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CPAC, the league of extraordinary right-wing gentlemen

CPAC, the league of extraordinary right-wing gentlemen

Right-wingers, flat-earthers, John Birchers, birthers, Tenth-ers, libertarians and even a few mainstream Republicans joined thousands of political operatives this weekend in Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). They were determined to make Barack Obama a one-term president, abolish evolution, declare the federal government an endangered species - and return everyone to a golden age that never was.

Right-wing poster boy broadcaster and self-proclaimed clown, Glenn Beck was the closing speaker on Saturday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) hosted by the American Conservative Union in a swanky Washington hotel. 

As the keynote speaker, Beck tossed the crowd some of the red meat they had been craving all along, with his grandiloquent denunciation of Democratic plans, policies and personalities that he labelled a cancer needing to be surgically excised from the American political system. Not many echoes of Hamilton, Hume or Burke here about the nature of political power balancing.

But Beck didn’t stop there. He insisted that blaming Obama was just “too simple an answer”. Instead, the real American disease was – wait for it – “progressivism”. Beck even told his audience that Republicans needed to search out and find their true soul; what did they really stand for. Or, as Beck himself (a recovering alcoholic and infomercials host, it should be noted) said, “Hello, my name is the Republican Party, and I have a problem! I’m addicted to spending and big government… It is still morning in America. It just happens to be a kind of head-pounding, hung-over, vomiting-for-four-hours morning in America. And it’s shaping up to be kind of a nasty day. But it is still morning in America.”

Watch: Part one of Glenn Beck’s CPAC rant

Beck spoke after Newt Gingrich had already walked out onto the main platform to the sounds of “Eye of the Tiger” from the 1970s film “Rocky”. Searchlights sought out the crying, the transfixed, the ecstatic in the audience. We couldn’t make this up, 35-year-old recycled culture with a fictional character as the metaphor for the right wing’s future. Gingrich told the crowd that the Democrats were about to get a really bad spanking in the midterm election in November, but he softened his message slightly, calling for bipartisanship at the healthcare summit this week with Democrats — or what he is now calling the great “secular socialist machine”. Way to go, Newt, that’s the ole bipartisan spirit!

Earlier on, Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and a man in  persistent danger of becoming a perennial candidate for president, called Barack Obama a failure 13 times in his speech, giving the crowd such stirring lines as: “[Obama’s] energy should have been focused on fixing the economy and creating jobs and succeeding in our fight against radical violent jihad. Instead, he applied his time and political capital to his ill-conceived healthcare takeover and to building his personal popularity in foreign countries. He failed to focus, and so he failed.” And then he defended George Bush’s heretofore unknown reputation for tightly focusing on things, adding: “I am convinced that history will judge President Bush far more kindly.” Right again!

Watch: Part one of Mitt Romney’s speech

Of course, a convention like this is part pep rally, part networking nirvana for the kind of folks who are genuinely convinced Barack Obama is really the serpent-tongued, Kenyan-born, devil’s spawn, anti-Christ, long-lost cousin of Marx and Stalin all at the same time. But most of all the meeting became a preliminary round in the Republican presidential candidate beauty pageant. And so, people like Gingrich, Romney, Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Representative Ron Paul of Texas all came to test out new applause lines, as aides watched the crowd closely for approval/disapproval reactions.

Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas congressman – you remember, the guy who thought he could balance the federal budget if he just brought all the troops home and put the country back on the gold standard – had garnered 31% of the votes in the presidential straw poll and Mitt Romney had 22% (2,400 votes were cast, although about 10,000 people actually attended the convention in whole or in part). Even though Sarah Palin skipped this conclave, she came in third with 7%, and a very “white bread” and surprisingly weird Governor of Minnesota, Tim Pawlenty, harvested 6%.

Watch: Tim Pawlenty on what conservatives can learn from Tiger Woods’ wife. (Hint: it’s not subtle)

By way of example, when Pawlenty spoke to the confab, he seemed to be trying to recruit some help from a higher authority with the chant: “God’s in charge. God is in charge. There are some people who say, ‘Oh, you know, Pawlenty, don’t bring that up. You know, it’s politically incorrect.’ Hogwash.” But even bringing in God’s “terrible swift sword” didn’t seem to help him much in the straw poll. Now, if Mike Huckabee, the 2008 Republican primary candidate, guitar-playing preacher, fried squirrel-eating former Arkansas governor had been there in Pawlenty’s place, maybe heaven might have had a bigger influence on the final vote.

Although this early presidential straw poll will get lots of media attention as pundits try to suss out the meaning of it all – at least, until another such poll comes along – David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that was the overall sponsor of the meeting, insisted that the 2012 presidential race was not their focus because Republicans are totally focused, like that proverbial laser beam, on the 2010 midterm elections: “We all have our eyes on the closest target.” Oh, right. Step right up, I have a bridge to Brooklyn I want to sell you.

While the list of the organisers and sponsors of the conference is too long to print here (check out CPAC website), it is interesting to see that old standbys from the hoary big business Republican world like the American Petroleum Institute and the National Rifle Association, and the old-line conspiratorial right-wing groups like the John Birch Society joined hands with some new groups like the Indian American Republican Council (aka the Bobby Jindal cheerleaders), (repeat after me: there is no global warming, there is no global warming), and the Poker Players Alliance – and, no, we didn’t make that last one up. It’s right there on the list. Probably a tax thing. Say, wasn’t Washington the “problem” for these guys? Why didn’t they meet in a solid Republican heartland city like Dubuque, Iowa, for crying out loud?

But maybe the best line on this meeting came from The New York Times columnist, Gail Collins. She wrote: “The workshops and panels [at the CPAC conference] range from ‘Is It Time for a Catholic Tea Party?’ to ‘Getting Started in Hollywood’.” Surveying the conferees – and the right more generally – she marvelled that they were increasingly becoming tangled up with things like a good fight over the real meaning of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution (the one that reserves powers not assigned to the federal government to the states and was a big, big issue back about a 150 years ago. Hint: the American Civil War). Or, as Collins wrote, “How many of you out there thought we had settled the question of whether states have the right to nullify federal laws during the Lincoln administration?”

Another biggie for the conferees was whether (oh no, mon dieu, sacre bleu, not that!) the US is destined to become the France of the 21st century. Now, for your quiz on Friday, please discuss, in 500 words or less, why are the French so hated by the American right-wingers nowadays? Is it because the French hung back a bit about those weapons of mass destruction a few years back? Or has the right-wing forgotten all about Lafayette and Rochambeau and French help during the Revolutionary War, or, perhaps, De Tocqueville’s laudatory comments on the American social spirit?

For us, this gathering brings to mind the now-classic analysis of the right in American politics, the essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by historian Richard Hofstadter. First published in Harpers Magazine in November 1964, Hofstadter wrote that the right seemed to believe:

The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old, but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high. [our italics]

Written nearly 50 years ago, it reads like Hofstadter was a working journalist at the CPAC conference, taking some very good notes.

By J. Brooks Spector

For more, read the NYTimes here, here, here and here, the Washington Post, Harper’s magazine – or go right to the CPAC website.

Main photo: Congressman Tom Price (R-GA) speaks at a rally during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) during their annual meeting in Washington, February 19, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

And just to sweeten your experience, watch Glenn Beck bark like a dog at Obama video. Warning: potentially disturbing images.


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