Thijs Jan van Aalst
editor Bureau Washington
The warning is clear at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual high point for conservative America, this week in Washington: President Biden’s administration is involved in a plot to silence Republican voters. And the only way to prevent that is nationwide resistance.
It’s one of many unsubstantiated claims being made at the event, designed to get all conservatives to revolt especially locally, called grassroots activism in America.
The tone is immediately set on the first day of the conference. In one of the smaller rooms, a few hundred people, decked out in American flags and caps bearing the Trump slogan ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA), are told why they should take action.
The highlight of the three-hour training program is Republican congressman Kat Cammack’s speech, who rouses the audience with a call to save the United States from destruction. “We cannot afford to be divided. We must fight together for the survival of our country!” It earns her a standing ovation.
“America is on the brink of collapse, and if we don’t stand together now, we’ll all be over the brink.”
The potential of grassroots movements is also recognized by political activist Andrew Langer, who addresses the crowd about what he believes these movements are capable of. “President Donald Trump already steered us in the right direction, but now the grassroots activists must completely overwhelm President Biden’s administration!”
Fighting in the school benches
Dozens of stalls have been set up in the conference market square. For sale are, among other things, half-meter cakes in the image of Trump and MAGA glitter bags. But you can also register with one of the many action groups that try to recruit people.
These are groups with names like Concerned Women for America, the Coalition Against Socialist Medicine, and the Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends. They all focus on one specific problem, a tip that leadership coach Dena Espenscheid also gives to her audience. “Focus on one subject you don’t like, rather than the whole system.” Conservative demonstrations must become more efficient, is the message.
That efficient campaigning is now reflected in the struggles that conservatives are waging in school desks across the country. Many conservative parents feel that the schools have gone too far in teaching about racism and that children may feel guilty about their skin color as a result. Instead of demonstrating at the Capitol, many of these parents are now fighting to gain a seat on their school boards in order to exert influence.
Local pressure on governments and institutions is thus seen as a more effective way of getting things done. With Democratic President Biden in the White House, there is currently little to gain for Republicans in national politics. And so, they say, we have to work in a different way to beat the Democrats.
Espenscheid makes it clear that it is about winning or losing as soon as she gets the microphone pressed into her hand. “Are you ready to win?” Exuberant cheers follow.
Throughout the conference, war language is used to warn against the Biden administration. Also by Congressman Cammack: “America is on the brink of the abyss, and if we don’t stand together now, we’ll all be over the brink.”
It remains to be seen whether this collective resistance at this conference will succeed. For decades, CPAC was the center of conservatism in the US, where everyone wanted to be seen. Today, the rally is mostly a party for Trump voters, with a speech by the former president himself as the highlight.
Many Republican heavyweights are ignoring the event, including Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence, Trump’s vice president. Both are expected to run for president in 2024.
Who did show up was Nikki Haley, the former UN ambassador under Trump and currently the only other big name in the Republican Party to run for president. She will probably not look back on the conference with a good feeling.
Not only was the room only half full during her speech, as she made her way to the exit she was booed by a group of Trump supporters wearing MAGA hats. Going out together is a nice idea, but at CPAC you can only do it behind one man.