2021 CPAC, a gigantic grievance festival

2021 CPAC, a gigantic grievance festival
A gold statue of former president Donald Trump on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, Florida. (Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The annual Conservative Political Action Conference, taking place this year in Orlando, Florida, has become a gigantic grievance festival that also helps illuminate the heightening division within the Republicans — and points towards a struggle within that party that is only beginning to be fought.

We are all used to the way novelists, cartoonists, animators, satirists and essayists have used animal characters to portray supposedly human attributes or as stand-ins for human failings, in order to deliver their messages — or even just to entertain us — as animals were anthropomorphised for our edification. 

Former US president Donald Trump embraces the US flag after speaking to the 47th annual Conservative Political Action Conference in 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Erik S. Lesser)

From Aesop’s time onward we have been introduced to foxes who forswear grapes as likely to be too sour because they are too high to reach. Or, perhaps we encountered Anansi the Spider and the New World offshoot, Brer Rabbit, or maybe it was Reynard the Fox’s tales from Medieval Europe that merged with the traditional Khoisan tales of a prankster jackal in southern Africa in order to create the local version of an animal anti-hero. George Orwell, of course, gave us that unforgettable collection of creatures in Animal Farm who served as place-holders for his very dim view of Stalinist murderers and masters of duplicity and deceit.

Back in his famous 1953 discourse, The Hedgehog and the Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy’s View of History, philosopher/historian Isaiah Berlin resurrected a fragment of classical Greek verse attributed to the poet Archilochus that explained: “A fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.” In Berlin’s essay, he had built upon this line to divide thinkers, writers (and, by extension, doers) into two camps. 

First, there are hedgehogs who see the world through the lens of a single, big defining idea — ie, in hedgehog-ese, don’t get caught and eaten. In contrast, foxes draw upon a wide variety of experiences and opportunities and for them, the world cannot be boiled down to a single, overarching idea — ie, virtually everything may be a possible meal. Or, in fox-ian thinking, the world is a very complex place. Nice lesson there.

South African readers are also likely to be familiar with books, essays, and conference presentations by scenario-futurists Clem Sunter and Chantell Ilbury, applying Archilochus’ and Berlin’s descriptive typology to the challenges of our own time. In these treatments, the two authors have offered a way to think about the disruptive nature of the world we inhabit, especially in response to the challenges of rapidly changing technology, and social and economic change.

But beyond all these foxes and hedgehogs, it is much rarer to apply presumed animal behaviour to human attributes as a way of understanding and illustrating human behaviour. This past weekend’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) fun-fest gives us the opportunity to do a spot of zoomorphism. 

CPAC is a brainchild of the leadership of the American Conservative Union (ACU), a public advocacy body that has, over the years, operated largely in sync with the Republican Party. Because of Covid-19, this year it has been taking place in Orlando, Florida, where the pandemic precautions have been rather less onerous than in the meeting’s usual gathering place in Maryland.

Years before, CPAC had been designed to give conservative thinkers and politicians the opportunity to mix and mingle with like-minded activists, media polemicists and potential financial angels and donors as various speakers offered conservative counters — and big policy ideas — to what organisers believed was the overwhelming dead hand and dangerous weight of liberal or even socialist-lite thinking that was guiding government policies across the country. 

In US conservative thought, back in the early 1950s, to be a conservative was to be staunchly anti-communist, anti-union, opposed to much or all of the New Deal’s social revolution, and a fundamentalist on constitutional freedoms. Staunchly anti-communist was often more of a euphemism for the frequently hysterical overreaction to domestic dissent from the left that fuelled McCarthyism and worse in US politics — as well as for society more broadly, especially for the media, universities, and Hollywood.

It was the political genius of a writer-provocateur like William F Buckley and some of his friends, along with the public stances of a politician like Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater that helped drag the 20th-century conservative strand in US life into being more directly policy-driven, rather than just an intemperate snarl from deep within the cave, although it also allowed for more conspiratorial world views to grow as well in the shadows. The ACU, co-founded in 1964 by Buckley, and then, its child, CPAC, founded a decade later, was designed to make conservatism — and especially a policy-driven conservatism of ideas — a more coherent and hopefully popular ideological force in US politics. 

But now, especially with this year’s CPAC taking place in the wake of Donald Trump’s (the man who used to be president, aka TMWUTBP) trouncing in the 2020 election, CPAC has become a grievance fair. There has been all that wailing about the nefarious forces arrayed against true patriots like CPAC’s speakers and attendees and their desire to limit the voting franchise to people who support their goals, whatever they are. And there are dark warnings about the evils of relying upon science in defeating the Covid pandemic. 

Lost among all this bad boy behaviour has been the absence of the advocacy of any actual programme of action. Perhaps this is because CPAC groupies really have no realistic plan of action to call their own, just all that grievance, anger and bile about a mythically stolen election by Joe Biden and his allies in the media and that equally mythic deep state. Whatever.

Erik Svane shows his CPAC credential while wearing a gas mask during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Floridao 28 February 2021. CPAC was to conclude with a speech from former President Trump, his first public speech since leaving office on 20 January 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich)

Or, as old-line conservative columnist Michael Gerson (a former adviser in George W Bush’s White House) wrote the other day, “Asking Conservative Political Action Conference attendees for their views on conservatism is like asking arsonists to lecture on fire safety. For decades, the fondest hope of the kind of agitators attracted by this annual event has been a Republican president who shares the breadth of their grievance, the depth of their anger and the fervour of their conspiratorial delusions. In Donald Trump, they finally found their man. He will be welcomed this year — as he will be for the rest of his life — as the god-king of Crazy Town.

“The problem is that Trump has extended his realm to include state Republican Party institutions across the country, which now see their primary role as the censure of sanity. The vast majority of elected Republicans have demonstrated their cravenness by falling meekly into line. And the vast majority of Republican voters seem to view Crazy Town as preferable to what they believe is the other place: the socialist, ‘PC,’ police-free Republic of Liberalistan.”

And as Karen Tumulty reported on the event for The Washington Post, “Who would have guessed that you would find so many snowflakes in Orlando at this time of year?

“The theme of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference taking place there this weekend — ‘America Uncanceled’ — is a nod to the sense of grievance that has suffused the gathering so far, and that no doubt will reach a crescendo when former president Donald Trump gives the closing address Sunday, his first big appearance since leaving office.

“A golden statue of Trump — something that in biblical times might have been referred to as a graven image — was wheeled into CPAC’s exhibit hall for attendees to worship. ‘TPAC [the TrumpPAC] — that’s what it feels like, guys!’ the ex-president’s son Don Jr. declared.

“Whatever it is, CPAC has fallen a long way from the days when actual policy ideas were discussed there. But it remains a reasonable barometer of the state of the GOP id.

“Among the most frequently cited villains this year have been Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who was the Republican Party’s 2012 presidential nominee, and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), the daughter of a former vice president and the third-ranking leader of the GOP’s caucus in the House. As CPAC awaits the elder Trump’s appearance, speaker after speaker has exulted in victimhood, which seems to have become the highest badge of honor for anyone on the right to claim. One of the panels on Friday was titled ‘How Government, Big Tech and Media Are Colluding to Deprive Us of Our Humanity’.”

The final speaker at this, the Maga (Make America Great Again) version of the “Burning Man” festival, CPAC’s keynoter in 2021, is none other than TMWUTBP himself. In doing this, he is signalling his hope to stay right in the ballgame for 2024, and his intention, moreover, to be the kingmaker for Republican candidates out of the primaries for the 2022 mid-term election for a third of the Senate and all of the House of Representatives.

And so, on to our own zoomorphic typology among the Republicans more generally, and for the attendees (or those absent) at this year’s CPAC. First, there is the big herd of lemmings. Lemmings, those cute little rodents from Scandinavia, in legend at least, have the suicidal habit of throwing themselves over the cliffs in droves — a story that was popularised in a 1950s Disney nature film. They actually die off in episodic boom-and-bust population cycles that drive hordes of them to search for new foraging grounds — in a behaviour that mimics mass suicide. 

The key here is that at CPAC and among many Republican voters and office-holders in many states more broadly, they have embraced the legends that TMWUTBP actually won the 2020 election, that he was ceaselessly harassed by something called “cancel culture”, and that he is “The One” who must be followed in the future electoral processes — even if it is right over that future electoral cliff. If reported survey data is accurate, a majority of Republican voters and office-bearers continue to believe in these legends. However, such beliefs are not held in the population as a whole, and significant numbers of previously Republican Party voters are deregistering from that party and running for cover.

A second group in our typology is the lions. In this case, those brave creatures are a small pack of fierce fighters among Republican office-holders who chose to be true to their deeper values and thus who elected to vote against the then president in his second impeachment and trial, or who refused to knuckle under intense pressure to pervert the electoral process by defrauding the vote count. And even, astonishingly, there was the then vice-president, Mike Pence, who declined to twist the final, formal electoral vote certification, despite an insurrectionist mob that had just occupied the Capitol itself, acting at the incitement of the then-president. 

But compared to the horde of lemmings, these lions are a small pack of fighters. And, of course, none of these lions — individuals like senators Ben Sasse, Richard Cassidy, Lisa Murkowski and Mitt Romney; representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger; and former US UN ambassador Nikki Haley — chose to come to Orlando for the CPAC hate-fest. On the basis of their votes, many of them will face real pressures on themselves in their territories from others egged on by an incensed TMWUTBP. It is absolutely true that none of these individuals would be identified as social democrats as they largely hold positions that would be comfortable within more traditional positions that had been espoused by Republicans for decades. But, had they arrived at CPAC this year, they would have been harangued and jeered at by all those lemmings.

People attend the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, 28 February 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cristobal Herrera-Ulashkevich)

But then there is one more group in our little typology. These are the hyenas. They consume everything and anything they can get their jaws on, and they fight among themselves to consume whatever they can. Nasty bunch. And in our zoomorphic taxonomy, who might those “hyenas” be? Well, there are those elected officials like senators Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Rick Scott, congressmen like Matt Gaetz, governors Kristi Noem and Ron DeSantis, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, among the others. 

And then there is the MWUTBP himself, slated to deliver a speech that would deliver theatrically all the grievances and fake truths that he had done so much to cultivate, in order to excoriate any Republican who had dared to oppose him for any reason in any forum. 

What these theatrics have done is to tee up the internecine civil war within the Republican Party. And so it is reasonable to ask several questions. Will any disagreement with the theology of grievance be permitted within this party or will the lemmings be led by those hyenas to their next population disaster, only then allowing newer voices to step forward? Will there be a vicious virtual bloodletting among those hyenas who want to seize the leadership for the nomination in 2024, as the former president’s presence fades over the next several years? 

Or, will the Republicans insist on maintaining a set of angers and grievances as their core values, such that they drive yet more potential members and voters from among their herd, leading — perhaps — to an actual split within the party between a lemming cult led by hyenas and a principled conservative party that actually espouses policies and debates its opposition on the grounds of ideas and programmes?

Or, will Republicans find their internal squabbles so painful that they will fall back on the one-term president who had led them to electoral collapse in 2020, despite the track record he would bring to the next fight?

This is only just beginning. DM


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