If you were looking for Rep. Peter King’s “self-righteous, delusional wing” of the GOP, you would have found it at CPAC this past weekend. The new conservatism doesn’t care for Chris Christie, even when he touts his forced-birth advocacy, because he isn’t angry or pious enough.
“He sees us as children of God, which is how we see the world.” So said an attendee at the American Conservative Union’s annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this weekend in National Harbor, Maryland while talking about Ben Carson, the token brain surgeon whose participation at the confab surely smoothed over the frustration that white nationalists were participating. That single sentence speaks volumes about what modern conservatives want: they are more interested in piety than policy, swooning over the strongest personality with the most unambiguously partisan religious message, and the more dissonant with reality, the better. CPAC conservatives don’t just accept Carson’s denialism, they actively adore him for doubting evolution and climate change.
But it’s not just science and public policy losing out in the new conservatism. When Dana Loesch told a ‘religious freedom’ panel that “Christians” ought to be a “protected class,” she wasn’t talking about the kind of Christians who welcome gays into their churches and encourage religious pluralism. She was specifically advancing a narrow, Dominionist belief system held almost exclusively by a slim majority of Republicans who think President Obama isn’t a Christian — and who want their own brand of Christianity established as America’s official religion, regardless of what the Constitution says or even what other Christians say.
For this demographic, homophobia almost always overlaps Islamophobia. “Since we have a victim competition in the United States, I think we win,” Loesch added, revealing the majoritarianism lurking just underneath her whining invocation of minority protection. Loesch said those words to columnist Cal Thomas and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins, two men with a decades-long track record of self-righteous commentary on matters of sexuality and religion.
While TIME magazine noted a generational split over marriage equality at the conference, and Towleroad talked to gay conservatives at the conference, no gay conservative group has been allowed to participate in CPAC since 2011. That was the year GOProud briefly had the support of Andrew Breitbart and Ann Coulter against the ‘family values’ crowd, which then won the resulting internal battle in the American Conservative Union. Gays have been welcome at CPAC since then, but only as individuals, not as a group.
Just to underline the point that LGBT Americans are only welcome in the conservative movement as long as they don’t ask for anything, this weekend CPAC gave the gay-bashing Duck Commander Phil Robertson a ‘Defender of the First Amendment’ award named for Brietbart, who had backed away from GOProud before his death. Of course, Robertson spent this moment in the spotlight punching hippies, pondering the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases in a country that still has ‘abstinence-only education,’ and calling for the US Department of Education to be shut down.
Pew Research Center put out some interesting data on contemporary partisan polarization just before the conference. They found that ‘consistent conservatives’ are not just the most politically active demographic, but are also the most likely to value religious faith and blind obedience over empathy or selfless acts of charity. CPAC religion therefore is not about a kinder, gentler Jesus, but rationalized hatred of The Other. It is the perfect environment for conservatives who believe their religion gives them a special freedom to discriminate. Why else would white nationalists be allowed to operate an ‘English Only’ booth when the Log Cabin Republicans can’t even get a place at the table?
Just consider the chilly reception that threatened to derail Jeb Bush’s appearance at the conference, forcing him to bus supporters to the event so they could pack the room and prevent a walkout from embarrassing him. Along with complaints that he’s too lenient on undocumented immigrants, the ‘real’ conservatives dislike Bush for supporting Common Core educational standards — a new litmus test for a movement that more and more resembles the John Birch Society in its unquestioning acceptance of bizarre rhetoric and lunatic conspiracy theories. By contrast, John Bolton’s jingoistic remarks about Hillary Clinton and Benghazi were received with enthusiasm. And why wouldn’t they? After all, this is the same crowd that thinks Jeb’s brother George didn’t go far enough because he wouldn’t declare a crusade against Islam.
Similarly, Scott Walker, who got a nice poll bounce from his appearance at CPAC, is still explaining his remarks which compared Wisconsin protesters to the Islamic State. But his words are only problematic for those of us who aren’t right wing conservatives; most of the crowd at CPAC doesn’t care what National Review says about this, because teachers, workers, and state employees are exactly the uppity liberals they believe are most in need of humbling through militant opposition and dictatorial legislation. Even Sarah Palin, who surprised observers by managing to deliver a coherent, topical speech on veterans’ issues, brought the war home before she was finished.
The Republican ‘Big Tent’ is shrinking, covering an ever-narrower segment of the nation while excluding an ever-larger majority. Meanwhile, those still inside the tent are more convinced than ever that they deserve to be there, and that their god gives them the right to impose their shrinking minority rule on the rest of us.