Jesus, Guns, COVID Denialism

CPAC was a weekend of Deplorable Mad Libs

The former guy speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference CPAC held at the Hilton Anatole on July 11, 2021 in Dallas, Texas (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

No single moment fully captured the intellectual tone of this weekend CPAC conference in Dallas, although the burst of applause for vaccination resistance might have come close.

The rest of the weekend was a cross between a game of Deplorable Mad Libs and cray- cray Voice-in-Your-Head stuff:

BigTechJesusTRUMPCancelCultureGunsMAGAKamalaFight!BiblesCriticalRaceTheoryCarnageSocialismBorderWallAntifaTRUMPBambooBallotOwningLibs… FauciOuchie….

The “Fauci Ouchie” — a refence to COVID shots — was the brilliant neologism offered to her adoring fans by Congresswoman Lauren Boebert, who shared her other deep thoughts about the role of government, as well.

In fairness, CPAC has never been mistaken for a gathering of philosophers; it was described as the “Star Wars Bar Scene of the conservative movement” long before the Trump Era.

But this weekend’s confederacy of dunces (with apologies to John Kennedy Toole) was, nevertheless, a window into what conservativism has become.

To the extent that the right believes in anything these days, it seems committed to standing up for neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers on social media platforms, while pushing to fire school teachers and college professors who teach forbidden topics in schools. This is not be confused with “cancel culture,” which is now exclusively deployed to refer to virtually any criticism aimed at right wing figures.

They “back the blue” except, of course, for the jack-booted thugs who assaulted the brave patriots of 1/6.

Over the weekend, TFG himself accelerated the Horst Wesselization of Ashli Babbitt, an “innocent, wonderful, incredible woman” who was shot by police merely for trying to hang Mike Pence. (Every revolution needs a martyr, and Trump thinks he’s found his woman.)

There was, of course, no pushback from anyone in the GOP, which has now gone full-Snowflake Cult.

Nearly every speaker assured the CPAC attendees that they were all victims and potential martyrs. Senator Tom Cotton warned that "radical liberals... want to erase and rewrite our history." Florida’s Rick Scott raised the prospect that that “we will be cancelled from our jobs, our churches, our schools, our entire lives.”

Famous tree-puncher and part-time congressman Madison Cawthorn tied it all together when he warned that the door-to-door promotion of vaccines might lead to the creation of mechanisms to take away both guns and Bibles.

Not that any of this coheres with anything remotely like a thought-out ideology, because coherence is for cucks. Jesus, guns, COVID denialism, and nihilism coexist easily in this febrile new world.

They are pro-life except when they are a pro-death cult.

At CPAC, America is First, except for the cities, which are shitholes.

Conservatives pose as defenders of the Constitution, while making excuses for an insurrection.

“Voter integrity” means making it harder to vote, and embracing every crazy conspiracy theory and Big Lie while supporting measures that will make it easier to nullify the results of future elections.

There was a lot of talk about Freedom! But slavery got some strange new respect, as Ben Carson suggested that Black families were actually stronger when African-Americans were in bondage than when they received welfare checks.

Conservatives were repeatedly assured over the weekend that they shouldn’t worry about being called racists. "We've got to stop being intimidated," one United States senator assured the crowd. "They're going to call us racist no matter what we do."

There are occasional, etiolated gestures toward something once known as “small government,” but the real juice flows through attempts to legislatively ban ideas, theories, and various discussions in schools.

What we are left with are a series of self-contradictory, logically addled impulses that now characterize conservativism. They are not even the irritable gestures described decades ago by Lionel Trilling, but they are marks of belonging.

In his Sunday newsletter, David French described the rise of “faction friendships” that have replaced genuine human ties for millions of Americans.

Faction friendships are especially dangerous, I’d add, because they not only provide community, they also provide a sense of purpose, as destructive or as false as it may be. But faction friendships are also fragile. They depend on an extraordinary degree of agreement and conformity. I’ve experienced this myself. Many of us have. Friendships built up through years of engagement in politics and activism vanished in the blink of a tweet. 

“You’re not with us? Then we’re not with you.”

And unless you have robust family relationships and deep friendships that aren’t so fragile and aren’t so contingent—unless you have a Leo or four or five in your life—then the sense of loss can be emotionally and spiritually catastrophic. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it a thousand times more. This is a prime reason why you can’t fact-check, plead, or argue a person out of a conspiracy, because you’re trying to fact-check, plead, and argue them out of their community. 

That community was on full display in Dallas.

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The easiest off-ramp.

Even though we’ve gotten used to all of this, it’s worth remembering that the GOP could have easily made a different choice. Here’s a flashback to what I wrote in November, a few days after the election:

Republicans continue to stick with him, at least in public. By now this seems like a cliché: they are afraid of the tweets, the base, yadda yadda.

So, the GOP lets Trump continue to hold them hostage, even as he rages and sows chaos. But this is not as inevitable as it may seem, because right now Republicans have the easiest possible off-ramp from Trump. Consider:

  • If there was ever a moment to put country over party, this is it.

  • Acknowledging the results of an election and endorsing the peaceful transfer of power is the lowest possible bit of low hanging fruit. It’s what Americans do.

  • There is a national crisis that requires a competent transition.

  • Trump lost. He’s a lame duck.

  • He is also acting like a crazy man. Trump is doing real, long-term damage to the institutions, norms, and values that the GOP claims to care about. As Julie Pace writes today, Trump “is trying to turn America’s free and fair election into a muddled mess of misinformation, specious legal claims and baseless attacks on the underpinnings of the nation’s democracy.”

  • Republicans are in relatively good shape right now. They got their Supreme Court appointments, gained seats in the House, and will probably hold the Senate. They can tell themselves that Trump lost the election; they didn’t.

  • Joe Biden is just not that scary. He and the Democrats will not be able to (1) kill the filibuster, (2) pack the courts), or (3) pass major scary “socialist” legislation. He is staffing the White House with pragmatists.

  • In other words, this wasn’t the Flight 93 election after all. The plane has landed safely.

  • And, finally, what I know will be the least compelling argument of all: It’s the right thing to do.

A more practical argument? If Republicans don’t break with him now, they may never be able to do so, especially if he decides to institutionalize the hostage-taking by saying he will run again in 2024.

And indeed, here we are:

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Quick Hits

1. Who’s Actually Responsible for the “Culture War”?

Tim Miller contra Peggy Noonan in today’s Bulwark:

This country is a living organism, not a display in a museum.

And while social changes are inevitable, they’re also flammable. Throughout history demagogues of all political persuasions have used these changes to try to create resentment as a tool to amass power.

It’s the inflamers, the arsonists who are responsible for the “war” part of the culture war.

Yes, the scores of millions of people who create cultural change in the daily comings and goings of their lives should be more forbearing with everyone else. That would be awesome. #Endorse #LiveTheChange

But that’s not where the “culture war” comes from. The culture war is the creation of specific, powerful people—whose names we all know—who cynically and intentionally view conflict as a means to increase their power.

2. The Real Point of the Arizona Audit

Amanda Carpenter in the Bulwark:

If you’re waiting to read the Cyber Ninjas’ report about Maricopa County’s election counts to find out what happens next in Donald Trump’s rigged election narrative, don’t bother.

The sham audit itself is the endgame. The audit, which began on April 23, was supposed to end by May 14. Now, nearly two months after blowing past that deadline, a spokesman says people shouldn’t expect anything until August. But, really, who knows when, or if, it all will ever end.

It’s not like anyone in MAGA land is in any hurry to call curtains on the big show. That’s because the performance, as incompetent as it is, is the point. It’s what’s keeping Trump’s election delusions alive and well; not what will prove or disprove whether the fantasy has merit. The play’s the thing.

3. Summer Reading for Democrats and Never Trumpers

Joshua Zeitz, in Politico, has two suggestions:

[In] the summer of 2021, The Vital Center and The Paranoid Style in American Politics still pack a bold punch. Both volumes urge recognition of illiberalism for what it is: a clear and present danger to constitutional democracy—not a loyal opposition with which one breaks bread and compromises. Both take a realistic view of American conservatism’s peculiar susceptibility to conspiracy theories and toxic identity politics. Both implicitly reject the idea that the fever will break if only the forces of liberal democracy extend their hand in a show of good will. People are sometimes rational. Often, they are not.

If the parallels are instructive, the takeaway is clear. Democracy is supported by a frail scaffold. It can collapse, and in other places at different times, it has. The vital center is not the dead center, where bipartisan Gangs of 20 go to talk themselves blue in the face. It’s the bulwark against democratic backslide. Defending it is imperative, and in the absence of a functioning anti-authoritarian right, it will require unapologetic liberal grit, and determination.

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Cheap Shots

The Taliban advance continues.

Can we call this UnCritical Race Theory?