The World According to CPAC

Steve Bannon speaking at CPAC Mexico, 2022.

The Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, staged its latest far right extravaganza in Mexico this weekend. The gathering provided a perversely mesmerizing glimpse into the strategies, illusions, lies and objectives of the global neofascist movement.

The program featured all the ultraconservative international luminaries and wannabes—Steve Bannon, chief international operator; Donald Trump, and his former ambassador to Mexico, Christopher Landau: Ted Cruz;  José Antonio Kast of Chile; Santiago Abascal of the political party Vox in Spain, Eduardo Bolsonaro of Brazil, Guatemalan president Alejandro Giammattei; Hungarian minister to Victor Orban, Gergely Gulyás; and Javier Milei, who recently announced his candidacy for the presidency of Argentina in 2023.

Most, however, sent video messages rather than traveling to address the scant audience. The event was held at the Westin Hotel in Mexico City’s Santa Fe business district. Located in the hills high above the nation’s capital, Santa Fe is a wealth-drenched corporate enclave– separated geographically and every other way from the sprawling Latin American city below.

The parallel reality of Santa Fe perfectly matched the parallel reality of the conference. In the world according to CPAC, the logical extension of gender rights is legalized pedophilia, women’s rights and autonomy threaten their families, and sovereignty is when US millionaires and failed politicians come to your country to tell you how to run elections, what messages to use and where to find international financing.

Messaging the Masses

The global far right repeats its central themes over and over again, usually with the built-in assumption that the rightness of what they’re saying is self-explanatory. The conference showcased this messaging strategy by firing off a barrage of simplistic statements that trigger fear or anger, while discouraging critical thought.

The movement’s political guru, Steve Bannon, hit on most of these themes, although in his tape from Arizona he was clearly more preoccupied with his rage at the midterm results than with whatever was happening at CPAC Mexico. Bannon marked the battleground between “globalists” and “sovereigntists”, associating globalists with the mass media (controlled by rightwing moguls), multilateral institutions and immigration.

Globalism for Bannon is a weird combination of ideological bedfellows: “Our enemy is the international communist movement working with the capitalists right now, from Wall Street to Frankfort to the City of London and also the Party of Davos.” He travels throughout the world building “populist/nationalist” movements using the slogan of sovereignty while establishing foreign ties and financing, and participating directly in foreign national campaigns.

Bannon tore into “machines”–electronic voting systems that preclude tampering– and other measures to extend access to the vote with measures such as multi-day voting, saying that if they continue, “it will be almost impossible for any Republican to win”. He warned Mexico about the perils of modern election technology that has been certified by experts throughout the world and accused the “progressive left” of “ballot harvesting—the generation and manufacturing of ballots”, pitching the preposterous notion that filled-out “ballots” (for the left) are the dangerous evil twin of “votes” (for the right). He warned that 2023 will be “an economic firestorm globally” with “fights over the economy” and outlined the Republican priorities in the new US Congress: investigating and stopping the “border invasion” (including the impeachment of Garland and Mayorkas) and Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Trump’s former ambassador in Mexico, Christopher Landau took up the same theme: border control understood as blocking migrants as a requirement for national sovereignty. He used the European Union as a cautionary tale of the loss of sovereignty and Brexit as the positive example, while in the next breath praising the US role in the drug war in Mexico.

The ultraconservative movement is expert at constructing straw man arguments. An important one has to do with the supposed leftwing promotion of child trafficking and pedophile rings—a central motte of the far right QAnon movement in the US, recently declared a domestic terrorist threat. From a broad social consensus on the need to protect children from the very real problem of trafficking, CPAC speakers argued– among other completely baseless claims– that allowing gender fluidity and choice would lead to people reassigning their age, thus legalization of pedophilia by the “woke” culture.

The talks included a slew of apocryphal quotes and statistics (not one of the many I managed to verify checked out). Speakers frequently used the term “grooming” and warned of hypersexualizing children so they can be easily recruited into pedophile rings due to their unnaturally stimulated sexual appetites, begging the question of how these supposed sexual appetites fit into the trafficking scenario and also creating an image of both the nature of children and the nature of sexuality that could strike terror into malleable minds.

Speaker after speaker painted a picture of the world as a dark and scary place, with terrible threats lurking in the most sacrosanct corners of our lives. What is difficult to understand is how a vision as ugly as this could be so appealing to so many.

Taking root

But the global neofascist movement, and I use the term advisdedly, is gaining ground even where it is losing elections. Most of what I heard at CPAC Mexico was self-congratulatory cheerleading or scare tactics. A lot of it was way out in right field, especially distant from the reality in our country. But we’d be foolish to dismiss it as the lunatic fringe.

I recently returned from Brazil where former president Lula da Silva beat Eduardo Bolsonaro’s father, current president Jair Bolsonaro. The difference between the leftwing and rightwing candidates was far narrower than anyone expected. Bannon and other foreigners at the CPAC called the election a fraud, although the national electoral system and international observers declared the elections fair and clean. Eduardo Bolsonaro took a more cautious approach, showing photos of protests and asking the CPAC audience to draw its own conclusions. Two days after the Oct. 30 election, Jair Bolsonaro announced that his government is cooperating with the transition. Both Bolsonaros know that they do not have the political, military or legal basis to mount a challenge and have capitulated to reality at least for the time being, but the far-right outsiders still repeat the fraud allegation to reinforce their global narrative.

After suffering electoral defeat, the Brazilian right that Bannon and Bolsonaro Jr. worked so hard to build will not be slinking away to lick its wounds. Hours after the results, truckers mobilized to block major highways. Weeks later, Bolsonaro followers are staging large demonstrations in the streets of Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia and other cities. The ultraright is now moving to destabilization tactics and redoubled grassroots organizing, relying particularly heavily on the evangelical churches that helped bring up Bolsonaro’s vote count.

Recall that after losing the 2020 presidential election, in the November U.S. midterm elections Trump forces returned with major muscle, and in some places even gains despite some high-profile losses. Now they are preparing for a third Trump run for the presidency. In Chile, where ultraconservative José Antonio Kast lost to young leftist leader Gabriel Boric by more than ten points, the right put a damper on Boric’s reform plans by orchestrating the defeat of the new constitution just months after suffering the fiasco at the polls. The CPAC Mexico conference featured a how-to session on the rightwing victory in Chile, with marketing strategies including targeting youth, designing campaigns for market segments and mass media messaging.

At first glance, Mexico was not an obvious choice for the next CPAC target. After losing Brazil, which many conservatives hoped would consolidate the fascist foothold in Latin America under a second Bolsonaro government, the far right found itself at a distinct disadvantage. The region is governed by a large majority of progressive or left governments—Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico, Alberto Fernandez in Argentina, Luis Arce in Bolivia, Pedro Castillo in Perú, Xiomara Castro in Honduras, Gabriel Boric in Chile, Gustavo Petro in Colombia, Lula in Brazil and several Caribbean nations, including Barbados, which recently broke with the crown and has been reexamining its colonialized history of slavery and looting. This is not a homogeneous group, but they share a commitment to south-south integration, varying degrees of restrictions on capitalist exploitation, and a move away from US hegemony in the region.

Trump indirectly referred to this dilemma for the right by noting the urgency “to stop the spread of socialism and not allow it to sweep across this region” in his canned address to the gathering that lasted all of one minute and four seconds.

The far right despises Mexico’s president, who ran on an anti-neoliberalism platform and has brought in a government of equal representation of women and social programs for the poor, among other progressive measures. But Lopez Obrador has an approval rating consistently above 60% and he cannot run in the 2024 presidential elections. Mexican conservatives have been unable to gain strength and numbers by attacking AMLO. So CPAC Mexico focused on two major objectives. The first is to lay the groundwork for an ultraconservative movement to take the presidency in 2024. They even hailed their likely candidate, the former actor-turned-far-right-political activist, Eduardo Verastegui. As the second-largest economy in Latin America and US neighbor charged with stemming migrant flows to the U.S., the far-right agenda needs an allied Mexico in Latin America.

However, at CPAC the movement leaders–both national and international–made it clear that the current rightwing, in particular the conservative National Action Party, is not up to the task. Their plan involves creating a new far-right party with a religious, “family values” base, tied into the global neofascist forces represented at the conference.

The second objective is to attack Mexico’s federal decision to give women the right to choose whether to carry their pregnancies to term. Mexico recently declared it outside the purview of the state to criminalize women for aborting. In addition to working to roll back that decision, the ultraconservative movement believes that the decision will enable them to coalesce anti-abortion Catholics and evangelical forces into a movement. They are seeking to block legal abortion in Mexico and in the long game to use that campaign to build the far-right movement.

The third objective is to halt Mexican leadership in forming alliances with other progressive regions in Latin America to challenge U.S. interests. Mexico has been a leader in reviving the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional integration body that does not include the United States and Canada. With majority left-leaning governments, the neoliberal far right seeks to undermine CELAC and other forums where the left holds sway, and to restore fizzled attempts at consolidating rightwing groupings. It cannot accomplish this goal with a strong, left-leaning Mexico.

The usually sparse crowd at CPAC Mexico included a few rows of nuns and well-heeled members of the Mexican elite. Not an impressive turn-out, but as far as the CPAC is concerned, it’s a start.

The Language of Lies, or “Flooding the Zone with Shit”

As I listened to speakers express mounting outrage at their own fabricated threats (with almost no mention of real threats like climate change or hunger), I wondered how many of them believed the fallacies, and how many had mastered the power of post-truth communication. I suspect the second group is by far the majority, but they depend on the first group to build their movement.

Much of the task of convincing that group relies on carefully constructed language. The translator did not attempt to translate “woke”–for obvious reasons. The translation would be “despierto” or awake, and it’s difficult to demonize a normal human state of consciousness. In the rightwing culture wars, there is nothing worse than woke. In purely semantic terms then, this is a political doctrine that defines being awake as a negative civic trait.

Feminism (another trigger word in the lexicon of neocons) has taught us that there is a familiar and oppressive complacency in dichotomies: ‘We are the good guys, they are the enemy’ `We defend God, Family and Country-they attack them’, ‘If they win, they cheated. If we win, it’s because we deserve to’.  The sessions on communications extolled the virtues of “emotional” messaging to the somnambulant.

At CPAC, the narratives about themselves were the most fascinating. On the one hand, the ultraconservatives claim to be the victims of the vast conspiracies they portray. Their candidates are victims of fraud, their children victims of “grooming” and “wokeness”, and in general, societies around the globe are victims of Democrats or progressives who ‘control the media’ and spread communism (yes, the Cold War is back in force here).

On the other hand, they also consider themselves winners. The message is that they are powerful, numerous and will eventually take over. No matter that most of the politicians at CPAC Mexico are literally losers—they lost their presidential elections (Trump 2020, Bolsonaro 2022, Kast 2021, Walesa in 1995 and, crushingly, again in 2000). Not to mention Steve Bannon’s recent prison sentence, and the many CPAC speakers of negligible fame or influence beyond their own self-created and self-reinforcing spheres.

Every flat-out declaration of the far right seems to embody a contradiction that is never acknowledged. They claim that the left is taking their children and indoctrinating them, as conservatives promote campaigns to restrict children’s education to fit their view of the world and self-righteously adopt children from nations whose families have been destroyed by the imperialist wars and neoliberal policies they support.  The campaign against pedophilia silences the fact that there is a long list of known Republican pedophiles, not to mention the systemic abuse of children in the Catholic Church—a crime tragically ubiquitous in Mexico.

As Gulyas, Orban’s assistant, proclaimed Hungary “the hope of conservatives in the free world”, that nation struggles under sanctions and corruption, and a new European Union investigation declared that “Hungary is no longer a democracy”, documenting discrimination, restrictions on academic freedom and freedom of speech, manipulation of the judicial branch and state surveillance. Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei bragged about being the “pro-life capital of Ibero-America” and stated “We are on the right side of history”, as his government is accused of corruption, persecution of members of the judiciary branch and authoritarianism.

Christianity becomes not a religious ethic to live by, but a political bludgeon against anyone who does not practice the intolerant and repressive model of Christianity they promote. They purport to defend the family while legally, politically and socially persecuting families that are not made up of a monogamous dominant father, servient mother and dependent children—and often in their personal lives engaging in practices that do not adhere to the norms they seek to impose.

The use and purposeful misuse of language has always been central to building fascist movements. Fear is a motivator and hatred is the fire that “fires up” the masses. While the left talks about “competing narratives” and the need for “alternative narratives”, effectively ceding the space of the “dominant narrative”, the far right is light years ahead in building internally cohesive and global narratives that have broad appeal to visceral sentiments. And they manage this with the significant disadvantage of having to convince people to vote and act against their own objective interests—workers in a scandalously unequal system vote for the billionaires who exploit them, women vote for a patriarchal system that imposes strict and punitive limits on their life dreams and possibilities, communities believe that migrant families drain rather than contribute to local economies despite evidence to the contrary, and youth are convinced to support the planet-destroying forces that close off their future. Steve Bannon’s mantra to “flood the zone with sh*t” to confuse people with a tangle of false, true and exaggerated messages was on full display at CPAC Mexico.

The global far-right movement has high ambitions and it’s open about its goals and strategies. The rightwing Colombian senator Maria Fernanda Cabal called for “an iron fist against Petro”, referring to the democratically elected leftist president of Colombia, Gustavo Petro. Hermann Tertsch, Vox deputy in the European Parliament, called for a program “to restore western civilization”, and Kast urged the creation of “a common front for the freedom of our peoples”. The youth panel stated emphatically that they reject inclusion and diversity, while the host, Verastegui, proclaimed that the movement “is a majority and we will create a real alternative”, although he did not specify what they are a majority of.

The bizarre mix of fear, false threats, lies and triumphalism left me with a sense of existential vertigo. It’s not easy wading through the flood. But we have to–we must monitor the far right, how it operates, who funds it, its attacks on fundamental freedoms and its vision for an authoritarian future. We must analyze it, expose it, and defeat it.

Laura Carlsen is the director of the Americas Program in Mexico City and advisor to Just Associates (JASS) .