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The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this year had the feel of a city under siege. Speaker after speaker made veiled, hostile references to Donald Trump, without mentioning his name [CPAC 2016 Facing Trump Specter, WND, March 3, 2016]. When the conflict finally broke into the open, with Trump snubbing the conference to dodge planned protests, CPAC turned into a defiant rally against the de-facto Republican frontrunner [Donald Trump Bails On Speech At CPAC, WND, March 4, 2016]. By Saturday night, it was clear “conservatism” is no longer really a coherent political philosophy or worldview, but a tribal identifier. Trump is hated not because of his political positions or even his style, but because he does not repeat the shibboleths of the Beltway Right.
Despite CPAC’s theme—“Our Time Is Now”—the conference seemed simply an exercise in nostalgia, a kind of temporary theme park for aging Baby Boomers who want to remember the 1980s and young politicos who want to visit a Disneyesque fantasyland. Speaker after speaker simply urged politicians of the present to copy Ronald Reagan. That would be sufficient to solve every challenge of the present!
For example, Mark Levin, who clearly recognizes the problems with mass immigration and is not afraid to discuss them, nonetheless simply recited the electoral success of Reagan almost ritualistically, without mentioning changing demographics. [Talk radio star attacks Trump without mentioning his name, by Garth Kant, WND, March 4, 2016] He also took an odd swipe at the nationalist currents surrounding the Trump campaign (without mentioning Trump), by suggesting “nationalism” and “populism” is not conservative, and indeed, is somehow foreign or “French.”
Meanwhile, the keynote speaker for a conference celebrating “intellectual conservatism” was Glenn Beck. [The Kool Aid Cult, by Gregory Hood, Radix, February 1, 2016] Beck took the audience on a remarkable journey through whatever reality he is living in, a fantastic realm where the Industrial Revolution began in the United States as a direct result of the United States Constitution. [Glenn Beck at CPAC: Compares Trump to Film Villain, Claims Industrial Revolution Started in America Because of Constitution, by Rebecca Mansour, Breitbart, March 6, 2016] He also compared Donald Trump to the bad guy from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
As the satirical Twitter personality “Conservative Pundit” joked about Trump and the atmosphere at CPAC, “Just sickens me to see someone take our esoteric Reagan mystery cult and try to make a winning party out of it.”
The day after the conference ended brought the gloomy news that the great Nancy Reagan had gone to her reward. Though I and presumably most other patriots were saddened at the report, I couldn’t shake the irreverent thought that if she had died while CPAC was still going on, the conference may have culminated in ritualistic mass suicide. As always at CPAC, immigration was the one issue that had to be debated rather than proclaimed. There was a “Point/Counterpoint” discussion, with Congressman Louie Gohmert of Texas ably describing the patriot case for restricting immigration. Meanwhile, the ghost of Reagan was invoked to hallow the cause of Amnesty for illegal aliens. The Open Borders case was given by a nice white lady billed as a “GOP Strategist” for the “Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles,” and that alone should tell you what we’re talking about when we make fun of the Beltway Right. [Gohmert Reveals Real Border Guards, WND, March 4, 2016]
During a speech defending “populist conservatism,” Rick Santorum denounced conservatism’s internal divisions when it comes to immigration, suggesting immigration should be as non-negotiable as favoring tax cuts. Great. But when it mattered, Rick Santorum chose to endorse Marco Rubio for President, suggesting he doesn’t really think immigration is the most important issue.
Of course, it’s premature to pronounce the death of movement Conservatism. Indeed, the most consistent “movement conservative,” Ted Cruz, has now emerged to present the most credible challenge to Donald Trump for the Republican nomination following his victories in Saturday’s primaries.
But Cruz has been more insistent during this campaign about deporting illegal immigrants than Trump, not even offering to “let the good ones” back in [Ted Cruz’s Plan To Deport Undocumented Immigrants Is Even Worse Than Trump’s, by Esther Yu-His Lee, Think Progress, January 5, 2016]. Ultimately, it’s coming down to a question of who you trust more to keep promises on immigration—Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
Marco Rubio, the pro-cheap labor choice of the Donor Class, received an enthusiastic reception at CPAC and was the clear choice of many of the younger attendees dreaming of future careers as Fox News pundits. Yet after his disastrous showing on Saturday, even Commissar Leon Wolf [Email him] over at Redstate is writing off Rubio and urging anti-Trump conservatives to get behind Cruz [Rubio Sacrificed His Campaign to Save America, March 6, 2016]. Open-Borders Republicans have been utterly routed this primary season.
For the Republican Establishment, “Jack Kemp” conservatives and the Open Borders Lobby, Cruz is horrifying and his emergence the worst-case scenario. Someone has finally arisen to present a real challenge to Donald Trump for the Republican nomination—and it’s arguably the only man they hate worse than Trump.
Yet both candidates have serious weaknesses.
Trump has the utterly unique ability to shift the Overton Window, flip the Main Stream Media Script and appeal to working class white voters and independents. He’s completely correct when he brags no one would be talking about immigration were it not for him.
At the same time, his infuriating lack of message discipline, refusal to invest in campaign infrastructure, and seeming indifference to debate preparations is leading the campaign to careen from one disaster to another, from last Thursday’s dumpster fire of a debate to Saturday’s loss of the Maine caucuses. Indeed, were it not for early voting, his campaign would be regarded as being in a tailspin.
Meanwhile, Cruz is superbly organized, fanatically disciplined, and has the best campaign infrastructure of any candidate. Even if it goes to a brokered convention, Cruz can’t be counted out simply because of his skill in these kinds of close-quarters political battles. And though it is perhaps too late, he is uniting movement conservatives behind him. For what it’s worth, he also won the Straw Poll at CPAC this year.
But Cruz’s entire strategy seems to be to squeeze out every last possible vote from a remarkably narrow slice of voters. Cruz wins in caucuses and closed primaries. The broader the electorate, the worse he does. He has shown no ability to win over independents in open primaries. How he expects to win a general election is a mystery when his theory of turning out evangelicals seems to have already failed him throughout the South. Cruz has a large number of delegates compared to everyone but Trump—but he’s supposed to have won the entire South by now, not be fighting Trump to a standstill.
Even Cruz’s large victory in Kansas over Trump on Saturday isn’t that impressive given the state’s history. Rick Santorum won the state in 2012 by a larger margin than Cruz did this year, taking an actual majority of the votes. And in 2008, Mike Huckabee won almost 60 percent of the vote in the Kansas caucuses. It’s not an encouraging sign for Cruz supporters their candidate couldn’t match the performances of prior winners who failed to secure the nomination.
Michigan will clarify a great deal. Each candidate has an advantage in a different way. Trump leads in Michigan by double digits, but only by the same kind of margin he had in Kentucky and Louisiana, where in the end he barely fended off Cruz—and there is no early voting in Michigan. If Trump is collapsing, we’ll see it in Michigan. On the other hand, the state has an open primary, which favors Trump, and if Cruz really is incapable of growing his coalition, he will have no chance in the state.
It’s not impossible to imagine Cruz and Trump reconciling and forming a powerful unity ticket despite the bitter campaign. After all, it’s no more unlikely than Lyndon Johnson and John F. Kennedy or even George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. But it’s probably not going to happen.
The battle in the GOP primary isn’t about candidates or even about political philosophy. It’s about control over the American Right. The forces aligned around Cruz see the conservative movement as the answer to the “GOP Establishment.” But most of the forces around Donald Trump consider the conservative movement itself to be part of that same Establishment. And that conflict is irreconcilable.
If CPAC 2016 shows us anything, it’s that the conservative movement is incapable of reforming itself. Change will have to be forced upon it.
It’s easy to imagine CPAC 2036 speakers still paying tribute to Ronald Reagan amid the crumbling ruins of a Third World America, promising one more round of “deregulation” will make it all okay. Many of them would rather lose without Trump, and more importantly without his supporters, than win with them.
It’s a great sign for immigration patriots that Rubio has faded and the two leading candidates for the nomination both claim to be on our side.
But immigration must remain at the center of the 2016 campaign—or there won’t be much of an American Right, or an American nation, left to fight over.
James Kirkpatrick [Email him] is a Beltway veteran and a refugee from Conservatism Inc.