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‘Fight the Barbarians’: The MAGA Movement Lays Out a Warpath at CPAC

Stoking the culture wars is nothing new for CPAC. But with dark, militant speeches — and literal demonization of the MAGA movement’s political opponents — the conservative convention in Dallas this week menaced America with what seemed to be thinly veiled calls for violence, all while seeking to whitewash the political mayhem of Jan. 6, casting Capitol Hill rioters as victims of a “Democratic Gulag.”

From Hungarian authoritarian Victor Orbán to former Trump adviser Steve Bannon to right-wing extremist Jack Posobiec, Conservative Political Action Committee speakers urged an us-versus-them confrontation, seeming unbound from the constraints of electoral politics.

Bannon, now the host of the “War Room” podcast, brought his bellicose message to CPAC, appearing as the headline speaker at the convention’s Friday night ball. “We are at war,” Bannon told the MAGA faithful. “We are in a political and ideological war.” Repeating the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump, Bannon insisted that Joe Biden is an “illegitimate imposter.” Calling on Republicans to send “shock troops” to Washington, Bannon promised the crowd they had an opportunity to “shatter the Democratic party as a national political institution.” He alleged that the party has been overrun by “radical, cultural Marxists” and “groomers” who “want to destroy the Republic.” Bannon insisted the GOP must pursue absolute victory over “power-mad and lawless” Democrats, asserting: “There can be no half measures anymore.”

Orbán — the Hungarian strongman fond of Nazi-style rhetoric against race mixing — received standing ovations for his stark address to the MAGA faithful on Thrusday. Orbán described European parliament and the federal government in Washington as “the two fronts in the battle being fought for Western civilization,” warning, “today, we hold neither of them, yet we need them both.” Orbán called on CPAC attendees and the far-right in Europe to forge a global movement. “We should unite our forces,” Orbán said, to “take back” Washington and Brussels.

On Friday, Sen. Ted Cruz, laying on a thick Texas accent for the home-state crowd, inveighed against what he called the “power hungry, abusive totalitarian nitwits” of the Biden administration and the Democratically controlled Congress. 

Cruz likened his service in the Senate to that of a gladiator: “It’s like the old Roman Colosseum where you slam on a breastplate and you grab a battle axe and you go fight the barbarians,” he said of his Democrat colleagues. “As they say in the military world,” Cruz continued, “it is a target-rich environment.”

Cruz then suggested that more than elections may be needed for conservatives to take back Washington from those he called “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.” Cruz told the crowd, “We’re on the cusp of something extraordinary in this country … And each of you are the vanguard. You are the dangerous radicals. Like the men who signed the Declaration of Independence … like those who died at the Alamo, you are the courageous heroes,” he insisted, “fighting for liberty in our country.”

While CPAC has banned a few overt white nationalists from its ranks (including the noxious, Hitler-praising livestreamer Nick Fuentes) it welcomed to its stage Jack Posobiec, the Pizzagate conspiracy theorist recently denounced as a hate extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center for his ties to “white nationalists, antigovernment extremists, members of the Proud Boys, and neo-Nazis.”

Posobiec took his turn in the spotlight to promote the New Right (effectively the latest rebranding of the hateful “alt-right”). And he, too, painted the coming conflicts of the culture war in militaristic terms: “Are you ready for new ideas to actually take the fight to the front lines,” he asked, “because that’s where we live and we’re not stopping.”

It could be tempting to dismiss such bombast from Cruz and Posobiec as empty rhetoric. But Kari Lake, the GOP nominee for governor in Arizona, directly threatened confrontation with the federal government over immigration at the Southern border should she win office in November.

“We have an invasion at the border,” Lake insisted, referring to undocumented immigrants and refugees. Lake then vowed that, after being sworn in, she would mount a military response, even lacking approval from the Biden administration: “As soon as my hand comes off the Bible, we’re going to send the Arizona National Guard troops to the border,” Lake said. Insisting on the “sovereignty” of the states, she insisted: “We will take the fight to the federal government. We’re not going to be victims of what they’re doing to us.”

The rhetoric of revolution and frontline confrontation went hand-in-hand with other speakers and presenters who cast the American left as demonic, evil, and destructive — in other words the kind of enemies who deserve to be dealt with harshly.

In between speeches, CPAC promoted a documentary, hosted by chair Matt Schlapp, called The Culture Killers, which inveighs against a “great desecration” perpetrated by the left. ”Anything that’s good, anything that’s holy, anything that’s truthful is being attacked,” Shlapp insisted on video. The documentary describes America as “under siege from an enemy within,” with one voice insisting, over images of burning cars, “There is no end. These people will never stop, until you stop ’em.” 

Even ostensibly more-moderate politicians, like Florida Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, picked up these themes. Scott railed against Democrats as literally “evil” for pursuing an agenda he described as socialism.

While damning the Democrats in terms that seemed to encourage political violence, CPAC speakers consistently minimized the actual political violence perpetrated by the MAGA movement on Jan. 6. Avowed “Christian nationalist” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, for example, slammed Liz Cheney — chair of the committee investigating the Capitol insurrection — for pushing a “lie about Jan. 6.” (Greene was not specific about the lie in question, but has long minimized the day’s violence.)

CPAC then held a panel called “You’re Next: The Rise of the Democratic Gulag,” which presented Jan. 6 defendants not as alleged perpetrators of riot and insurrection, but as victims of a rigged judicial system. 

Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) was the official spokesperson for this line of idiocy. He claimed that Jan 6. defendants have been the recipients of “Soviet-style justice” — alleging without evidence that prosecutors, defense attorneys, and federal judges have been “colluding” to secure predetermined convictions. The congressman insisted that “all of the institutions in the United States have been weaponized, not unlike the former Soviet Union” to create an “American Gulag.”

Driving home this down-is-up worldview of justice — insisting that participants in an attempted coup directed by former President Trump are being mistreated by the justice system that’s attempting to hold them to account — the CPAC convention hall also presented a novel performance art installation. 

It featured a caged man in an orange jumpsuit — meant to symbolize the Jan. 6 defendants — weeping over the injustice of his incarceration while wearing a MAGA hat. Convention attendees could don headphones to listen to testimonials from actual alleged rioters. This already-surreal scene got turned up to 11 in the late afternoon, when Greene spotted the installation and entered the jail cell to comfort and pray with the actor portraying the weeping man.

CPAC has long been a political circus, a relatively harmless sideshow. But its latest incarnation has become manifestly dangerous — more fascist than farce. It is holding up alleged perpetrators of political violence as martyrs. It is demonizing its domestic political opponents as diabolical “enemies within.” And it is giving MAGA supporters a militaristic frame for their charge to the “front lines” of America’s culture wars. 

In short it is playing with fire. But it’s the rest of us who may get burned.

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