After last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference – dubbed TPAC, rather than CPAC, by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway – Donald Trump’s takeover of a once reluctant conservative movement is at last complete. The leader is anointed, the foot soldiers are assembled and the talking points – or rather disinformation points – have been furiously revised to suit the moment. The enemy of freedom and democracy is not Trump; Trump’s allies are not Vladimir Putin or the Alt-Right or the wave of far-right xenophobic nationalists casting a shadow across Europe. The enemies are college students whose calls for trigger warnings and safe spaces have been blown out of proportion to fuel an all-out conservative assault on academia writ large. In the new Trump ecosystem, the president’s heavy baggage – his single-handed arousal of the Alt-Right, his campaign’s reported contacts with Russian intelligence, his admiration for Putin, and his expressed goals of subverting the post-World War II international order – is not only “fake news” fabricated by the press, whom he calls “the enemy of the American people.” It’s actually a secret leftist conspiracy – orchestrated, according to one CPAC speaker, by Putin himself – to bring down the president of the United States.
The right’s assaults on the left, and, more recently, on a supposed Muslim fifth column, are hardly new features of its broad culture war to define the “real” America. What is new – and a stark abdication of the movement’s claimed commitment to the Constitution, freedom and democracy – is the willingness to look the other way as the movement mutates from 20th century conservatism to a Trump-Alt-Right-white-nationalism. At CPAC, it becomes clear that conservatives’ role in this transformation is far worse than willful blindness. They are deploying conspiracy theories to deflect any criticism of Trump by blaming the left not only for making up Trump scandals, but also for being the true diabolical force behind any wrongdoing.
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The Alt-Right? A left-wing movement. Putin? He’s the one “causing mayhem on the streets of America” by funding anti-Trump “riots,” according to Trevor Loudon, a conspiracy theorist who appeared on a panel moderated by Ginni Thomas, wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who says that “paid protesters” and “subversives” tried to delegitimize Trump at his inauguration. Later, Loudon screens his film America Under Siege: Civil War 2017, which purports to expose the “puppet masters guiding the chaos unfolding on America’s streets,” including a trail that Loudon is confident leads right to Putin. These same forces, whom Loudon says have long followed Joseph Stalin and Mao Tse Tung, “have been organizing protests and riots in the United States from the Vietnam War to Ferguson, Missouri.” Yet some people, Loudon complains on the panel, “have the insolence” to accuse Trump of ties to the Russian president.
While speaker after speaker assails the left – Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, for example, claims that paid protesters are “angry” and “militant,” and are “willing to engage in criminal violence to get what they want” – it is clear here that it’s the right that’s becoming radicalized. Eight speakers from Breitbart are listed on the program. Matt Schlapp, chairman of the conference’s organizer, the American Conservative Union, treats Steve Bannon to a reverential interview, in which the president’s chief strategist and former Breitbart executive unabashedly lays out his norm-shattering agenda.
Sebastian Gorka, the deputy assistant to the president whose expertise-free anti-Muslim ideology has been derided by stunned national security experts, receives applause and standing ovations. “We are going to make the black flag of jihad as repugnant around the world as the black, white and red swastika flag of the Third Reich,” he pledges on the same morning The Forward publishes an article detailing his ties to “Hungarian far-right circles” and “openly racist and anti-Semitic groups and public figures.” Later in the day, a few dozen devoted fans line up in the exhibit hall are disappointed to learn that “something has come up” and Gorka is unable to make a signing for his book, Defeating Jihad.
The exhibit hall includes other evidence of the new radicalism. Tucked away in a corner – away from the attendees who clustered around the Heritage Foundation and NRA booths – was the far-right nationalist group Europe of Nations and Freedom. In the CPAC program, the booth is listed as “European Parliament,” but Europe of Nations and Freedom is a political group in the European Parliament, made up of the continent’s far-right nationalist parties, including Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France; the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, whose notoriously anti-Muslim leader, Geert Wilders, attended the Republican National Convention in July; and the Freedom Party of Austria, which was founded in the 1950s by ex-Nazis. The Freedom Party’s current leader, Heinz Christian Strache, said last year that he met with former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn at Trump Tower during the transition period – an assertion the Trump transition promptly labeled “fake news.”
Strache advocates for an “Islamization ban” in Austria, accusing an entire religion of having “a fascistic worldview.” In January, Strache said he would be visiting Washington for “a series of invitations to talks with interesting political representatives of the United States on the sidelines of the U.S. president’s inauguration on our packed schedule.”
A pamphlet offered at the ENF table describes its ethno-nationalism, including a statement that the group’s members “base their political alliance on the preservation of the identity of the citizens and nations of Europe, in accordance with the specific characteristics of each population.” The group also claims “the right to control and regulate immigration.” Gerald Bertl, who is staffing the booth, tells Rolling Stone, “today we are not doing interviews,” but says briefly that his organization is “critical” of the European Union. “It’s a unity of nationalist parties,” he says. By being at CPAC, he adds, he hopes to make a “harmonized cooperation between the United States and Europe.” (CPAC did not respond to a request for comment.)
Most CPAC attendees’ concerns, though, are closer to home, and in particular what they claim is an assault on the free speech rights of conservatives on college campuses. The speaking invitation to Milo Yiannopoulos, later rescinded over his pedophilia comments, was a response to those concerns, says Ian Walters, an ACU spokesman. “We think this free speech issue on college campuses is worth covering.”
College students at CPAC are eager to talk about it. Kylie Thomas, a student at Penn State, claims her pro-Trump views are stifled on campus, citing “girls who ripped up Trump signs” and an incident in which she claims people, including professors “were trying to push me into traffic” because she was wearing a Make America Great Again hat. A group of students from DePaul University cite their administration’s order that College Republicans redesign “Unborn Lives Matter” posters, which they claimed was a play on “Black Lives Matter” to highlight their concern about abortion. The university’s president, the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider, said at the time of the 2016 incident, “We accept that there is a distinction between being provocative and being hurtful. Speech whose primary purpose is to wound is inconsistent with our Vincentian and Catholic values.” But the administration’s action was another piece of evidence, according to recent DePaul graduate Connor Mulvey, that “we [conservatives] get suppressed.”
These free speech warriors have an ally in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who tells the CPAC crowd that “the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of those with whom you disagree.” She urges students who want to advocate for their conservative ideas not to “shut up.”
Despite being uninvited from the conference, Yiannopoulos’ presence is still felt in discussions about the alleged campus free speech issue. Scott Greer, a writer for the Daily Caller whose new book, No Campus for White Men: The Transformation of Higher Education into Hateful Indoctrination, is for sale at CPAC, tells Rolling Stone that he wrote it to expose the “victimhood culture and identity politics” that he believes are consuming college campuses. In the “new moral culture,” Greer contends, “they’re appealing to their victimhood, they’re appealing to their sense of oppression, as a way of gaining status in that moral hierarchy.”
Yiannopoulos wrote the foreward for Greer’s book, which he says “shines a light on the real issues on campus.” The problem, Yiannopoulos writes, “is not just overgrown crybabies,” but “an extreme version of identity politics” through which he claims students “want to disenfranchise and humiliate everyone who is not part of the designated victim groups – especially straight, white men.” Greer, Yiannopoulos concludes, is “a compatriot in the battle for America’s higher education.”
That battle, Greer tells Rolling Stone, is even more urgent under Trump. “I think it’s been heightened by Trump winning,” he says, because the “victimhood culture” activists “have this image of Trump being a fascist dictator who’s going to do horrible things to these oppressed minorities.”
At CPAC, conservatives are always the victim of a left that makes up “fake news” about them – and more threateningly, about Donald Trump.