There’s always an extra jolt of energy at the Conservative Political Action Conference during election years, and in 2020, the MAGA message was blaring. This year’s most prominent theme—and what got the raucous crowd gathered in National Harbor, Maryland, most riled up—was “America vs. Socialism,” a dichotomy that made Donald Trump’s reelection case for him: His victory will save America from the “radical” policies pushed by progressive Democrats like Bernie Sanders. This is a common refrain in places like Fox News and Trump Twitter, but CPAC’s messaging went one step further, wrapping everything from the media to the “deep state,” to CPAC bogeyman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez into the “socialism” package, with Trump, who will speak at the conference Saturday, and “the Army of Trump,” as his campaign spokeswoman put it during one panel, representing America’s best and final hope. From the main stage, CPAC communications director Ian Walters joked that, should Trump lose, he will see his fellow panelists “in the gulags.”
”The virus is not going to sink the American economy,” top Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow told attendees of the coronavirus stoking fears of a pandemic. ”What is, or could, sink the American economy, is the socialism coming from our friends on the other side of the aisle. That’s the biggest fear that I have today.” Later, Kudlow said he believed “The Lord loves free enterprise.”
Numerous panels focused entirely on socialism, including, “Socialism: Wrecker of Nations and Destroyer of Societies,” “Stopping Socialism: Exposing and Defeating the Socialist Plot to Hijack America,” “Socialism & the Great Awokening,” and “Words That Work in Persuading Others: Socialism.” Despite the diversity of this year’s CPAC speakers, who traveled to the Gaylord Maryland convention center from all over the world, there was little-to-no diversity in their viewpoints, with talking points largely focused on praising Trump’s accomplishments, defending him, and supporting him to combat the socialist rising tide. This marks a change from pre-Trump CPACs, when libertarians, neocons, and traditionalist conservatives used the conference to hash out what the party should look like.
In place of the typical interparty debates, a palpable feeling of unity against Democrats presided. On Thursday, Senator Marsha Blackburn captured this stance: “The best way we can make sure Bernie never gets his agenda through is to make sure we have four more years of President Donald Trump.” Trump campaign adviser and former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, who slammed Sanders as “Comrade Bernie,” noted that Democratic voters are “one step closer to anointing a socialist to lead their party,” but she’s not worried: “Let ’em run. Nothing can stop the Trump train.” Vice President Mike Pence suggested that all the Democrats in the 2020 field, and not just Sanders, can be written off as socialists. “Let’s be clear: It isn’t just about Bernie. Despite what the media likes to tell you, there are no moderates in this Democratic field,” Pence said. “Every one of the other Democrats running for president embraces Bernie’s socialist agenda.” Campaign manager Brad Parscale, the next morning, suggested voters will reject Democrats’ “big government socialist policies,” while Lara Trump, seated next to him, recalled the president’s promise that “America will never be a socialist country.”
Rep. Matt Gaetz warned the crowd that, if socialism wins in 2020, it might be the end of steaks and burgers, as he accused Sanders of striving to create a world “without cows.” But no one was more concerned than Charlie Kirk, the 26-year-old leader of right-wing youth groups Turning Point USA and Students for Trump. He referred to Sanders as a “Bolshevik” and a “Marxist,” before lamenting his growing support among the youth. “We beat communism in Europe but then communism came to our college campuses,” he said before sharing a personal grievance: publicly supporting Sanders will earn you “high fives” and “invites to the coolest parties,” while doing the same for Trump results in the opposite. To combat this, Kirk threw an “AmericaFest” party on Thursday night at a Texas-themed restaurant, complete with a VIP section for featured guests Rep. Dan Crenshaw and CPAC’s premiere MAGA couple Don Trump Jr. and Guilfoyle, and cocktails to match the mood: “The Left Can’t Meme Mule”—a weak Moscow Mule served in a Solo cup—and “Who Called ICE on Beto”—cheap rail whiskey on the rocks.