You can learn a lot about the conservative base and its fan favorites by hanging out at the annual Western Conservative Summit, which kicked off day two this morning, July 13, at the Colorado Convention Center. Under the bright glow of televised American flags, conservative thought leaders, firebrand evangelical pastors and GOP stars address a sea of MAGA hats on a wide range of state and national topics. At the risk of getting called sensitive snowflakes, we should warn you that some of what they said gets pretty ugly.
The peak of the Trump-fest, of course, was the much-anticipated presence of Donald Trump Jr., who brought people near tears when he finally walked out on stage around 10 p.m. on Friday. The president’s son used the stage mainly to discuss the success of the U.S. economy; bemoan the persistence of his dissenters in the public and the media; and ramp up supporters for the prospect of Trump 2020.
"Donald Trump lied to you," Trump Jr. told the audience. "In 2016 he said that you would be sick of winning. Show of hands, is anyone sick of winning?" The audience laughed along with him. "I’m not. either. I didn’t get it. I was like, where is he going with this thing?"
There was plenty of talk from classic, toned-down conservative, limited-government and tax cut advocates. Friday afternoon highlights included “No on CC” advocates Michael Fields and Amy Oliver Cooke, who emphatically warned the audience that, thanks to efforts to repeal TABOR, it’s not just our First and Second Amendment rights that are threatened now; it’s our Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, too. Earlier, TABOR father Douglas Bruce could be seen distributing pamphlets reminding attendees to vote “No in November,” including one to Governor Jared Polis, who became the first elected Democrat to ever speak at the summit.
But as the day progressed, the right's cultural stars outshone the old-school fiscal conservative politicians. Interspersed and intertwined with Trump praise and tax hate, the theme of the Summit, "Defending Religious Freedom and the First Amendment," prevailed throughout the day. Here's a brief run-down of what defending religious freedom seems to mean, according to the Summit's speakers and key organizations.
Working Toward a Ban on Abortion
Abortion was a focal point of the Summit — not surprisingly, since it’s a key issue close to the hearts of many evangelical conservatives who make up the base. In the lecture hall, churches, pregnancy resource centers and anti-abortion groups displayed tiny baby dolls to demonstrate the humanity of fetuses. On stage, attorney and conservative commentator Jenna Ellis Rives celebrated Trump’s success at paving the way for Roe v. Wade to be overturned. In Rives’s and others’ eyes, the effort to repeal abortion is a perfect fit for this year’s theme, because letting the religiously aligned belief that life begins at conception dictate federal laws is an important part of defending religious freedom, apparently.
Saving the Persecuted Christians
Colorado Christian University president Dr. Donald Sweeting interviewed Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who had been imprisoned in Turkey for three years on purported terrorism charges, about how Trump embodied the values of Jesus when he offered him a Tic-Tac after he was freed. A large exhibit highlighted the persecution of Christians worldwide. It's true that Christians, many of whom are non-white ethnic minorities in their country of origin, are the most persecuted religious group in the world, according to Pew Research Center data. However, this message was somewhat diluted by speeches from the likes of notorious Islamophobe Frank Gaffney, who was banned even from the far-right Conservative Political Conference for accusing two of its organizers of being in the Muslim Brotherhood. When Gaffney took the stage, he brought up his "partner," a blonde woman named Dede, and her son. He praised her for "doing her part for the cause" by having six children, and had them hold a banner reading "Save Us" as he gave a rambling speech comparing Christian persecution to the genocides of Hitler and Stalin. He closed off with a call to action: "God bless you all. Go forth and multiply!”
Several speakers also alluded to persecution abroad and decried the impending persecution of Christians in the U.S., citing Jack Phillips as a near-martyr after he got sued for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple. In an interview with Westword, organizer Jeff Hunt explained that he felt the left was "openly hostile to people of faith and sought to really make life hard for us."
Stopping College Campuses From Indoctrinating Students With "Secular Socialist" Ideas
The winner of this year's "30 under 30" speech contest was Isabel Brown, a Colorado State University graduate who said she "was often called out as that white supremacist girl or that conservative girl for voicing my beliefs." She was followed by Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, who decried that "America is the only country in the world that would take Ilhan Omar with open arms," since, in his view, no free-thinking person could possibly think the Somali-American representative from Minnesota was deserving of citizenship, let alone like her. "Where do these ideas come from?" he posed. "They come from college campuses. ... No logical, rational person could exist in a free market system and come to this conclusion. This is taught. The left wing, it’s a Marxist circus. It’s completely out of control."
Spreading Islamophobia (Because Otherwise Islam, Like Socialism, Will Control Us)
For the most brash stars of the Western Conservative Summit, religious freedom is threatened by two faces of evil: Islam and socialism. Earlier in the day, conservative Muslim doctor M. Zuhdi Jasser clarified that fear and hatred should be directed toward “Islamist” interpretations of the Quran rather than Muslims as a whole — though he also implied that most American Muslims, including Representative Ilhan Omar, whom he "detests," have fallen under the sway of Islamic extremism.
Others insisted on erasing any difference between average Muslims and terrorists. One such speaker was former Centennial Institute director John Andrews, who, after being honored by a ten-minute video of praise for his service to the movement, started his speech with an observation: “I look around the room, and I wonder if I’ve ended up at a conservative gathering as advertised. Where are the tanks? Can’t we get a fighter jet? Where are the cages, where are the Klan hoods? What are you people — social justice warriors? Snowflakes?” He paused for a moment, as if teetering on the verge of condemning such violence and reaffirming the peaceful, civil nature of the conservative agenda. However, perhaps deciding his introduction spoke for itself, he moved right on to thanking everyone for being there and giving a shoutout to "geezers" of liberal fame: "I'm here to tell Bernie, Biden, and all the loony left-wingers, your failed socialist secularist ideas aren’t the answer for America."
Andrews spoke of a “culture of victimization” that has, in his view, allowed those aforementioned liberal snowflakes to target good-hearted religious (read: Christian) symbolism as offensive and remove it from the public sphere. Meanwhile, these same Christians are being co-opted into giving space to their Muslim neighbors, some of whom are friendly, to be sure, but don't be fooled — they're hiding a totalitarian agenda. He then launched into an anti-Islamic tirade: "How can aggressive dominant Islam and its supreme law sharia co-exist with friendly, tolerant America and its supreme law the Constitution? I don't honestly see how it can. I wish I was wrong. ... I don't claim to know the way forward in this tremendous clash of civilizations. I just know this: The simplistic approach of simply granting unconditional 'freedom of religion' to a religion that doesn't believe in freedom — and never doubt me, Islam does not — that approach is civilizational suicide, friends."
His view on the state of the nation: "America's in a war to the death, and I don't think it's going well right now. It's largely a war of ideas, other than the occasional antifa riot or jihadi massacre. The conflict so far is a battle for hearts and minds. We can only win that battle if we summon the courage to name our enemies: two of them. The name of one is Marx, and the name of the other is Mohammed."
Bashing Black People, Trans People, LGBT People, Women and Men Who Just Aren't Masculine Enough
Kevin Jackson, the former Fox News contributor, made a statement last night that made the Twitter feed that got him fired for calling Kavanaugh's accusers "lying skanks" look like a mis-worded attempt at a compliment. Jackson greeted the crowd with a cheerful and confusing “What’s up, white people? … I was born to end identity politics. I’m happy to be amongst you nationalists!” Johnson, who is black, declared himself a “free-range Negro, unrestrained in my pursuit of happiness per the Declaration of Independence.”
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He then went on to say that the term "African American" was akin to “calling weather climate change or threatening to jail people for misgendering a transsexual. Screw that. If you dress like a woman and you look like a man, you’re a dude to me.”
Jackson then praised his own "toxic masculinity" ("some of you ladies are in danger of being pregnant just from listening to me right now") and said, “We live in a world where we legislate based on the way people have sex. The freakier your sexual habits, the more money the government gives you. If you are a transsexual pygmy iguana lover, there is a reparations package for you.”
His final thoughts: “Conservative America represents this country, not leftists. Not metrosexual girly men or their crack addict vagina hat-wearing lesbian counterparts. These groups will never replace real men, and there is no woman on the left who truly represents the beauty of a conservative woman."
Calling Others to Bizarre Causes in the Name of Jesus
As educational as the main lecture hall is, perhaps more telling is the Exhibit Hall next door, where you'll find not only your favorite conservative think tanks and organizations (Heartland Institute, Turning Point USA, The Heritage Foundation), but some groups you probably haven't heard of and later might wish you hadn't. Some notable mentions: two men with "Global Connection International," a group that tries to stop human trafficking in the U.S. by driving a bus to school districts in rural Colorado warning teenagers about the dangers of the Internet; a husband-and-wife duo selling material on "Destroying the Shadow Agenda," which is the spread of evil in the U.S.; the Blazing Holy Fire Ministries, which was passing out business cards encouraging people to pray for President Trump. "He gets attacked so much, and Jesus tells us to pray for our leaders," the booth tender said.