It’s been said that you should never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity. Applying this maxim to the Conservative Political Action Conference makes it one of the stupidest organizations in American politics today, and that’s saying something.
As difficult as it is to get your head around, the stage at CPAC 2021 last weekend was built in the shape of a rebranded swastika, something called an odal or othala rune. This symbol was incorporated into SS uniforms and is frequently used by white supremacists. Neo-Nazis get tattooed with this thing. It was even on display at the 2017 Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville. Here’s a picture of the CPAC stage next to a picture of a Nazi uniform. Judge for yourself.
An extraordinary controversy erupted over this, as you would expect. Any normal person on being confronted with such a colossally idiotic mistake would blanch whiter than a Klansman’s hood and take immediate steps to fix the problem while profusely apologizing for the screw-up and Googling to see if the federal witness protection program was accepting volunteers. But not CPAC host Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union.
A celebration of white supremacy
“Stage design conspiracies are outrageous and slanderous. We have a long standing commitment to the Jewish community. Cancel culture extremists must address antisemitism within their own ranks. CPAC proudly stands with our Jewish allies, including those speaking from this stage,” he tweeted.
Let’s pause for a moment to note that while its popularity has been sliding since Joe Biden’s inauguration, shortly before the election, 56% of Republicans believed in QAnon — an outlandish, baseless far-right conspiracy whose supporters claim that political elites and others are sex-trafficking pedophiles working against Trump, and that Trump and other government officials are sending them cryptic messages. I’d guess there were plenty of current and former QAnon supporters among CPAC attendees. One CPAC speaker even openly touted it. Schlapp, of all people, shouldn’t be waxing sanctimonious about “outrageous and slanderous” conspiracy theories.
And this message wasn’t the least bit cryptic. Regardless of what Schlapp thinks, I guarantee you that 100% of white supremacists are going to interpret this as a massive endorsement. It isn’t some veiled reference, it’s a well-documented symbol of white supremacy.
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And how do I know about this neo-Nazi imagery? Have I been trawling through the disreputable, sordid underbelly of the Internet? Sort of. There was an article about it over four years ago in the New York Times. After Trump’s election, what was then one of the largest neo-Nazi organizations in the country, the National Socialist Movement, decided to do some rebranding and replace the swastika with the odal rune in an effort to make white supremacy more “mainstream.” Since Trump stood in the middle of one at CPAC to declare his return to politics, I guess it worked.
A dangerous and vile signal
We’ve had five years of Trump’s winking and nudging at white supremacists, but this goes beyond any of that. This blatant use of a neo-Nazi symbol isn’t a wink and a nudge. It’s a public high-five.
Ignorance and stupidity is the charitable explanation. The cynical one is that the CPAC brass knew exactly what this stage represented and wanted it that way. Schlapp’s claim that it wasn’t intentional is disingenuous. Regardless of whether CPAC planners intended to create a stage that celebrates white supremacy, that’s exactly what they did. And after it was called to their attention, they did nothing, so you can only assume they were OK with what it represents.
This isn’t just vile, it’s dangerous. Last year, the Department of Homeland Security identified white supremacists as the “most persistent and lethal” domestic terror threat facing the United States. White supremacists were heavily involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. And now, less than two months later, what pretends to be the most important gathering of “conservatives” in America is openly welcoming them as part of CPAC’s movement. Remember this when people who happily stood on that very stage and addressed the CPAC crowd, people like Sens. Josh Hawley, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, express shock and outrage about the next white supremacist terrorist attack.
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You have to wonder what’s next. Perhaps they’ll round off next year’s CPAC with a rousing chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs to Me” because, hey, CPAC attendees just love them some “Cabaret”! CPAC has devolved from what was once a semi-serious conservative event to, well, this — a festival of white supremacy symbols, QAnon and baseless election conspiracy theories. There is another maxim Matt Schlapp should keep in mind: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.
Republican Chris Truax, an appellate lawyer in San Diego, is a legal adviser for the Guardrails of Democracy Project, CEO of CertifiedVoter.com and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.