'Lock her up?' Still?: Conservatives at CPAC battle the left, without a clear foe

Washington Post

This year's Conservative Political Action Conference began 472 days after the 2016 presidential election. Its first day ended with jeers for Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Ben Shapiro, a conservative pundit and college campus speaker, told attendees Thursday afternoon that President Trump had ensured that Clinton "will never be president of the United States." The chant started within seconds: "Lock her up! Lock her up!"

"She's already in a jail of her own making," said Shapiro, "somewhere in the woods in upstate New York."

The country's largest conservative gathering, part networking event and part pep rally, has thrived off the threat of a rampaging left. During Barack Obama's presidency, speakers - Trump included - warned that Democrats would "fundamentally transform" America and saddle children with unpayable debt. On its first day, this year's conference portrayed a conservative movement that was winning the present and the future, in the position, finally, to smash the left.

"We don't have to wonder what would happen if the party of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer won the House and the Senate this November, do we?" asked Vice President Mike Pence, referring to the Democratic minority leaders in the House and Senate, respectively. "In the past few years, Democrats have only fallen further to the left."

Like the president, who peppers his remarks and tweets with references to the defeat of "Crooked Hillary," the CPAC conservatives lacked a clear, new adversary. Members of the administration who attended their conference argued that Trump was implementing an agenda that conservatives had dreamed of for years. White House counsel Donald F. McGahn used his remarks to spell out how Trump's judicial appointments - a ready applause line - were part of a long-term strategy to dismantle the bureaucratic state.

"What you're seeing is the president nominating a number of people who have some experience, if not expertise, in dealing with the government, particularly the regulatory apparatus," said McGahn. "There is a coherent plan here, where the judicial selection and the deregulatory effort are really the flip side of the same coin."

Conservatives who might have entered the conference skeptical about Trump's achievements were given reasons to be cheerful. At one session, which asked whether Republicans were "serious about defunding Planned Parenthood," they were reminded that the administration was allowing states to do just that. At a roundtable of conservative college organizers, the young crowd was promised resources for campus organizing - and lawsuits, when necessary - to unravel decades of left-wing dominance at universities.

"The future of western civilization will be won on college campuses," said Charlie Kirk, the president of Turning Point USA, a conservative organization with a $8 million budget. "The left has feelings. We have history, logic and perspective."

With Clinton defeated, and Obama long gone, the search for left-wing threats was ambitious. The conference's exhibit hall contained little about potential Democratic presidential candidates; the only one that stood out was a stand-up of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., made grotesque and outfitted with a Native American headdress.

Onstage, the Democratic Party was alternately mocked as pathetic or described as an increasingly radical menace. Wayne LaPierre, the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association, told attendees that the "European socialism" of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., had infested the opposition.

"They are not Democrats in the mold of John F. Kennedy or Tip O'Neill," said LaPierre. "They hide behind labels like Democrat, left-wing and progressive to make their socialist agenda more palatable, and that is terrifying ... absolute control in every corner of our government is their ultimate dream."

Watching from afar, actual socialists found the spectacle amusing. After LaPierre warned that Young Democratic Socialists of America had organized more than 100 campus groups, the organization cut it into a quick promotional video.

"The real red scare is the tide of blood the NRA and their lapdogs in Congress have brought to our schools," said Michelle Fisher, the national co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. "[We're] growing because people across the country have had enough of corrupt politicians sacrificing the lives of children for the NRA's freedom to profit. They buy their power, we build ours."

Other conservatives focused on a short-term threat: The potential loss of one or both houses of Congress in this year's midterm elections. A morning panel designed to show what great shape Republicans were in shifted, at times, to a discussion of what might happen if the party lost, or the ongoing probe into foreign involvement in the 2016 election grew fangs.

"I hope everyone in this room is going to remember that this impeachment threat is out there," said Fox News commentator Liz Peek. "It's a very good reason to go vote, and to give money."

Sebastian Gorka, a former White House adviser who now works with the main presidential super PAC, said that Trump would face any impeachment push from Democrats by "outflanking them every day on Twitter multiple times."

There was little public discussion of the electoral situation that worried the president and his party. Since the last CPAC, in 2017, Republicans had lost control of the governor's mansion in New Jersey, of a Senate seat in Alabama, and of 37 state legislative seats.

Instead, there was heavy optimism about how Republicans would turn things around. A Thursday evening discussion between Charlie Kirk and presidential son Eric Trump ended with predictions of sweeping victories in 2018, as the polls that once predicted a Clinton victory would prove wrong again.

"Hardcore Democrats - you know, I talk to them - they say, he's surpassed every expectation," said Trump.

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