Only a decade after George Wallace stood in a schoolhouse door to prevent black students from entering, some of his supporters participated in the Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s fitting that today, CPAC exists to support President Donald Trump, a genuinely racist president—and one who, when he addressed CPAC on Friday, proposed a militarization of American schools that will disproportionately harm black students.
Trump received thunderous applause and repeated standing ovations. He returned to his greatest hits, including reliving his electoral college victory, promising to build a wall and calling the media “horrible people.” He also read a xenophobic poem that was a staple of his 2016 campaign, in which he refers to immigrants, especially Muslims, as vicious snakes who will inevitably turn on their protector.
Trump’s most significant new proposal, which he has rolled out in the days since a school shooter in Parkland killed 17 people, is to allow teachers to carry concealed weapons and to add surveillance and metal detectors to more schools. “Why do we protect our airports, banks, government buildings, but not our schools?” Trump said. If Parkland had adopted his proposal to arm educators, he continued, “a teacher would’ve shot the hell out him.”
The proposal to arm teachers is almost too outlandish to justify countering with data. But all the available evidence already shows there is widespread racism in school discipline even account for the same offenses. More generally, militarization of the police going back to the 1960s has always been about enforcing punishment on black communities, even when carried out under ostensibly liberal pretexts. There’s no reason to believe militarization of schools would be any different.
Trump’s speech was the climax of a CPAC defined by seething, spastic vitriol from nearly every featured speaker. National Rifle Association spokesperson Dana Loesch declared “many in the legacy media love mass shootings.” Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president and CEO of the NRA, claimed Democrats were conspiring to “eradicate all individual freedoms.” Ben Shapiro, the right-wing polemicist who recently received a glowing profile in The New York Times, repeated his familiar anti-transgender bigotry, to the delight of the audience. The anger was even more pronounced in the wake of the Parkland shooting, which was referenced regularly over the course of the conference.
Trump repeatedly warned the crowd that if Democrats were elected they would repeal the Second Amendment, and at one point asked the attendees to cheer if they preferred the Second Amendment or tax cuts. It was a bizarre moment, one of many, but suffice to say the Second Amendment received very loud support. That defensive posture in the midst of a seeming sea change in the gun-control debate was not a coincidence, and a clear sign that the CPAC doesn’t see itself as responsible for the prevalence of mass shootings.
What makes the rancor especially absurd is that not only is the Republican Party in charge of the Executive Branch and both chambers of Congress, but, by all honest accounts, the Trump administration is succeeding in implementing a hyperconservative agenda. CPAC favorites Ted Cruz and Shapiro acknowledged that they had no substantive disagreements with Trump. Nevertheless, the entire event was defined primarily by victimhood and paranoia. The enemies are everywhere: Democrats, socialists, college professors, regulators, black athletes, reporters, “fake news,” the FBI. “They try like hell, they can’t stand what we’ve done,” Trump said ominously.
None of that is surprising, of course. CPAC has always been a laboratory for cranks and grifters to test their particular formula of reactionary resentment. In earlier years, the secret sauce often looked like a Sarah Palin–style Evangelicalism. In the age of Trump, the formula is closer to a European-style ethno-nationalism that barely camouflages its nativism. Conservative pundit Laura Ingraham described this Friday morning as a “populist, forward-looking conservatism.”
Nowhere was that trend more obvious than in the attendance of Marion Marechal Le Pen, granddaughter to the founder of the French far-right National Front party , which is currently lead by Marion’s aunt, Marine Le Pen. Marion is more religious than her aunt, who has tried to obscure the party’s fascist goals, and has disavowed some of her grandfather’s most anti-Semitic remarks. Still, she has referred to herself as the “heir” to his political legacy. More troublingly, she has previously claimed she wanted to united the conventional conservatives in France with “Identitarians,” which includes racist white-nationalist groups.
Her speech was modestly attended, which was expected given her low profile in the United States, and consisted of exactly the kind of anti-Muslim rhetoric she’s known for. “Terrorism is only the tip of the iceberg,” she said about the Muslim community in France. “I’m not offended when I hear President Trump say America First. I want America First for the American people. I want Britain First for the British people. I want France First for the French people.”
“All I want is the survival of my nation,” she added.
Her presence was roundly criticized in the media and by observers of increasing levels of right-wing extremism in the United States and Europe. “I think that presenting Le Pen, [Nigel] Farage, and [Sebastian] Gorka as their European familiars betrays the party’s radicalization, as well as unprecedented US support for the European far right, with parallels to the Kremlin’s championing” far-right European parties, including Le Pen’s Front National, said Alexander Reid Ross, author of Against the Fascist Creep. “Even members of the US right seem concerned about Le Pen’s attendance, in light of her presence at a white-nationalist event in Paris last year and stated desire to bring fascists into mainstream French politics.”
The man responsible for inviting one of Europe’s rising crypto-fascists to the United States and introducing her to the CPAC audience is Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the conference. I interviewed Schlapp the day before the conference began, and what struck me the most was his was his refusal to accept responsibility for helping to normalize another far-right extremist.
When I asked him about Le Pen’s desire to unite traditional conservatives with Identitarians, he pleaded ignorance. “I don’t know if I’m a scholar in what an Identitarian is,” he told me. “We invite 150, 200 speakers every year. I’m not sure I would agree with any of them on every issue.”
Last year, Dan Schneider, the executive director of the ACU, gave a speech purportedly banishing the alt-right from CPAC. At the time, I called it a hollow disavowal of the white nationalists in CPAC’s ranks. Le Pen’s invitation reveals just how empty Schneider’s words really were.
Beyond Le Pen, who was more important as a symbol than an instrument of power, much of conference was defined by the Parkland school shooting from the previous week. Seventeen people were killed with an automatic weapon, and the subsequent response from the surviving students has lead to the most important national debate about gun control since the elementary-school shooting at Sandy Hook.
The NRA is a major sponsor of CPAC, and Schlapp’s organization supported the lapsing of an assault weapons ban in 2004. The expiration of the ban has lead to a “staggering” increase in gun massacres, according to a recent analysis in the Washington Post. But when asked about CPAC’s role in the unique scourge of US gun violence, Schlapp again evaded any responsibility. “I do not feel like I’m a part of the blame for why a mad man, or a bad man, perpetrated such an act of violence as this,” Schlapp told me. “I can’t be responsible for that.”
It matters who CPAC provides a platform to, because the dynamics of the Republican Party since 2010 are such that the most radical views are elevated and there is no incentive for elected officials to moderate their position. Safely gerrymandered districts expose elected Republicans to challenges from the right in a primary, while general election victories are assumed to be assured.
The party’s stance on immigration is a perfect example of this dynamic. Last year, Senators Tom Cotton and David Purdue introduced the RAISE Act, which would drastically cut legal immigration and overhaul the system as whole in an effort to slow the change in US demographics. The legislation was supported by NumbersUSA, a formerly fringe anti-immigrant think tank the SPLC has called a core element of the nativist lobby. The RAISE Act has now become widely accepted within the Republican Party, and Cotton played a central role in scuttling recent legislation that would have protected the undocumented young people known as Dreamers.
Schlapp, for his part, hedges on the RAISE Act. “ACU hasn’t taken a stance,” he told me, though he does favor changing to a merit-based system and is open to lowering numbers from their current level. “To me, immigration decisions should be fueled by what you need with your economy, what you need for your society, and not any other reason,” he said. “It shouldn’t be because you feel sorry for people.”