Conservatives are preparing to wage political war against Democrats by painting them as socialists — and therefore un-American. That’s what I learned from my research at the 2019 and 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the largest annual meeting of conservatives in the country, which took place this year from Feb. 26 to 29. Speakers included conservative celebrities such as Diamond and Silk and top-of-the-ticket politicians such as Vice President Pence and President Trump. Young conservatives showed up in large numbers, recruited by organizations including Turning Point USA and the Leadership Institute — groups that organize budding conservative thinkers and activists, especially on college campuses nationwide.

CPAC 2020, like CPAC 2019, was a safe space for conservatives and Trump fans. I attended last year’s CPAC, when the theme was “Keep America Great,” and this year’s, with the theme of “America vs. Socialism.” Here’s what my interviews with attendees revealed about what Trump-era conservative activists see as the meaning of America — and how conservatives are likely to fight Democrats in this election.

Here’s how I did my research

Over two years, I interviewed 35 CPAC attendees about their political identities and the conservative policies, issues and values most important to them. For both years, I used convenience sampling of CPAC attendees for short (between five and 30 minutes), semi-structured interviews. These attendees spanned 12 college-age students and 23 older adults. Of these, 21 were men and 14 women, while 29 were white and six were nonwhite. Because there are nearly 20,000 CPAC attendees, this sample is small and imperfectly represents the whole. But qualitative methods can be useful for understanding how regular voters think about and approach politics. By speaking with and observing individuals, political scientists gain insight into what shapes political attitudes.

In 2020, I also administered an online survey, which 23 attendees took on their phones during the conference, to supplement the in-person interviews. This survey also used convenience sampling; most respondents were under 30, and 75 percent were men. This survey asked respondents which values and policies were most important to the conservative movement as a whole and which identities most shape their political lives. Combining 35 semi-structured interviews with 23 survey responses along with five days of observing participants at the conference delivers insight into how identity shapes the contemporary conservative movement. My research is available on my website.

For strong conservatives, American identity is about individualism and freedom.

When asked what it means to be an American, every person I interviewed invoked some combination of freedom and individualism. As one young, self-described moderate told me, “the left has moved away from the idea of individual sovereignty and individual liberty to a more group dynamic, which is kind of anathema to the American cause.”

That emphasis on the individual showed up in the survey data as well. When asked to pick between the two in an online survey delivered at the 2020 conference, 18 out of 23 respondents (78 percent) chose individual liberty over collective rights, while only five preferred collective rights. In this same survey, respondents were asked to rank-order the conservative movement’s three most important values; they chose capitalism (58 percent), individual freedom (52 percent) and small government (45 percent) as most important.

Socialism is seen as a threat to freedom because it emphasizes collective rights over individual rights.

To strong conservatives, anything resembling socialism is fundamentally at odds with what they see as the core American values of individualism, self-sufficiency and personal responsibility. Even in 2019, one college-aged CPAC attendee worried that the American principle of economic freedom was becoming “a conservative principle because most Democratic Party members are turning against capitalism and supporting socialism.” One 2020 CPAC attendee told me that “conservative principles to me are American principles … you are conserving the principles that were established when this country was formed.”

As a result, conservatives at CPAC easily labeled anything that challenges or threatens their conservative principles as un-American. This rhetorical strategy characterizes Republicans and conservatives as American while Democrats and liberals are socialists, and thus un-American.

For conservatives, the 2020 election is a battle about the meaning of America.

CPAC attendees are a small portion of the U.S. electorate, but they are highly engaged and offer a sounding board for Trump’s 2020 campaign messaging. Leaning heavily on the theme of “America vs. Socialism,” Trump’s campaign is poised to shift the election’s focus from what he has or has not accomplished in his first term to a more fundamental question about American identity and the meaning of America itself.

If democratic socialism remains an important talking point among Democrats, it will probably drive conservatives to become more heavily involved in politics leading up to the election.

On Super Tuesday, the Trump campaign sent out an “exit poll,” to supporters asking respondents to identify as either American or socialist. The survey ended by framing the November election as a choice between President Trump or “A Big Government Socialist.”

That’s likely to stay Trump’s strategy, even as Joe Biden has replaced Bernie Sanders as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. In fact, Politico reported last week that Republicans are eager to brand Biden as a foot soldier in a party governed by Sanders’s socialist brand of liberalism. In other words, CPAC foreshadows a 2020 contest over what it means to be an American, in which Republicans frame the contest as a battle between “real Americans” and socialists who would betray American values.

Geneva Cole (@genevavalerie) is a PhD student in political science at the University of Chicago, where she studies American politics with a focus on political identity and public opinion.