Conference of US conservatives signals new alignment with Europe’s hard right
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The inclusion of renowned European nationalists at a recent conference of US conservatives and the change of government language about immigrants suggests a shift toward European-style populist nationalism within the reigning faction of the GOP.
Last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual gathering of conservative activists from around the US that dates back to 1973, was different from earlier ones, both in its choice of invited speakers, which included far-right European politicians Nigel Farage and Marion Le Pen, and in the intolerance of dissenting views. Spirited debate is normally a hallmark of the event.
The largest yearly gathering of conservatives, CPAC’s importance is that it serves as a barometer of the ideological leanings of the Republican grassroots base at a given moment. This year, that base seemed to have embraced a xenophobic populist nationalism, evinced by speakers and audience alike.
“I would describe them as extreme and, for the most part, outside the American tradition,” said Larry Sabato, Director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
British politician Nigel Farage gained prominence for his pro-Brexit views, but he is also known to be strongly anti-immigration and xenophobic. In 2014, for example, he said he would be concerned if a group of Romanian men moved in next door to him. “And if the neighbours were German children?” he was asked. “You know the difference,” he replied.
Bad traffic on the motorway? He blamed “open-door immigration”. He has said he is uncomfortable when people speak foreign languages around him on a train and he endorsed the far-right party in Germany’s federal elections.
For her part, Le Pen, the niece of French presidential candidate Marine Le Pen and the most glamorous member of an extreme-right dynasty, was billed by CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp on Twitter as a “classical liberal, a conservative”. The CPAC audience seemed to buy that, seeing her, in the words of one attendee, as “far removed” from the views of her Holocaust-denying grandfather, National Front founder Jean-Marine Le Pen, and his ultra-right daughter, Marine Le Pen, who assumed the party’s leadership and ejected her father from its ranks.
And with little wonder. Marion Le Pen has scarcely been written about in the US press, and on the few occasions when she has spoken with English-speaking journalists, she has been far more measured than she is back at home although she did tell the Washington Post that she is the “political heir” of her grandfather.
In France, she has steadfastly stood by Jean-Marine Le Pen who once said that the Ebola virus could solve France’s immigration problems without renouncing his racist views.
“This idea that she is sort of more moderate, that really is confusing,” said Brussels-based libertarian pundit Bill Wirtz. “I’m not sure where they got that idea.”
More than her aunt Marine Le Pen, whose base lies in the decaying industrialized north of France and forces a focus on economics, Marion Le Pen, whose political base is in the south of France where immigration is a more resonant issue, spotlights issues of racial and religious identity. She has said that she worries that the French Riviera is “becoming a favela” and that Muslims cannot “be given the same rank as the Catholic religion.”
“You couldn’t have imagined Marion Le Pen being invited two years ago,” Wirtz said. “Some people have been invited to say things that you can’t say yet as a Republican. That’s where I am very worried –for the future condition.”
It wasn’t just with the invited guests where the difference was seen. Last year, white supremacist Richard Spencer was kicked out of the hotel where the event is held because the organisers said they found his views “repugnant.” While he still wasn’t part of the main action this year, he was allowed to book a room in the hotel, from which he conducted interviews with the press and engaged with young CPAC attendees.
But prejudice was not confined to the hotel rooms. Ian Walters, spokesman for the American Conservative Union, which sponsors the event, said at a dinner on Friday night that former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele had only been chosen for the position because “he is a black guy.”
“There is a deep racism at work here in Europe and in America,” Sabato said.
But perhaps the most clear or at least the most high-profile sign of where the Trump faction of the Republican Party is headed came from President Donald Trump himself, when he prefaced his reading of the lyrics of a song called “The Snake” by telling the crowd to “think of it in terms of immigration.”
“The Snake,” which Trump has read on multiple occasions (despite its having been written in the 1960s by a black communist from Chicago who had a very different interpretation of the song), tells the story of a woman who finds a dying snake that she takes home and nurses back to health. When she reproaches the snake for, upon its recovery, delivering her a fatal, venomous bite, it replies, “Oh, shut up silly woman….You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in.”
Trump’s anti-immigrant reading came just a day after the US Citizen and Immigration Services changed the wording of its mission statement to remove the phrase “nation of immigrants.”
This year’s CPAC also differed from earlier ones in that it brooked no alternative views which was, perhaps, another indication of the current state of conservative affairs. While CPACs of the past were known for their animated exchanges of different conservative viewpoints, this year’s panelists were expected to toe the ideological line.
Well-known conservative commentator Mona Charen was escorted out by security after being booed for saying that Republican women had lost credibility on the subject of sexual harassment by excusing the behaviour of President Trump and backing accused child molester Roy Moore’s bid for US Senate. She also criticized the inclusion of Le Pen at the event.
What was on the table at CPAC this year was nothing short of “the redefining of conservatism,” Wirtz said. “I think the idea of the conservative movement today, or at least the part that attends CPAC, is really to replicate a European-style nationalism or nativism.”
That redefinition is leaving a lot of people out in the cold.
“This is deeply disturbing, not just to liberal Americans and independent and moderate Americans, this is disturbing to many people who have been Republicans their whole lives,” Sabato said. “They are completely alienated from this party … The old-line Republicans, the establishment Republicans, are appalled, for the most part, at what happened to the GOP.”