Cultural grievances the focus at annual right-wing gathering in US

Mr Donald Trump during the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando, Florida, on Feb 26, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

ORLANDO (NYTIMES) - Russia's invasion of Ukraine has much of the world transfixed and on edge. United States President Joe Biden announced a new Supreme Court appointment who is unlikely to get any significant Republican support.

But at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the annual gathering of the right wing of US politics, the news convulsing the world seemed oddly distant.

Instead, the focus was on cultural grievances, former president Donald Trump and the widespread sense of victimisation that have replaced traditional conservative issues.

Like so many of the Republican officials who have remade themselves in his image, Mr Trump, in a speech to the conference on Saturday night, sought to portray himself as a victim of assaults from Democrats and the news media.

He said they would leave him alone if he were not a threat to seek the presidency again in 2024.

"If I said 'I'm not going to run,' the persecution would stop immediately," Mr Trump said.

"They'd go on to the next victim."

Eight months before the mid-term elections, familiar Republican themes like lower taxes and a muscular foreign policy took a back seat to the idea that America is backsliding into a woke dystopia unleashed by liberal elites. Even the GOP was more than a bit suspect.

Mr Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a pro-Trump grassroots group focusing on millennial conservatives, denounced "the Republican Party of old" in his speech to the conference held this year in Orlando, Florida.

"Conservative leaders can learn something from our wonderful 45th president of the United States," Mr Kirk said, referring to Mr Trump.

"I want our leaders to care more about you and our fellow countrymen than some abstract idea or abstract GDP number."

Placing cultural aggrievement at the centrepiece of their mid-term campaigns comes as Republicans find themselves split on a host of issues that have typically united the party.

This past week, as Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine to the near-universal condemnation of US allies, Mr Trump on Saturday reiterated his assessment that Mr Putin was "smart" to invade Ukraine for the price of economic sanctions, though he did call the war "a catastrophic disaster".

His former adviser Steve Bannon on Wednesday praised Mr Putin for being "anti-woke" - the very theme of the CPAC gathering.

That put them at odds with Republican elected officials, particularly congressional leaders, who have denounced Mr Putin's actions, as have Democrats and MR Biden.

On Capitol Hill, Republican senators are debating whether to release an official policy agenda at all before the mid-terms.

The lack of urgency was encapsulated in a statement by Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, who dismissed a question about what Republicans would do if they took back Congress this year.

"That is a very good question," Mr McConnell said.

"And I'll let you know when we take it back."

In lieu of a united policy, Republicans are hoping that a grab bag of grievances will motivate voters who are dissatisfied with Mr Biden's administration.

At CPAC, Republicans argued that they were the real victims of Mr Biden's America, citing rising inflation, illegal immigration at the Mexican border and liberal institutions pushing racial diversity in hiring and education.

Every speaker emphasised personal connections to Mr Trump, no matter how spurious, while others adopted his aggrieved tone and patented hand gestures.

Representative Madison Cawthorn praised what he called China's effort to instil "great patriotic and masculine values" in its youth through social media.

At a Mexican restaurant inside the conference hotel, Representative Billy Long argued that he coined the phrase "Trump Train" in 2015.

He said he still used it as his wireless Internet password.

And Senator Josh Hawley, a banker's son who was educated at Stanford and Yale universities, sought to tie himself to alienated blue-collar workers he said were getting a raw deal.

"Rednecks and roughnecks get a lot of bad press these days," Mr Hawley said.

Speakers largely brushed off the war in Ukraine, beyond blaming Mr Biden, and Friday few people mentioned Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, Mr Biden's choice for the Supreme Court.

Mr John Schnatter, a pizza magnate who in 2018 resigned as chair of the Papa John's franchise after using a racial slur in a comment about black people during a conference call, mingled with the crowd, saying he was among those unfairly cancelled.

Senator Rick Scott, R-Fla., warned of "woke, government-run everything". And former Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who in 2020 ran for the Democratic presidential nomination but has adopted right-wing positions and become a darling of conservative media, labelled the government a "secular theocracy" because of its efforts to fight misinformation.

At CPAC and beyond, focusing on the negative can be strategic as well as visceral. Polls show Republican voters have a more favourable view of Mr Putin than of Mr Biden, and one lesson of the backlash against the party holding the White House during the last four mid-term elections is that an intense distaste for a president of the opposing party is more than enough to propel sweeping victories.

"The conservative movement is always evolving, and as it evolves and reacts to the radical ideas of the progressive left, the issues that really matter to people shift a little bit," said Mr Charlie Gerow, a Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania.

"The one unifying factor for conservatives is Joe Biden and his henchmen out in the states."

It was only seven years ago that Mr Jeb Bush, a former Florida governor, told the CPAC crowd that "it's good to oppose the bad things, but we need to start being for things".

Just as Mr Trump excised Bush-style conservative politics from the Republican Party, so has it been removed from the annual CPAC gathering.

Playing to feelings of resentment and alienation is a far safer bet for Republicans than advancing a policy agenda when the party remains split on taxes, foreign policy and how much to indulge Mr Trump's lies about the 2020 election.

"You can always cut taxes. You can always roll back regulations. You can always elect better people," said Senator Marco Rubio.

"But when freedom is lost and it's eroded, it is so hard to reclaim."

At CPAC, there was no shortage of stories about the horrors of cultural and political cancellations - although the speakers offered scant evidence of actual suffering.

Representative Jim Banks after saying he would "never, ever apologise for objecting" to Mr Biden's victory on Jan 6, said he and Representative Jim Jordan, were victimised when they were removed from the House committee investigating that day's attack on the US Capitol.

"We both got cancelled and kicked off the committee by Nancy Pelosi," Mr Banks said.

Like others at CPAC who said they had experienced the wounds of cancel culture, Mr Banks has seen his profile and political standing only increase since the moment he said he had been cancelled.

Ms Leila Centner, a founder of a Miami private school, who last year told her teachers and staff that they would not be allowed to interact with students if they received a coronavirus vaccine, recounted the backlash once her anti-vaccine views made news.

"The media was all over me; they went ballistic," she said.

But Ms Centner said the brouhaha turned out to be a positive thing for her and her school. She told the CPAC audience that her student enrolment went up and there was now a waiting list.

She has become a personality in demand from conservative news networks, and she said that she now had a homogeneous school community that shared her views on the pandemic and the country's racial history.

"What this whole thing has done is it's actually made our community more aligned," Ms Centner said.

As the incentives in conservative politics increasingly reward figures caught up in controversies that can allow them to be portrayed as victims, leading to more face time on conservative cable television, some veteran Republicans are lamenting that there is little to be gained by a focus on policy.

Former Representative Mark Walker, who is running for the Senate against a Trump-endorsed candidate, cannot get much attention, he said, when he touts his record working for veterans during his three terms in Congress.

"Some of the new people entering the political world, they get 12 press secretaries and one policy person," Mr Walker said. "There's a problem with that, right?"

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