NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — From the very start of CPAC 2019, the dreaded “s” word was on everyone’s lips.
Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka declared that “socialism is here in America,” noting a recent study which found that 40 percent of Americans described themselves as socialist, to loud boos from the crowd. Larry Kudlow, director of the White House National Economic Council, asked attendees to “put socialism on trial,” and said that Democrats were “proposing to overturn America’s success,” which would lead to “high taxes, health care takeover and impoverished poverty traps.” Rick Harrison, of the show “Pawn Stars,” said that socialism was “literally like heroin.”
Though not explicitly mentioned by name, it is abundantly clear that the policies advanced by freshman Democratic lawmakers like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) — including the Green New Deal, universal healthcare, and a federal jobs guarantee — have severely triggered CPAC attendees.
NRA President Oliver North came close to calling Rep. Ocasio-Cortez out by name. In a video interstitial aired directly after his speech on Thursday, North accused Democrats of trying to “Make America Weak Again”, featuring footage of presidential hopefuls like Sen. Corey Booker (D-NJ) and Kamala Harris (D-CA), as well as Ocasio-Cortez, all made to look menacing with a grainy black and white tint.
For reasons unknown, they chose a clip of Ocaiso-Cortez smiling and dancing, drastically undermining the menacing “Stalinist in waiting” vibe they were going for.
The theme continued in full force on Friday, with yet another video compilation featuring Venezuela, Bernie Sanders, and Fox News anchors asking how we will pay for socialist programs — all over dramatic music. Glenn Beck then followed, where he compared socialism to the movie “Friday 13th” because it “seems to stalk college co-eds.”
“Stop trying to hook up in some cabin in the woods,” Beck added. “Jason is coming for you and he has a hammer and a sickle.”
Beck continued by espousing the virtues of free-market capitalism that was bringing “water and electricity to the poorest parts of the world.” He conceded that there were pockets of poverty where people were miserable “because the free market hasn’t gotten there yet.”
Beck did not elaborate on how the free market has managed to overlook sizable pockets of poverty here in the U.S., like Lowndes County in Alabama, where hookworm — a disease more commonly seen in countries with extreme poverty — is thriving. He did not elaborate on why the free market has led to an America where 57 percent of adults can’t cover a $500 emergency, or where teachers have to turn to Uber and Airbnb to supplement their income.
CPAC attendees were largely unwilling to talk to ThinkProgress — although one who did not wish to be named described the renewed interest in socialism as “unfathomable”. A cursory inventory of attendees, however, quickly revealed that the fear-mongering about socialism had filtered down into the audience. Plenty wore badges declaring “Socialism Sucks” — fashioned in the style of Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign stickers. At a Turning Points USA afterparty, a cardboard cut-out of Ocasio-Cortez was featured next to a “Socialism Bread Line”. As The Intercept noted, the cut-out was promptly defaced during the party.
But for all the jeers and questions of how to pay for single-payer healthcare, the fact that CPAC devoted so much time to the dreaded socialist threat demonstrates just how spooked conservatives are of the resurgent left-wing of the Democratic Party.
This was exacerbated by the fact that, in the breaks between attacks on the left, none of the speakers offered anything new in terms of conservative ideas. Instead, it was just a re-hash of conservatism’s greatest hits — how tax cuts and de-regulation were driving the economy, how amazing it was the U.S. embassy had been moved to Jerusalem, and how great that the U.S. military was now fully revamped.
That’s red meat to the conservative base, of course, but the question remains whether it will play to a wider electorate at a time of the greatest economic inequality in nearly 100 years. The answer could help explain why conservatives at CPAC are so desperate to attack socialism in the first place.
In response to questions about CPAC scaremongering, a spokesperson for the Metro D.C. chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) said that CPAC’s focus on socialism showed the success of their narrative.
“Looking back at Joe McCarthy there’s always been red baiting, there’s an increase now because of the Success of Rashida Tlaib, Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and the large amount of Americans on board with [policies like] Medicare for All,” the spokesperson said. “For the ruling class, and specifically the people at CPAC, that threatens their view on power.”
“We’re talking about making people have dignity in their lives, there’s nothing radical about that,” the spokesperson continued. “We are driving the conversation, we are presenting a vision of America for the many, not the few.”
This post has been updated with comment for the Democratic Socialist of America’s D.C. Metro chapter.