Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
March 6, 2023
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) met in Washington, D.C., over the weekend, sparking speculation over the 2024 Republican presidential field. Hard-right figures like Donald Trump and his loyalists Mike Lindell, the MyPillow entrepreneur, and Kari Lake, who lost the 2022 race for Arizona governor, attended, along with House Judiciary Committee chair Jim Jordan (R-OH) and right-wing media figure Steve Bannon, but many of those testing the 2024 presidential waters gave it a miss.
CPAC started in 1974, and since then it has been a telltale for the direction the Republican Party is going. This year was no exception.
CPAC was smaller this year than in the past, and it showcased the Republican extremism that is far outside the mainstream of normal American politics. “Feels like MAGA country!” Donald Trump, Jr., told the crowd.
The headliner was former president Trump, twice impeached, deeply involved in an attempt to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and embroiled in a range of criminal investigations. In his speech, Trump embraced his leadership of those hardening around a violent mentality based in grievance that echoes that of fascist movements.
“In 2016, I declared: I am your voice,” he said. “Today, I add: I am your warrior. I am your justice. And for those who have been wronged and betrayed: I am your retribution.”
He claimed that he and his followers are “engaged in an epic struggle to rescue our country from the people who hate it and want to absolutely destroy it…. We are going to finish what we started. We started something that was a miracle. We’re going to complete the mission, we’re going to see this battle through to ultimate victory. We’re going to make America great again.” After listing all the “villains and scoundrels” he and his followers would “demolish,” “drive out,” “cast out,” “throw off,” “beat,” “rout,” and “evict,” he continued: “We have no choice. This is the final battle.”
Other Republican hopefuls are waiting in the wings. Trump has, in fact, never won the popular vote, and his leadership has brought historic losses for the party, but his control over his voting base makes him the front-runner for the Republican nomination.
Other candidates seem to be hoping that criminal indictments will knock Trump out of the race and open space for them without making them take a stand against Trump and thus alienate his followers. It seems likely that if such an indictment were forthcoming, they would blame Democrats for Trump’s downfall and hope to ride to office with his voting bloc behind them, without having to embrace that voting blocs’ ideology.
That hope seems delusional, considering the increasing emphasis of the Trump Republicans and their imitators on violence. The Republicans are hitting on a constant refrain that crime is on the upswing in the U.S. Since crime does not, in fact, seem to be rising, it seems worth noting that an emphasis on crime justifies the use of state power to combat that crime and normalizes the idea of violence against “criminals,” a category the Republican Party is defining more and more broadly. This will be an extremely difficult genie to stuff back into a bottle, especially as leading Republican figures are increasingly talking in martial terms and referring to the U.S. Civil War.
That emphasis on violence corresponds with something else on display at this year’s CPAC: how completely the Republican Party now depends on a false narrative constructed out of lies.
CPAC fact checkers had their work cut out for them. Linda Qiu of the New York Times found Trump repeated a number of things previously identified as incorrect as well as adding some new ones. Politifact fact checked other speakers and found they, too, continued to develop the idea of a country run by those who hate it and are eager to undermine it. Various speakers said the Department of Justice is calling parents worried about their kids’ educations “terrorists” (false), fentanyl will kill you if any of it touches your skin, thus putting us all at deadly risk (false), cartels have “operational control” of the U.S.-Mexico border (false), and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky has said he wants America’s “sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine” (again, false).
Right-wing media amplifies this narrative. Depositions in the Dominion Voting Systems defamation lawsuit against the Fox News Corporation made it very clear that both Fox News executives and hosts work closely with Republican operatives to spread a Republican narrative, even when it is based on lies—in that case, in the lie that Trump won the election, which they privately agreed was ridiculous. So, when House speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) gave to FNC personality Tucker Carlson exclusive access to 44,000 hours of video from the footage from the Capitol on January 6, 2021, he indicated the Republicans will continue to try to garner support with a false narrative.
Carlson’s coverage of the videos started tonight, with him depicting the rioters as “sightseers” and claiming that other media outlets have lied about the violence on January 6. In reality, Carlson simply didn’t show the many hours of violent footage: more than 1,000 people have been arrested on charges relating to their actions surrounding January 6, more than half have pleaded guilty, and around one third of those charged were charged with assaulting, resisting, or impeding police officers.
McCarthy’s desperation to maintain the party’s narrative shows in his unilateral decision to give Carlson exclusive access to that video. A wide range of media outlets are clamoring for equal access to the footage while congressional Democrats are demanding to know on what authority McCarthy gave Carlson that access. The House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol had arranged to transfer the films to the National Archives, but when the Republicans rewrote the rules in January, they instead transferred the video to the House Administration Committee.
McCarthy did not consult the committee when he gave access to the films to Carlson. Nor did he consult House minority leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-CA), who has noted that releasing the films without consultation with the Capitol Police is a security risk. Instead, McCarthy apparently coordinated with Representative Barry Loudermilk (R-GA), chair of the Subcommittee on Oversight. Loudermilk led a tour of the Capitol complex on January 5, 2021.
Representative Norma J. Torres (D-CA), ranking member of the Oversight Subcommittee, told Justin Papp of Roll Call that McCarthy “totally went around, not just the subcommittee, but the entire committee…. I hope Ethics will have something to say about this. I think it needs to be investigated on all different levels.” In contrast, House Administration Committee chair Bryan Steil (R-WI) appeared unconcerned with the end run around the responsible committee, saying that “the key is that we’re balancing the transparency that’s needed for the American people with the security interests of the House.”
Republicans are planning to take this disinformation campaign across the nation. Despite their insistence that they want to slash government spending, Republican leaders are in fact urging their colleagues to engage in “field hearings” that will take their “message” straight to voters at a time when they are not managing to accomplish much of anything at all in Washington. Jordan’s Judiciary Committee has requested a travel budget of $262,000, more than 30 times what it spent on travel last year and 3 times what it spent before the pandemic, and it is not just the Judiciary Committee that is hitting the road.
As Annie Karni and Catie Edmondson of the New York Times noted today, this also means that they speak at the plants of Republican donors, thus giving them free advertising. Congressional Democrats say they received almost no notice of these trips.
News broke today that an Israeli tech firm has uncovered a vast network of as many as hundreds of thousands of fake Twitter accounts designed to promote Trump and his vision, creating the illusion that he is more popular than he is. The analysts at the firm, Cyabra, believe the system was created within the U.S. “One account will say, ‘Biden is trying to take our guns; Trump was the best,’ and another will say, ‘Jan. 6 was a lie and Trump was innocent,’” said the engineer who discovered the network, Jules Gross. “Those voices are not people. For the sake of democracy I want people to know this is happening.”
Republicans have advanced an increasingly false political vision—what theorists call a “virtual political reality”—since the 1980s, and now their base has hardened into true believers who claim to be willing to fight for their vision. But in the years since Trump took office, previously uninterested Americans have seen what it means when those who believe in that vision take power.
Those who believe in equality before the law are standing up for that principle. Tonight, for example, social media is flooded with video clips refuting Carlson’s narrative point by point, suggesting that McCarthy’s decision to help him shore up the Republican narrative might only have strengthened its opponents.