The Conservative Political Action Conference, the New York Times reported on Saturday, is not what it used to be. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis skipped out on what has for years been the conservative movement’s premier cattle call. Mike Pence will be at a donor retreat instead. Fox News will not be streaming the event, nor will its popular hosts be speaking from the stage. Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the event, was recently accused by a Republican campaign aide of groping, and his star is, it’s fair to say, somewhat diminished.
But if CPAC has fallen from its pedestal, it remains a useful barometer for gauging where the conservative base is, and where it is headed. And the future, right now, looks grim as hell.
Here’s Michael Knowles, a commentator at Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire, receiving a loud cheer for saying that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life.”
Michael Knowles tells CPAC that "there can be no middle way in dealing with transgenderism. … Transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely." https://t.co/57hJF4frgq pic.twitter.com/szvnC1qWrP
— Right Wing Watch (@RightWingWatch) March 4, 2023
Knowles is a replacement-level conservative pundit, whose name I know only because he co-hosted Ted Cruz’s podcast for two years. But that is sort of the point. The call for transgender identity to be “eradicated” is chilling; it is not a word normal people use, unless they are describing a pestilence. But this is not at all out of step with much of the Republican party. DeSantis has weaponized his state government against trans kids. So has Texas Gov. Greg Abbot. As David Weigel reported in Semafor last month, Donald Trump, too is proposing to establish “that the only genders recognized by the United States government are male and female, and they are assigned at birth”—that is, erasing the category from existence.
Conservatives don’t really talk about abortion like they used to, because they’ve largely won that battle, and perhaps out of some self-awareness how unpopular that victory ultimately was. But they’re speaking about the lives of transgender kids and adults in increasingly apocalyptic terms.