The Republican Party is still in thrall to Trumpism, with or without Donald
OPINION: There are no moderate Republican presidential candidates, as this year’s CPAC conference shows
One of the common – and in my view, valid – criticisms of US political journalism is that it tends to cover electoral politics as if they were horse races, with TV talking heads and print journalists ginning up the public’s excitement via exaggerated emphasis on any and every point that can service a narrative of entertaining competition.
We can already observe this pattern in coverage of the primary elections that will determine the Republican Party’s presidential candidate for 2024. The primaries won’t be held for almost a year (between February and June next year), but potential candidates are already beginning to campaign, and journalists are already busy crafting an exciting story about whether anyone can realistically defeat Donald Trump.
For many of us, the prospects for 2024 are not exciting but terrifying, and the main questions are: which Republican presidential candidate, if any, would be least bad/most likely to lose? And how do we make sure that the Democrats keep the White House and gain as much power in Congress as possible? The stakes are particularly high for the transgender community, amid a national climate of increasing anti-trans hostility.
That hostility was on display at this year’s CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference), held in National Harbor, Maryland in early March. A major political event since its inception in 1974, this annual conference brings the GOP’s base together with key right-wing influencers and Republican politicians for a few days of speeches and networking.
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Fortunately, some journalists noted the anti-trans rhetoric at the conference, especially this explicitly eliminationist comment by prominent right-wing pundit Michael Knowles: “Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”
Many have rightly called this comment genocidal, but Knowles denies this by claiming that “genocide refers to genes, it refers to genetics, it refers to biology”. This is incorrect, according to international law, which stipulates, for example, that a group defined by religion can be a target of genocide. But, more to the point in this case, it is also simply false to claim that being transgender is an ‘ideology’, and that it is possible to distinguish a call for the eradication of this supposed ‘ideology’ from a call for the eradication of trans people.
Lessons from this year’s CPAC
Unfortunately, much of the mainstream coverage of CPAC wasn’t concerned with such hateful behaviour. Instead, following the typical ‘horse race’ pattern, the punditocracy fixated on other topics – such as whether the conference is still ‘relevant’ (attendance was down compared to previous years) and whether the potential presidential candidates who aren’t named Trump made the right choice either by attending the conference or staying away from it.
There were scandals, too, including a sexual assault accusation against Matt Schlapp, who heads the American Conservative Union, the organisation behind CPAC. And stories about presidential hopefuls such as ex-UN ambassador Nikki Haley, who was heckled with jeers and chants of “We love Trump”.
My concern is not that these things are reported on, but how they are framed. The coverage often suggests, implicitly or explicitly, that there are real alternatives to Trump’s authoritarian approach in today’s Republican Party when there clearly are not. Regardless of whether Trump clinches a shot at a second presidential term (regardless even of whether he is effectively removed from the competition by being indicted for a serious crime), the mainstream of today’s Republican Party will follow the same path of Christian nationalist extremism Trump came to embody in 2016.
Among the confirmed Republican presidential candidates so far, Nikki Haley and ex-secretary of state Mike Pompeo, who mixes evangelical Christian apocalypticism with foreign policy (and both of whom served in the Trump administration), are not ‘moderate’ alternatives. And Ron DeSantis – the clear frontrunner among Trump’s opponents for the 2024 nomination, who, pointedly, did not attend this year’s CPAC – is currently out-trumping Trump as the governor of Florida.
In other words, as German journalist and keen observer of the US Christian right Annika Brockschmidt argued, there is no significant ideological divide within the Republican Party, even if there are superficial, essentially aesthetic differences between the hardcore MAGA (‘Make America Great Again’) types who continue to show up at CPAC and the Republicans who want to “move past Trump.”
CPAC has always been a right-wing spectacle, but it morphed into a specifically MAGA circus over the last few years and clearly remains the same today. The same old characters – Fox News host Tucker Carlson, ex-Trump strategist Steve Bannon, and Trump himself – showed up, as did a right-wing foreign leader to lend an air of international solidarity to the culture wars cause.
This year, it was Brazil’s ex-president and far-right favourite Jair Bolsonaro, who arrived in Florida at the very end of last year (just days before the failed, election-denying insurrection in Brasilia on 8 January, an event undoubtedly inspired by the failed, election-denying insurrection at the US Capitol on 6 January 2021).
But if, as numerous pundits maintain, CPAC has lost its lustre as a launching pad for the GOP’s rising stars, there is no reason to believe that this heralds a serious shift in the party’s current Christian nationalist direction. What many have called ‘Trumpism’, but which we might as well plainly and truthfully call fascism, will continue to animate the Republican Party, with or without Trump at its head, and a Republican with a more sophisticated understanding of political manoeuvering than Trump may even be more dangerous as president.
That Trump’s potential competitors are afraid to directly criticise him now is evidence for the GOP’s authoritarian character, rather than evidence of serious division. The topics on which competitors do risk mild criticisms – for example, Pompeo’s reference at CPAC to “celebrity leaders” who “cannot accept reality” – are much more aesthetic and superficial than substantive.
The US Republican Party is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, a serious threat to democracy and human rights. That’s where our focus should be, and not on treating GOP politics and the 2024 election cycle like sporting events, as if their value is primarily entertainment and their outcomes will not have a serious impact on the lives of millions of Americans.
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