The 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) took place on February 22-25 at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland. The Trump administration left its mark on the event, with President Trump's rambling speech, Steven Bannon and Reince Priebus presenting a united front, and multiple Trump cabinet picks taking the stage. CPAC was also an opportunity for a pranksters to poke fun at Trump by posing as a Russian Trump fan and distributing Russian flags embossed with Trump's name, which attendees happily waved.
CPAC rhetoric is usually hair-raising and unapologetically right-ring, but this year's event was different, in that it reminded listeners how times have changed under the Trump administration. Quotes from Betsy DeVos, Kellyanne Conway, and Scott Pruitt are unsettling because they come from leaders in high positions of power who have the influence to shape policy for the worst.
First, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos gave a speech at 2017 CPAC in which she demonized the "educational establishment" and universities, an unsettling omen of education policies to come. In a speech transcript posted at the Washington Post, DeVos depicted the U.S. educational system as a failure, blaming the "educational establishment" for resisting reforms. She plugged school vouchers as a right for parents and a solution to real or imagined educational woes.
"But today, we know the system is failing too many kids. Why? Because our nation’s test scores have flatlined. Because 1.3 million children drop out of school every year. Because the previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on “School Improvement Grants,” thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem. Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance. They tested their model, and it failed, miserably.DeVos painted an ugly picture of higher education, claiming that college and university faculty order students what to do and how to think.
This is not an indictment of teachers. We all know good public school teachers. My mom was one. Good teachers make a real difference. Good teachers deserve to be honored and compensated accordingly.
But the education establishment has been blocking the doorway to reforms, fixes and improvements for a generation.
This not a Left or Right issue. This is an American issue. We need education to work for every child.
Let me ask you: Do you believe parents should be able to choose the best school for their child regardless of their ZIP code or family income? Me too. And so does President Trump."
"The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree."DeVos triggered public outrage with her statement that, "I, however, pride myself on being ... perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch." Observers interpreted her statement as a insult to the National School Lunch Program, which provides low-cost and free lunches to children living in poverty.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway sat down with Mercedes Schlapp for a conversation at CPAC. According to a transcript posted at Fortune, Conway praised her independent mother (who allegedly never used the word "feminist") and claimed that Donald Trump is a champion of women. Trump's offensive comments about women, not to mention the numerous accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault made against him, did not enter the conversation.
"I was raised to be a very strong and independent woman without anybody ever saying the word feminist or having any political conversation ... We were taught to ... be free-thinking, independent, to look at your goals. And that old saying, you could never go home was never true in my community. We always felt like we could go home. And I -- I believe that Donald Trump is someone who is not fully understood for how compassionate and what a great boss he is to women. He has been ... promoting and elevating women in the Trump Corporation, in the Trump campaign, in the Trump Cabinet, certainly in the Trump White House. It's just a very natural affinity for him."Conway also made ill-informed comments about feminism based on "man-basher" stereotypes. She contrasted this caricature of "classic" feminism with "conservative / individual feminism", which encourages women to make their own choices without complaining or reliance on the government. I don't know which was more offensive: her ignorant caricature of feminism, which takes many forms and has helped women make immense strides, or her promotion of a facile "individual feminism" which ignores social and structural inequalities that oppress women.
"So I don't know about calling yourself a feminist. I also, for me, its difficult for me to call myself a feminist in the classic sense because it seems to be very anti-male and it certainly is very pro-abortion in this context. And I'm neither anti-male or pro- abortion, so. There's an individual feminism, if you will, that you make your own choices. Mercedes, I look at myself as a product of my choices, not a victim of my circumstances. And that's really clearly ... what conservatives, feminism, if you will, is all about. My mother didn't feel sorry for herself, she was left with no child support, no alimony at a very young age, with a child to raise, a high school education and she just figured it out. She didn't complain, she didn't rely upon government, she relied upon her own skill set, her own self confidence, her own drive in moxie and her own duty to me and her and she relied upon her family and her faith."CPAC as a whole did not take environmental threats seriously, judging from the presence of organizations such as the CO2 Coalition and workshops with titles such as "Fake Climate News Camouflaging an Anti-Capitalist Agenda". For example, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt seemed eager to roll back environmental policies as part of "regulatory certainty", telling CPAC attendees about plans to cut back environmental regulations. During Pruitt's conversation with Gina Loudon, Loudon asked the audience if they wanted the EPA to disappear. "A show of hands, those of you who kind of hope that Administrator Pruitt will just sort of make the EPA go away," she asked. Hoots and applause rose from the audience. Pruitt argued that such animosity toward the EPA was justified, arguing that the Obama Administration EPA had seized too much power.
"Well, it's justified. I think as we look over the last several years, the agency that I'm tasked to lead at this point has been used by the previous administration to truly impact our country in ways that we never could have imagined eight years ago. Jobs have been impacted. The authority that the Washington D.C. [office] has, the assumption of power and the accumulation of power, they've taken advantage of that, and so, I think it's justified. I think people across this country look at the EPA much like they look at the IRS, and I hope to be able to change that."CPAC reminds us of what our country has become, and could become, under the Trump administration. We have an Education Secretary with warped ideas about the education system, an EPA Administrator who seeks to roll back environmental regulations, and a non-feminist White House counsel who has the ear of a misogynist president. Do we need any more reminders of why staying informed and politically active is important in these times?