NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Starving people eating dog food. Parents aborting babies after taking them home from the hospital. That was the dark vision — of creeping socialism and of abortion unrestrained — that marked the opening day of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual gathering of conservatives that offers an untrammeled view of Republican perspectives, and a sign of where the party is headed politically. President Trump is expected to speak at the conference on Saturday morning.
Although the Trump economy is booming and the United States is not currently involved in any major international conflicts, the conservative activists and Republican politicians who spoke on the ballroom stage at the waterfront hotel where the annual gathering takes place painted an insistently dark vision of the country. That appears to be a calculated strategy to motivate Republican voters ahead of the 2020 presidential election, stoking fear and anxiety about the Democrats’ accretion of power. Progressives were trying to “destroy the country from within,” warned one young conservative activist, Charlie Kirk, in one of the morning’s best received and most bracing speeches.
“They're trying to get rid of all the capitalists,” said Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., at the conclave’s opening session, “Marketing Marxism: There’s Nothing New About the Green New Deal.” Although the panel was billed as a discussion of the Democrats’ proposal for a renewable economy, it quickly turned into an attack on Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and the progressives now ascendant in the House of Representatives, some of whom are not afraid of the label of “socialist.”
It was a label CPAC speakers were happy to apply, repeating a line of attack advanced by President Trump in recent weeks. “We don’t have to look any further than Venezuela,” Meadow said, where the socialist government of Nicolás Maduro is in the midst of a violent, painful collapse.
Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., at a subsequent panel on debt, called the Green New Deal “draconian.” That was mild for the first day of CPAC, in a departure from last year’s conference, which was a largely celebratory affair. But that was before the Democrats reclaimed the House of Representatives and Democratic candidates for president launched their campaigns to unseat Trump.
One could have been forgiven for thinking that Ocasio-Cortez, who has been in Congress for not quite two months, was the president of the United States, while the Republican Party — which controls the White House and the U.S. Senate — was a minority party cast out in the wilderness. Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas were frequently invoked, whether her 70 percent tax rate on the wealthy or the transition from fossil fuels that the Green New Deal would appear to represent.
"We’ve got to get to a point where we celebrate capitalism,” Meadows urged. Meanwhile, Matt Schlapp of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC, expressed relief that “eight years of socialism under Obama” had come to an end. He did not specify how Obama’s program constituted socialism.
But if socialism was portrayed as a major menace, it was dwarfed by the menace of late-term abortion. In his State of the Union speech last month, Trump referred to measures in New York and Virginia that expanded protections for women’s reproductive choice. He said that Virginia’s governor, Democrat Ralph Northam, “would execute a baby after birth,” a misrepresentation of the measure that was facilitated by the Democrats’ bungled explanation of what the bill was intended to achieve.
CPAC represented a doubling down on this point, in an apparent bid to motivate anti-abortion activists before next year’s elections. Former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example, said that Democratic laws would be the same as taking babies home from the hospital and aborted thereafter.
“Infanticide” was invoked several times in the first several hours of CPAC, far eclipsing references to the Trump economy, a sign that conservatives believe they can retain the White House and Senate — and perhaps reclaim the House — by focusing on cultural rather than economic issues. Speaking shortly after Walker, anti-abortion activist Marjorie Dannenfelser of the Susan B. Anthony List said of Democratic efforts to enshrine Roe v. Wade abortion protections: “If you signed up for a dead baby, you’re gonna get one, no matter what.”
“It's not late-term abortion; it's murder,” said Ronna Romney McDaniel, the chair of the Republican National Committee.
“The goal of the anti-choice movement is to ban abortion outright, period, which is just wildly out of touch from where the majority of Americans are in this country,” said Amanda Thayer of NARAL, the reproductive rights organization. “Also, it's pretty amazing that the party cheering to end Roe at CPAC today claims the ‘pro-life’ mantle, yet they're the party that puts children in cages and uses family separation as a tool in their war against our fundamental rights. You couldn't find a shred of credibility in there, even if you had a microscope.”
Thayer also worried that the “dangerous rhetoric” around abortion could lead to violence. There was a significant increase in threats to abortion providers in 2017, according to the National Abortion Federation.
Guns came in for similarly strident treatment. Oliver North — notorious for his involvement in the Iran-contra affair during the 1980s, and now the president of the National Rifle Association — said that gun control advocates were “the vanguard of the Disarm America movement” and that they wanted to do away with the Second Amendment altogether.
"I ask you to pray for the NRA,” he urged.
Danger seemed to be everywhere. Sebastian Gorka, a former White House official and Fox News commentator, warned: “They want to take away your hamburgers.”
He added: “This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.”
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