politics

Trump Steers Right-Wing Summit on Populist Path Blazed in Europe

Updated on
  • Stars of U.K., French nationalist movements address CPAC
  • Annual gathering of conservatives often signals GOP direction

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President Donald Trump has pushed the Republican Party toward a European-style populism that is amply evident in the line-up at an annual conference in Washington that long has reflected the pulse of the American right.

The list of speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference that opened Thursday includes two European nativists, Marion Marechal-Le Pen and Nigel Farage, who are addressing the gathering between panels and events on the dangers of immigration, Sharia law and “lawless” government agencies.

Marion Marechal-Le Pen

Photographer: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The presence of Marechal-Le Pen and Farage is an indicator of how Trump’s “America First” agenda parallels traditional European nationalism, said Benjamin Haddad, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute who studies European populism and transatlantic affairs.

“You do see a convergence with the Trump movement -- when it comes to closed borders, protectionism, the nativism and anti-immigration discourse, the focus on Islam,” Haddad said. “It’s what we’ve seen in European movements for years."

Over the three-day run of the conference, which often reflects the direction of the GOP, audiences will hear from Trump, who’s promised to appear every year he is president; Vice President Mike Pence, the kick-off speaker on Thursday; and a cross-section of Trump administration officials popular with conservatives.

Marechal-Le Pen, the far-right French politician and niece of National Front leader Marine Le Pen, said nationalist movements are part of the broader fight for freedom and independence.

“I’m not offended when I hear President Donald Trump say America first,” she said, drawing cheers from the crowd. “In fact, I want America first for the American people. I want Britain first for the British people. And I want France first for the French people.”

"All I want is the survival of my nation," she said, prompting a shout of “Vive la France!” from an audience member.

Controversial Invitation

The decision by CPAC to invite Marechal-Le Pen to speak has generated blowback from some conservatives.

CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp addressed critics who said Marechal-Le Pen defies core precepts of American conservatism, writing on Twitter: "Part of @CPAC is hearing people out. Debate is good for democracy and we are honored to have her address our activists."

Jamie Weinstein, a conservative commentator based in Washington, responded to Schlapp’s message with a tweet saying he’s all for a healthy debate, but "I’m afraid what @CPAC is doing w/ Le Pen is allowing her to steal mantle of conservatism for an ideology that is anything but, at least as defined in America."

Political Dynasty

The 28-year-old Marechal-Le Pen is a scion of the nativist political dynasty that began with her grandfather Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front in 1972. She has championed a harder line on immigration and national identity than her aunt, who was defeated by Emmanuel Macron for the French presidency last year. Shortly after the election, Marechal-Le Pen said she was retiring from political life, though she didn’t close the door on a return.

"She’s young, she’s a firebrand speaker, she’s clearly a good spokesperson for this," Haddad said, adding that her philosophy is closer to her grandfather’s than that of her aunt, who tried to steer the party away from some of its most racially charged elements and toward populist economic issues like trade protectionism and minimum wage increases.

Farage, the British politician who was a force behind the successful Brexit referendum, will take the stage on Friday.

Trump Ally

The former U.K. Independence Party leader has aligned himself with Trump, who has returned the embrace. Shortly after the American presidential election, Trump suggested Farage should be Britain’s ambassador to the U.S. That was rejected by Prime Minister Theresa May, who has had a sometimes frosty relationship with the president.

Thomas Wright, the director of the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe, said Marechal-Le Pen and Farage are "birds of a feather" and "not friends of the U.S. and Europe." He said the participation of Marechal-Le Pen in particular "raises questions" as to whether CPAC is "aware of the various anti-American things she’s said."

"Everyone should be very clear-eyed about what it is they stand for, which is a very anti-American view and a pro-Russian view of politics, and of the United States role in Europe," Wright said. "It’s a worrying gesture. It raises significant concerns."

Trump on Tuesday praised Schlapp for organizing what he said would be an "exciting event."

Converging

The presence of nativist sentiments isn’t new in American politics, but until recent years they’ve largely been relegated to the fringes. Previous Republican Party leaders have instead emphasized pluralism over identity, alongside free markets and limited government. The rise of Trump appears to be a reflection of the potency of populism in a country that has been dominated by European immigrants and now is becoming more racially and ethnically diverse.

"It does send a message that the Republican Party seems to be converging more with Trump,” Wright said.

There are some gaps between Trump’s rhetoric and his policies so far, such as on trade, Haddad said. He added that the president’s agenda of lower taxes and deregulation runs contrary to the more left-wing economic agenda of some populist European parties such as the National Front.

Numerous panels and other events are focused on the nuts and bolts of political activism, including using data and social media in campaigns, as well as issues that long have animated conservatives, such as the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and freeing markets from government interference.

But many sessions have a flavor of current debates about immigration, the inquiries into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether conservative opinions are suppressed on college campuses. Several are centered on Trump’s policies.

Trump had appeared numerous times at CPAC since 2011 as he considered running for office. In 2016, when Trump canceled his appearance, the group criticized him and said his move "sends a clear message to conservatives."

A rival for the Republican nomination, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, was the winner of that year’s CPAC straw poll, which had been won by Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney before their successful runs for the Republican nomination.

Some traditional conservatives feared then that Trump would push the Republican Party in a nativist direction. It was “one of the top concerns #NeverTrump-ers had about Trump,” Weinstein said.

(Updates with Marechal-Le Pen remarks in sixth-eighth paragraphs.)
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