On stage in a hotel ballroom glowing red, white and blue, Ron DeSantis was recalling his days in Congress and a book he wrote about America’s troubles. It was “read by about a dozen people,” the Florida governor said with rare self-deprecation.
DeSantis then told a gathering of grassroots conservatives on Thursday: “I look back at that time, it almost seems a little quaint to me because the threats we face to freedom, the threats we face to a just society, are much more pervasive than they were just 10 years ago.”
Many Americans across the political spectrum would agree that something has gone terribly wrong over the past decade. Liberals might point to deepening inequality, a rise of white nationalism and an existential threat to democracy from the authoritarian right.
But DeSantis and fellow travellers at this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, see themselves not as dismantlers of democracy but its saviours. In their worldview, the true danger comes not from former president Donald Trump’s “big lie” of a stolen election but a radical left minority imposing socialism, cancel culture and “woke” ideology on the majority.
Welcome to a parallel universe where it is common cause that Trump was spied on by rival Hillary Clinton, the January 6 insurrection was a heroic stand by patriots, and names such as Anthony Fauci, Justin Trudeau and Black Lives Matter are guaranteed to elicit loud boos.
It is a universe where Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association, an organisation accused of illegally diverting tens of millions of dollars for lavish personal trips, and which tried and failed to file for bankruptcy, can still be feted when he boasts of a record 5.4 million first-time gun buyers last year.
And it is universe where Trump still reigns supreme, his face emblazoned on toy money and Superman images, his name stitched into souvenir badges, hats, hammocks and T-shirts that proclaim “Trump 2024”. Bids for a 5x5in painting by Michael Shellis depicting the former president kissing the Stars and Stripes opened at $3,000.
The big lie lives on
Trump is due to be the headline speaker at CPAC on Saturday night. A familiar line at his recent campaign rallies has been, “I am not the one trying to undermine American democracy. I’m the one who is trying to save it.” It is an argument that many at CPAC seem to sincerely believe, based on three justifications.
First, they amplify Trump’s baseless claim of widespread election rigging. Interviews with CPAC attendees found it is taken as gospel. For example, Tom Freeman, 66, a retailer from Jupiter, Florida, insisted: “The fraud in 2020 is real, it’s huge, it’s millions of fraudulent votes. Democracy in the United States is under assault due to illegal immigration and voter fraud and manipulation that’s done on a systemic level.”
The assertion, rejected by election officials and courts, is used to justify sweeping voter suppression laws in Republican-led states.
Josh Mandel, an aggressively pro-Trump candidate for the US Senate in Ohio, won cheers when he told the CPAC audience: “We have Democrats who think it’s OK to cheat in elections, and I would submit to you that one of the most important fights of our day is to stop the cheating from the left… I want to say it very clearly and very directly. I believe this election was stolen from Donald J Trump.”
Mandel described Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Republican members of a House of Representative select committee investigating the January 6 riot, as “traitors”, adding: “We should abolish the January commission and replace it with a November 3 commission” – a reference to the date of the 2020 election.
An parallel view of the Capitol attack
Rewriting the history of the insurrection is the second component of this inverted universe. At a CPAC session on Friday entitled, “The Truth about January 6th”, Julie Kelly, author of a book on the subject, accused the government of persecuting innocent demonstrators and hiding 14,000 hours of surveillance video. “We deserve to know how many FBI undercover agents and informants were involved,” she said, airing another bogus conspiracy theory.
Kelly added that if Republicans gain control of the House, they should “turn the January 6 committee 180 degrees” to investigate how Democrats and the justice department “have abused their power to punish Trump supporters to criminalise political dissent because that’s not what this country is about”.
The comments earned enthusiastic applause at CPAC, where few attendees share the conventional view of January 6 as a seditious assault on democracy. They are more likely to say it was morally justified, or that a few protesters went too far, or that it was a false flag operation by the FBI intended to discredit Trump supporters.
Lisa Forsyth, 54, from Tampa, Florida, said she was in Washington that day but did not go inside the Capitol building. “To see the amount of bad press for just being there is out of line. Some of us didn’t do anything wrong but we’re lumped in with the infiltrators. There’s video footage of these people changing into Trump gear from their black stuff. There’s video footage out there but it’s a total denial.”
Asked if she feels democracy is under threat, Forsyth, who is retired from a family pharmaceutical company, replied: “No, I wouldn’t use that phrase, I’m sorry, but that’s a line that I hear the liberals use all the time and I’m obviously not one of them. Our freedom is definitely under threat.”
But standing nearby, Rachel Sheley, a chief information security officer from northern Kentucky, disagreed. “Democracy is under threat because they’re trying to infiltrate us with communism,” the 53-year-old said. “First amendment, second amendment – they want to strip them all away. If they are successful in doing so one at time all undercover, they’re stealing away the rights of our democracy.”
Defending America from ‘wokeness’
Third, the movement goes on the offensive by accusing Democrats of being the true anti-democratic party. This narrative holds that an unelected, leftist minority controls schools and universities, the mainstream media and the big tech giants of Silicon Valley, pushing politically correct “wokeness” on transgender, race and other cultural issues.
It therefore follows that the conservative rank and file is fighting a righteous cause in defence of the “real America”. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas told CPAC: “We are taking this country back from the lunatic socialist left that is trying to destroy our freedom.”
Warning that major institutions have become infected with the “woke virus”, DeSantis urged courage. “We have an opportunity to make 2020 to the year that America fought back. We’re going to lead the charge here in Florida but we need people all over the country to be willing to put on that full armour of God, to stand firm against the left’s schemes.”
Mike Pompeo, the former secretary of state, added: “There is no threat greater to the United States than that which emanates inside our republic, emanates inside our school system. If we do not teach our children, the next generation, that we are not a racist nation, then surely the bad guys will come to be right about an America in decline.”
Such speeches cast the struggle in heroic terms so that criticism is only likely to harden the siege mentality and resolve of the foot soldiers. Those wandering the corridors of CPAC seemed to share Joe Biden’s view that a struggle for the soul of America is under way – but were convinced that the president is on the wrong side.
Lauren Lamp, 22, who works in corporate bankruptcy in New York, said: “Clearly, we can see from the past year Biden is a larger threat than Trump ever was. Trump was trying to restore the American dream. Biden: nobody knows what he’s doing because he does not address the American people. We don’t even know if it’s him working behind the scenes.”
Sam Leiter, 56, insisted that democracy is under threat from cancel culture. “You can’t say what you want. There’s no free speech. If you don’t agree with the radical left you lose your job, you can get tarred and feathered, smeared. They’ll go after you and destroy you.”
But what does Leiter make of the argument that Trump’s increasingly authoritarian Republican party is the threat to democracy? “It’s a classic case in psychology of projection,” said the speech therapist from Baltimore, Maryland. “Project on your spouse or some other person or people what you’re doing yourself.
“It’s always been around in human relationships but in American political circles Bill Clinton was a master at that and it’s gotten worse, It’s now been proven that it was a complete hoax and yet for years they were accusing Trump of Russia collusion. And it was it was Hillary that was colluding with the Russians. She literally was.”
Trump’s 2016 election campaign had dozens of contacts with Russia. There is no evidence that Hillary Clinton colluded with Russia – literally or otherwise.