Until his arrival at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Saturday, President Donald J. Trump was having a pretty crummy week. Presumably low on sleep, after pulling something of an all-nighter in Hanoi on Wednesday/Thursday to watch his former fixer break some shit before the House Oversight Committee, and then dealing with the jet lag of his return from a failed summit in Vietnam with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Trump must’ve chug-a-lugged a six-pack of Diet Cokes before his appearance at the Gaylord Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. There he delivered the longest speech of his presidency—perhaps of any U.S. presidency so far.
For longer than two hours, the leader of the United States of America unleashed a relentless stream of lies, hate speech, insults, and violent imagery, all to the delight of those in attendance. “Four more years!” they chanted. (That is, when they weren’t chanting “Lock her up!” at the mention of Hillary Clinton, against whom Trump appears to be still running.)
Trump took aim at his usual targets: the media, the Mueller probe, Democrats, immigrants. He lied again about the crowd size at his inauguration, saying that the aerial shot taken of the Capitol grounds and National Mall on the day of his swearing-in was snapped hours before the ceremony began.
In remarks apparently meant to be about the investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible Trump campaign involvement, the president said,
Now we have people that lost—and unfortunately you put the wrong people in a couple of positions and they leave people for a long time that shouldn't be there. And all of a sudden, they're trying to take you out with bullshit.
I’ll allow that the syntax and whatnot in those two sentences may demand a bit of interpretation: “people that lost”= Democrats in 2016; “wrong people in a couple of positions” = former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein; “they leave people for a long time that shouldn’t be there” = Andrew McCabe; “bullshit”= any criminal-looking activity by Trump to be revealed in the ongoing investigations. (At least, those are my best guesses.)
For his attack on the media, Trump called out a Washington Post reporter by name and said the journalist should have been fired. Trump didn’t drop any names, however, when he claimed, “Right now we have people in Congress that hate our country, and you know that.” He didn’t have to. Just the day before, at a Republican event in West Virginia’s state capitol, a poster appeared juxtaposing an image of Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota with one of the burning World Trade Center towers in Manhattan. Omar wears a hijab, and has been sharply critical of Israel and elected officials who take campaign contributions from the American Israel Political Action Committee. (She has also been epically tone-deaf in the words she has chosen to express these views.)
A few sentences later, Trump made clear that he was talking about members who were not born in the U.S. “And find out, how did they do in their country?” Trump said. “Just ask ’em, how did they do? Did they do well, were they succeeding? Just ask that question.”
He vented about the Green New Deal proposal offered by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, suggesting that what she was really after was taking people’s cars and hamburgers away.
Trump brought to the stage a college student from University of California, Berkeley, who had been punched in the face while carrying a sign about alleged hate-crime hoaxer Jussie Smollet earlier in the month. The president allowed the student, Hayden Williams, to make a statement about the perils to free speech on college campuses, and followed it up with a promise to sign an executive order banning federal funding to educational institutions that do not adequately protect freedom of speech on their campuses.
Right-wingers have been trying to make hay out of the battles currently roiling campuses over controversial speakers, claiming that “conservatives” are targeted for de-platforming. This is pretty much the specialty of Turning Point USA, whose two public faces, Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens, both got thumbs-up shout-outs from the president.
He lied about abortion-rights measures that allow for late-term abortions, using extremely violent language that I will not repeat here. He also said repeated the ubiquitous right-wing talking point alleging that Democrats who supported those measures in New York state and Virginia were trying to legalize infanticide.
There was the de rigueur hyperbole on immigration, of course, in which Trump stuck to his gangs, guns, and drugs script, padding it with a reminder that many of the women who make the journey from Honduras or Guatemala get raped along the way. Mothers who love their daughters, he said, give them “massive amounts of birth control” when they embark on the caravan—a startling claim from a man who considers himself an aficionado of women’s bodies, who then and there revealed he had no idea just how those shapely vessels function.
A newer theme is rising, too, in this fugue of fraud and malice: the terrors of socialism, the ideology the president claims is gripping the Democratic Party in its clenched fist.
“Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it’s not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing: it’s called power for the ruling class,” Trump said. “All of us are here today because we know that the future does not belong to those who believe in socialism.”
It was evident that this will be a major theme in the 2020 election campaign, as CPAC has gone from being a gathering of all corners of the right to being a straight-up messaging operation for the Trump camp. (Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group that convenes CPAC, was lauded by Trump in his speech; Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is the White House director of strategic communications.) A scare-mongering CPAC video, opening with a clip of St. Ronald Reagan, was played relentlessly in between segments of the conference. One entire day of the conference was devoted to thumping the anti-socialism theme, whereupon socialists were said by one speaker to actually be fascists and others characterized the failed, authoritarian regime of Nicholas Maduro in Venezuela as the natural result of his socialism rather than his sociopathy.
In fact, perhaps the biggest star at CPAC was Ocasio-Cortez, who was held up in countless speeches for derision, and of whom a life-sized cardboard cut-out appeared at a Turning Point USA party for the apparent purpose of defacing. (“PENDEJA,” someone scrawled in block letters on her face.)
Given that millennials are not inclined to abhor socialism—51 percent view it positively—and the youngest people who remember the Cuban missile crisis are now in their 60s, the effectiveness of this particular attack remains to be determined. But don’t be surprised if that messaging isn’t reinforced with a little U.S. incursion into that distressed country, just in time for campaign season. If we’ve learned anything from Trump’s border-wall gambit, it’s that he’s not above using the military for domestic political purposes.
So this is where we are: The massive machinery of the Koch network, the religious right and the cash flows of the private capitalists angling for more deregulation and tax cuts are all-in behind this liar, this racist, this cheat. The messaging operation is tight. Democrats will need a strategic plan of their own to prevail in November 2020.