trans men. The root of the whole thing is that conservatives (and probably many Democrats, tbh) find trans people icky and think their existence is wrong in some way. And rather than grapple with and accept the humanity of these people, why not otherize them the way we always have? Kindness is for liberal pussies.
- Notably, Trump is now embracing the rhetoric. Aside from his actions (the ban on military service for trans people chief among them), he’d previously not shown much of an interest in exploiting this issue.
The usual stuff
There was plenty of muh China, some talk about energy policy, a lot of discussion on election policy (this is a real outgrowth of Trump himself), and some socialism vs capitalism talk. On that latter topic, I was surprised how few of the 2024 hopefuls spent a lot of time calling Democrats socialists. It came up, but generally in passing, or as a throwaway. Mainly the whole thing seems to be a way to call young people uninformed and naive. Tom Cotton, again: “Total meltdown with the little social justice warriors at the New York Times. All these children that have been marinated in the language of the campus seminar room. They said things like, “Your words put my life at risk,” as if typing on their phone, sitting on their futons was as dangerous as being a cop trying to stop rioters in the streets.” I love this imagery because young people are naive and stupid for using smartphones while sitting on futons (they’re poor!) rather than the very intelligent men who watch Fox News while fully reclined in their La-Z-Boy with two built-in cupholders and snack tray.
All this to say that CPAC was pretty light on policy. Not one 2024 hopeful talked about the covid relief bill. This is a meeting about what the GOP cares about, not what they want to do. And they care about is winning the culture war. I will say, as a passing note, that one area of policy that did get plenty of coverage was lockdown policy (shitting on Cuomo, California, liberal hypocrisy associated therewith, etc) but I’m skeptical this topic will still have legs in 2024 (or even 2022). But right now it’s definitely part of the conversation (see below, esp. with Kristi Noem / Ron DeSantis).
What the audience loved
In the speeches I listened to (I gotta admit, some of the panels I just tuned out of), the biggest reactions came from election and Trump-related content. They wanted to hear people say that January 6th was ok, or maybe even okay to celebrate. The audience absolutely popped off when Hawley hit them with “The last two months, the big tech corporations have deplatformed conservatives left and right, shut them up, shut them out, shut them down. Heck, they censored the president of the United States. If they can censor him, they can censor any American citizen. And I’ve got my own experience with this, unfortunately. On January the 6th, I objected during the Electoral College certification. Maybe you heard about it. I did.” He goes on to complain about how he was just trying to have a debate, but that’s not what the audience cared about. They cheered that he did it – not that he did it for some principled free-speech principle or whatever. They want power!
Another big applause line: Kristi Noem saying “I don’t know if you agree with me, but Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot.” (She otherwise failed to connect with the audience’s energy after that).
And finally: Donald Trump got plenty of applause, particularly when he teased running again…
What the audience snoozed
I’m sorry to say it but Tom Cotton is just as stiff as he looks, and Rick Scott is at risk of being relegated to the JV debate stage in 2024 (dear god, he was terrible). But aside from politicians whose ambition far outstrips their charisma, I also found it interesting that DJT Jr.’s attacks on Liz Cheney didn’t really land. It got some reaction but not a lot? Perhaps it was the delivery.
Another notable snoozer: Joe Biden attacks. Very few speakers even bothered, with the notable exception of the final speaker (and for Trump, attacking Biden as demented was a bigger crowd-pleaser than going after him on energy policy). Dave Weigel notes that merch sellers there couldn’t “give away” the anti-Biden stuff. He ain’t Hillary!
The 2024 Hopefuls
- Ron DeSantis: Fine speech on lockdown stuff but also dude has put on a bit since 2018, damn.
- Ted Cruz: Cringe, tryhard, but at least he’s carving out a lane for himself. Lighthearted MAGA.
- Tom Cotton: rigid posture, rigid worldview.
- Rick Scott: looks like an alien, talks like a robot.
- Josh Hawley: smooth, a bit nervously fast. Will be in the top three or four – watch how he tries to own various aspects of economic populism (trustbusting, the $2k checks support).
- DJT Jr.: it just ain’t the original. Ya know? He might be able to claim the 2nd amendment lane I suppose.
- Marco Rubio: family issue prevented his speech. Will be an afterthought in 2024 anyway.
- Kristi Noem: talk about the right to bare arms my lord. Is there any doubt that she is the Republican nominee if Trump doesn’t run?
- Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley: the CPAC skippers.
- James Lankford, Marsha Blackburn: oh, you guys are here too?
- Donald J. Trump: typical.