Hundreds of die-hard right-wing activists descended on the Hilton Anatole in Dallas for the Conservative Political Action Conference this week. It’s the third CPAC event this year alone, following prior events in Orlando, Florida and Budapest, Hungary. It’s also the third CPAC event in a row which featured explicitly Christian nationalist and fascistic speakers.
Before the speeches kicked off on Thursday, Christian musician Natasha Owens—who wore an American flag dress branded with the logo of a Christian mobile phone company—gave a brief concert.
“You know, President Trump coined the term ‘America First,’” she said. When she attempted to launch into the eponymously named song, the wrong music began playing instead. Incidentally, the term America First was initially popularized by pro-Nazi groups in the United States and was also used by the Ku Klux Klan.
Though only two of the speakers on Thursday were Texas politicians, the introductory session—”Texas: The Start of the Big Red Wave”—placed the state at the center of the American conservative movement.
“There are two big red engines to our politics and economy,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of CPAC. “As many of you know we had CPAC Florida, and it’s right to be here in Texas.”
Governor Greg Abbott was the first guest brought to the stage, where he spoke in front of a more than half-empty room about the border, Elon Musk, California liberals, critical race theory, the ongoing program to bus undocumented immigrants to Washington, D.C., and why he thinks Republicans will win big with Hispanics and Latinos in Texas.
“If you want to pitch in and help out, you can buy your own border bus,” Abbott said to the crowd. “You can help fund sending all these folks to Washington, D.C. and make them deal with the problem.”
Out of all of Abbott’s statements, this one seemed to garner the most excitement from the crowd.
A major theme among speakers at the conference—aside from the officially stated one, “Fire Pelosi: Save America”—was Christian identity and nationalism. In addition to leading the crowd in prayer, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick took a page right out of the John Birch Society playbook by proclaiming that the Constitution was literally written by God.
“We’re a nation founded upon not the words of our founders, but the words of God because he wrote the Constitution,” Patrick said to the crowd. “We were a Christian state and lost that for many years.”
So much for James Madison. But if Patrick is correct, one has to grapple with the difficult questions of whether God also wrote the Articles of Confederation or perhaps signed off on the deeply racist Three-Fifths Compromise, as well as how this all squares with the notion that God doesn’t make mistakes.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán—who recently gave a speech criticizing “race mixing” which caused a long-time advisor to resign and describe it as a “pure Nazi diatribe”—spoke severely about the ostensible Judeo-Christian roots of his nation and urged Christian nationalists across the world to unite together in a struggle against the so-called “woke globalists.”
Orbán’s language dovetailed with the John Birch Society-tinged talking points around “globalists” and Christian government that have become so common in contemporary politics, and the crowd was so excited by what he had to say that Orbán had to pause for uproarious applause on several occasions. One young man from Oklahoma told me that Orbán was the only speaker he was excited to see, and an elderly couple said they particularly enjoyed Orbán’s speech.
“Globalists go to hell, I have come to Texas,” Orbán bellowed as he concluded his speech.
But not everyone was thrilled with the Hungarian’s presence in Dallas. In the atrium of the hotel, two groups of protesters expressed their displeasure. One group covertly hung a banner and dropped flyers condemning the conference before dashing away. Another group, which included a legendary civil rights activist who worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Peter Johnson, held banners specifically condemning Orbán’s presence before being escorted out by Dallas Police.
“Dr. King told me that as long as I’m alive, I ought to stand up against bigotry, antisemitism, and racism,” Johnson told the Texas Observer. “So I’m standing up.”
Johnson was joined by Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk, a socialite from Dallas, who also spoke out against Orbán. “It’s very important for people to know that Orbán stands for Holocaust denial, antisemitism, racial purity, and is against interracial marriage,” Thompson-Frenk said. “I don’t think a lot of Republican people actually agree with that, but they need to speak out and let their leaders know they don’t endorse that.”
Former Republican Congressman Alan Steelman issued a statement in response to Orbán’s presence as well. “Is this what the party of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Reagan and Bush has come to?” Steelman wrote. “Orbán’s record and spoken word during his 12 years in office are clearly those of a white supremacist, an antisemite, and anti-immigrant leader.”
A sense of subtle antisemitism pervaded a number of comments made by speakers, Orbán included. Orbán claimed that all the worst things in history were orchestrated by people who hate Christianity and juxtaposed these comments by describing George Soros—a Hungarian-Jewish investor and philanthropist who is a common boogeyman among the far right—as his “opponent.”
“Papa John” Schnatter told the crowd there are “five evil entities” that own the processed food and pharmaceuticals industries (suggesting the former make you sick so you take the latter) as well as media and academia. But he was not talking about the recently released conspiracy-theory themed Mike Myers show, The Pentaverate. He claimed this all somehow ties back to the Frankfurt School, a group of primarily Jewish left-wing intellectuals and academics founded during the Weimar Republic in the lead-up to Nazi Germany that has become the villain of the far-right “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory, which itself is a rehashing of the Nazi propaganda term “Cultural Bolshevism.”
Friday and Saturday will feature other guests and speakers that have their own histories of antisemitism, including Jack Posobiec, a fascistic media figure who the Southern Poverty Law Center reports has “collaborated with white nationalists, antigovernment extremists, members of the Proud Boys, and neo-Nazis in his capacity as an operative.”
The speakers are only one part of the CPAC experience. Rambo-Trump cutouts, bedazzled purses in the shape of .45 pistols, and even a mock jail cell could be seen on the exhibition floor. Nearby, our federally indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton—who recently teamed up with other Republican attorneys general to sue the federal government for the right to take lunch money from LGBTQ+ kids—mingled with an AM radio host. Toward the end of the day, Posobiec spoke in front of the Patriot Mobile booth with Leigh Wambsganss, a woman who has played a major role in the PACs that have helped elect far right school board candidates across Texas.
This is all to say that the mask of this movement has slipped, if not fallen off completely. It has revealed its illiberal, anti-democratic, deeply prejudicial tendencies, even if it comes across as completely absurd. The entire scene, a veritable circus of far-right fascistic kitsch, brings to mind what legendary journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote about Las Vegas: “The Circus-Circus is what the whole hep world would be doing Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war. This is the sixth Reich.”
An exaggeration, certainly, but an apt one. But don’t just take it from me. Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, described the event as the “Neo-Nazi movement in America.”
Update: An earlier version of this story referred to Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk as a Republican. She is an independent. We regret the error.