The American Conservative Union (CPAC) and America First (AFPAC) had their big annual events this weekend in Orlando Florida. Both were moved from Washington to Florida because of the Covid panic. Both are struggling to get their footing now that Trump has left office, so it makes sense for both groups to hold their event in the former president’s home state. That and Florida has become the last bastion of rational, conservative government, where the people remain free.
The interesting juxtaposition is that both events claim to be speaking for the future of the American Right. CPAC is trying to appropriate populism and make it palatable for the oligarchs. AFPAC is trying to turn over-the-top support for Trump into a youth movement that will attract oligarch support. Both sides have made clear that the other side is not on their side. One side is the old established brand with market dominance, while the other brand is the upstart trying to make a splash.
Another point of comparison worth mentioning is that AFPAC managed to pull of their event in the teeth of institutional opposition. Given the climate, no one would have faulted Nick Fuentes for cancelling the show. He not only went forward with it, but he also pulled off the biggest dissident event ever staged. To get hundreds of people in and out of a semi-secret event, attended by sitting Congressmen and political celebrities, without a hitch is a stunning achievement by Fuentes and his crew.
On the other side of things, CPAC was lightly attended compared to years past, in part because of the location change. Conservative Inc. is a creature of Washington and CPAC is like their annual awards show. Holding CPAC in Orlando is like holding the Oscars in Iowa. There is also the fact that CPAC is a legacy brand and legacy brands are out of favor on the Right. Two generations of failure have most right-wing people looking for something better than the same old offerings.
The two visions of the future of the right are interesting in that neither is all that clear about where they are going. CPAC is clearly scrambling to protect their brand by allowing some populists back into their “big tent.” It is easy to forget that they ran off the Buchanan Brigades back in the bad old days. For a long time, CPAC was about making sure Trump’s brand of politics never got a purchase in the Republican Party. Events have forced them to be nice to people they generally despise.
On the other hand, Fuentes is starting from a paleoconservative base. He has often described himself as a paleocon. His movement has been carried forward by the blustery thermals of the Trump phenomenon. Like the Trump phenomenon, the goals are not all that clear. Right now, Fuentes and his imitators on live streaming platforms are speaking to issues important to young white men. In is a genuinely populist and right-wing phenomenon, in that it is entirely reactionary.
The trouble for both sides is they are like farmers who have been suffering through a long drought. It had been so long since they felt the rain, they were not prepared for when the heavens would open and saturate the earth. Suddenly, political actors find themselves surrounded by fertile soil. In the case of the old guard, it means learning how to be farmers again. In the case of the new guard, it is coming to terms with the fact they have never been farmers.
Another problem for both sides is they lack a language geared toward the future, so they rely on the language of the past. The civic nationalist stuff from CPAC appeals to old people, but it has no answers for what is happening nor for what is coming as America becomes majority-minority. They cannot even bring themselves to oppose immigration, which would at least acknowledge reality. CPAC is, at best, a bit of escapism for people who have no future.
AFPAC, on the other hand, gets that demographics are changing, but there is still that hope it can all be fixed. The name of their movement gives it away. Putting America first only makes sense when you can define America. Granted, there is a fair bit of rhetorical sleight of hand here, in order to dodge the censors, but at some point, they must confront the fact that America looks nothing like America. What comes next will look nothing like what is in our history books.
What matters most, of course, is that CPAC is the past and AFPAC or something like it is the future. Nick Fuentes managed to do what the alt-right could never muster and that is create a legitimate political movement. Unlike the various goofballs that populated the alt-right leadership, Fuentes has proven himself to be an effective organizer and a highly effective leader. He is arguably the most talented figure to come from the populist uprising that was kicked off by the Trump presidential run.
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