Conservatives of good conscience should be appalled that Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest member of the National Front political dynasty in France, should be invited to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to deliver a speech insisting that France was turning from a Catholic country into a Muslim one, as well as a speech extolling that Britain should be first for the British people, France first for the French people France, etc. (In case you need the translation, that means Jews, Muslims and other “outsiders” aren’t really part of the nation. Sound familiar?) In response, Mindy Finn, a leader in the #NeverTrump movement, tweeted: “It’s a sad reflection on the state of conservatism that CPAC provided a platform for France’s Marion Le Pen, a leader within a movement inflaming anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, though the half-empty ballroom for her speech offers some comfort.”

Rational people of whatever political stripe should be taken aback, if not horrified, by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne La Pierre’s diatribe about guns, socialism, loss of all our rights and so on. He insisted that those who demonstrated for new gun legislation “care more about control.” He went on to say: “Their goal is to eliminate the Second Amendment and our firearms freedoms so they can eliminate all individual freedoms,” and warned that the country was slipping into socialism and that kids would be induced to rat out their parents if new gun laws were passed. “If they seize power . . . our American freedoms could be lost and our country will be changed forever,” he said. It was unhinged, but entirely reflective of the extremism that characterizes the NRA. (Even more objectionable, arguably, was NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch’s accusation that the media “loves” mass shootings.)

But let’s not pretend that CPAC just got wacky this year.  For years, former representative Ron Paul (R-Tex.) was CPAC’s darling and the winner of its presidential straw poll. The conference featured speakers who raged against gays, Muslims and immigrants and, for years, it banned panel discussions about gay rights. However, it was also a place where mainstream conservatives came to speak, and where policy gurus from think tanks had calm discussions. In short, CPAC has been a fringy gathering for many years, a few thousand hard-right warriors (including many students) within a larger movement on the right.

National Rifle Association executive vice president and chief executive Wayne LaPierre spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2018. (The Washington Post)

Now CPAC encapsulates the GOP. Adherents of President Trump’s brand of Republican politics do not bother to disguise their extremism,  conspiracy theories, paranoia or xenophobia. In a real sense, the party of CPAC and Trump — who is scheduled to speak on Friday, and will surely feel entirely at home with the hyperventilating rhetoric and contempt for facts on display — have displaced the rest of the party. The GOP used to contain, cool and generally outvote the extremists who showed up to CPAC each year for a ritual display of their ideological fervor. Now, the extremists — spitting venom and brandishing the Fox News view of the world (in which the FBI not Russia is the bad actor) — are the predominate voice in a party that has shed intellectual and moral integrity, as well as any pretense of concern for serious policy.

A few things are worth noting.

First, what you hear and see in the full-throated CPAC gathering is pretty much what gets bandied about on Fox News during its evening lineup. Whether it is birtherism, or climate change denial, or exaggerated and distorted generalizations about immigrants, it’s the discussion in which millions of Republicans have been marinating for years. It is a political worldview in which bad stories (according to Trump) are ignored, unsubstantiated rumor becomes gospel, and the president’s often incoherent views must be defended at all costs.

Second, it is impossible for many lifelong Republicans who favor smaller government, more family-friendly policies, a strong national defense, support for law and order, and constitutional restraint to identify with the political circus that is spilling out of CPAC and reaching into every state and local GOP party. More than even any individual policy, it is the atmosphere of unhinged hatred for political opponents, divisiveness, fanaticism and contempt for facts that make many former Republicans shudder.

Finally, it is not clear how the GOP comes back from the political abyss after a president like Trump and a party of wall-to-wall enablers of an ethnonationalist brand. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), for example, isn’t scheduled to speak, but he has enabled every policy escapade, indulged Trump’s irrational outbursts, and refused time and again to defend democratic institutions and norms (including proper congressional oversight) to check this president’s power or rebut his ideas. Let’s give up the pretense that Trump isn’t the totality of the GOP, or that CPAC isn’t representative of the party. They are, and those elected leaders who cannot abide the Trump-ized GOP are retiring in droves. When they do, or when they lose in 2018 or 2020, there may be very little left of the rational, decent and constructive faction of the GOP.

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