First, an attempt to define the odd bubble in which CPAC exists. I am sitting in the press gallery listening to Iowa Congressman Steve King tell a crowd of 3,500 that he orders his interns to replace the energy-efficient light bulbs in his Capitol office with “black-market Edison light bulbs.” “The janitors, Nancy’s [Pelosi] Stasi troops, put the bulbs in at night,” King says.
He buys black-market bulbs himself, but was recently put off when a clerk offered him a reusable bag made of recycled materials for $1.00. He bought the bag only because it came with a 10 percent discount. “But I filled it with Edison light bulbs,” King says. “Sometimes I screw them in myself. That’s how I get a little of my freedom back.” King also tells the audience that he has drilled out his “Al Gore water-saver shower head.”
That conspicuous consumption of natural resources is an odd definition of personal liberty doesn’t register with this audience. King is puerile, but not funny. You laugh at these people— or dismiss them—at your own risk.
An encounter with David Bossie is an apt illustration. Four years ago, I interviewed Bossie in the lobby of a hotel that CPAC has since outgrown. Bossie was a House committee staff investigator who had been fired by Congressman Dan Burton (R-IN) in 1997 for leaking selectively edited transcripts of conversations between former Clinton Deputy Attorney General Web Hubbell and his wife, Suzanna, while Hubbell was serving time for fraud and tax evasion. By 2008, Bossie was working for Citizens United, at the time an obscure nonprofit advocacy group. He had produced Hillary: The Movie, which was shown at CPAC that year. But the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law was still intact, which prohibited Bossie from advertising and distributing the film as he intended. Bossie predicted that Citizens United would prevail in its lawsuit against the Federal Elections Commission, but I wasn’t convinced. That is, until the Supreme Court ruled in Bossie’s favor and cleared the way for the super PACs that have shaped the Republican primaries and will play an exponentially larger role in the general election. Again, the people who convene at CPAC do critical work for the Republican Party.
CPAC has become the place where the far right thinks in public. Every extreme idea that is turned into a Republican policy initiative is rehearsed here. It is also where the right refines its narratives, particularly in campaign years.
This year, the Occupy movement is a big narrative piece. Conference organizers booked the main ballroom for an Occupy panel as well as a speech attacking the movement. There was also a discussion of a film, Occupy Unmasked, scheduled for an April release from Citizens United Productions. Bossie is producing the film in collaboration with Andrew Breitbart. Breitbart is the right-wing entrepreneur who, in the early days of The Huffington Post, was a Hollywood liberal working with Arianna Huffington. He’s now known for his formulaic, inyour- face confrontations with journalists on the left. He also funded, promoted, and posted on his website the selectively edited sting videos that activists James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles created to use against ACORN in 2009.
Stephen Bannon, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is the Occupy film’s director. Bannon said his film will “go down the rabbit hole in Zuccotti Park” to document “multiple rapes, drug use, and deaths” that went unreported because corporate media outlets have conspired to protect the movement’s image. And to prove that Occupy is orchestrated by Democratic party The subgenre that Citizens United Productions has created might be described as Michael Moore without the humor, irony, or narrative and technical craft. Hillary: The Movie was a ham-handed and nasty piece of work. The Undefeated and Fire From the Heartland are recent releases you might have missed (on Sarah Palin and the Tea Party, respectively). Occupy Unmasked alone isn’t going have much effect on the movement. It matters only because it fits into a much larger movement.
The right is obsessed with Occupy because it was successful.
“Remember last August?” Bannon said. “The Tea Party Trilogy that talked about the national debt, the financial crisis, and the deficit? The mainstream media and the professional left have changed the narrative to be about income equality. It’s all from September 15 and the Occupy movement. And we’re going to deconstruct that with this movie.”
The day after the film preview, Occupy protesters gathered outside the hotel where CPAC was being held. A crowd of about 75 demonstrators, mostly union members, was on the sidewalk wedged between a police line and the street. I spoke to a retired Communications Worker of America member in her late sixties, who was taking photos. A registered nurse who works in a D.C. hospital and belongs to National Nurses United had brought his two children along to the protest. Another nurse, in NNU scrubs, was arguing health care with a woman wearing a CPAC badge.
As the union members left, a larger Occupy crowd took their place. The protest grew louder and a little more confrontational in tone, but was fairly static as protesters stood face to face with D.C. police, who were good-humored, relaxed, and seemed content to be collecting overtime.
Breitbart emerged from the hotel, staged a confrontation, was “restrained,” and walked back to the hotel. The protestors returned to the business of protesting, except for two men in their twenties, who persisted in confronting and antagonizing the cops. I thought of the role that Darby and Strannahan had played, and how easy it is to turn a peaceful protest toward violent confrontation.
Popular movements are fragile, fluid, and porous. Chris Hedges, the Occupy movement’s most eloquent advocate, argues that only absolute transparency and disciplined nonviolence can defend the movement from the broad assault it is now facing. operatives and union bosses.
The moles Bannon sent down the rabbit hole were Lee Strannahan and Brandon Darby. Strannahan is a former Huffington Post blogger who followed Breitbart when he left the Post for a career in the professional right. Darby is a veteran organizer who had worked with left-wing, grassroots groups, most notably Common Ground in New Orleans. In 2007 he became an FBI informant, and helped send two novice protestors to prison for purchasing material to make Molotov cocktails on the eve of the 2008 Republican national convention in St. Paul.
(Darby’s role as an informant who encouraged a criminal act in an entrapment scheme has been debated ever since 22-year-old Bradley Crowder, convinced that he would be convicted in federal court, pled guilty to a lesser charge. The Molotovs were never used, although Darby and Crowder discussed using them hours before Darby was arrested in St. Paul. Nor was criminal intent ever proven.) Strannahan and Darby’s left-to-right career arcs are a fast track to speaking engagements at events such as CPAC. The two are also useful, Bossie said, because “they speak the language of the left and don’t look like conservatives.”
The documentary trailer that Bossie previewed begins with MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan addressing Zuccotti Park occupiers, then descends into darkness and violence interspersed with clips of Barack Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid.
SIDEBAR: MAYDAY IN CHICAGO?
Adbusters, the Canadian magazine and activist combine whose call to action sparked the September 17 occupation of Wall Street, regularly posts and e-mails “tactical briefings.” An excerpt from a recent briefing follows.
Tactical Briefing # 25: In the Tradition of the Chicago 8 | #OccupyChicago | May 1—Bring Tent.
[A]gainst the backdrop of a global uprising that is simmering in dozens of countries and thousands of cities and towns, the G8 and NATO will hold a rare simultaneous summit in Chicago this May. The world’s military and political elites, heads of state, 7,500 officials from 80 nations, and more than 2,500 journalists will be there.
And so will we.
On May 1, 50,000 people from all over the world will flock to Chicago, set up tents, kitchens, peaceful barricades and #OCCUPYCHICAGO for a month. With a bit of luck, we’ll pull off the biggest multinational occupation of a summit meeting the world has ever seen.
And this time around we’re not going to put up with the kind of police repression that happened during the Democratic National Convention protests in Chicago, 1968…. And when the G8 and NATO meet behind closed doors on May 19, we’ll be ready with our demands: a Robin Hood Tax…a ban on high frequency ‘flash’ trading…a binding climate change accord…a three strikes and you’re out law for corporate criminals…an all out initiative for a nuclear-free Middle East…whatever we decide in our general assemblies and in our global internet brainstorm—we the people will set the agenda for the next few years and demand our leaders carry it out.