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“It needed to be said”: why a CPAC speaker called out Trump on sexual harassment

“I just wanted to tell the truth.”

Mona Charen is a well-known conservative pundit, a former speechwriter for Nancy Reagan, and a political columnist whose work has appeared in the pages of National Review and elsewhere for more than 30 years. But on Saturday, Charen captured national attention when a conservative audience booed and jeered so viciously that she was escorted out of the building by security personnel.

Her crime: calling out Trump for his treatment of women.

Charen, speaking on a panel at the Conservative Political Action Conference, dropped a match into a tinderbox when she told the audience that conservatives were “being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women,” adding, “You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.”

Charen struck a nerve when she got specific: “This is the party that endorsed Roy Moore for the Senate in the state of Alabama, even though he was a credibly accused child molester.” The audience yelled, “Not true!”

The panel, “#UsToo: Left Out by the Left,” was supposed to be about how liberals mistreat and exclude conservative women. Instead, Charen made it about how conservatives mistreat and exclude conservative women.

I spoke with Charen on Tuesday about what she said at CPAC, and why she felt she had a responsibility to speak out. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jane Coaston

You have said you were surprised to be invited to speak at CPAC in the first place because of your well-known anti-Trump views. What did you come to CPAC to say?

Mona Charen

I just wanted to tell the truth. I just wanted to make sure there was somebody at CPAC who would speak about the elephant in the room. That CPAC was trending in a really noisome direction.

The thing that made me most alarmed was the invitation to Marion Le Pen, what that says about the drift of the conservative movement, but I was also distressed about the presence of others like [former assistant to the president Seb] Gorka and Sheriff David Clarke, who’s just a terrible figure.

I just wanted to say it. I thought it needed to be said. And I thought that some people want to hear it. I still believe that.

Jane Coaston

What reaction did you expect? You said that you just want to tell the truth. Did you view your remarks, in some ways, as a form of protest against Le Pen’s presence, against Gorka’s presence, against the Trumpification of CPAC?

Mona Charen

Yes. Absolutely. Look, I think they must’ve made a mistake by inviting me. That’s probably what happened, because if you look at the list of speakers, there were precious few people who were skeptical — Trump-skeptical, let’s just put it that way. But they invited me, and so I thought, “Well, all right! I will say what I think. They invited me; I’ll say what I think.”

Jane Coaston

When you brought up Roy Moore [saying, “This is the party that endorsed the Roy Moore ... even though he was a credibly accused child molester”] and you start hearing people yelling, “Not true!” What did that moment feel like for you, when you were sitting on that stage?

Mona Charen

It’s not the first time I’ve faced a hostile audience. It’s just the first time I’ve faced a hostile audience that was on the right. So that’s the new world we’re living in.

I feel really strongly that there are millions of conservatives who still believe the things we’ve always believed. We believe in integrity, we believe in honesty, and the importance of manners, and the importance of calling out abusive power, as in the case of, for example, Sheriff Clarke.

So I just really wanted to be somebody who would stand up for that vision of what conservatism is. Which is not, obviously, represented by Trumpism. And I had a feeling that there would be some hostile reaction to it in the crowd. I certainly know what my mail looks like from people who are very enthusiastic about the president. They haven’t been happy with me for the last two years. So I knew that was part of the deal.

Jane Coaston

I speak with a lot of conservatives for what I do, and there is definitely a sense among conservatives that conservatives want to hear the truth; they aren’t afraid to have their feelings hurt. But clearly, in this moment, people did care very much about their feelings about Trump being hurt. What was that like?

Mona Charen

Look, this is true of both sides, and it probably, to some extent, has always been true of both sides. I mean, who doesn’t like to hear their own views ratified? We all do. We all fall into that. But what I’m trying to counter is this intensifying and poisonous polarization of our society.

Look, it may not make any difference. I’m not going to flatter myself that I’m important, but a few people just speaking up can at least lay down a marker that this is what we believe and we’re willing to be booed to say it.

And look, the notion that conservatives are any better at listening to facts than liberals, I don’t agree with that. And by the way, I hate it when liberals say, “We’re the science party. We’re the rationality part. You people are the knuckle-dragging troglodytes.”

Because it really depends on which subject you bring up. When it comes, for example, to the science of male, female differences, I notice liberals running for the tall grass. They don’t want to deal with that science, whereas when it comes to climate change, they do.

There’s a lot of blame on both sides.

Jane Coaston

Do you think that Trump has changed what the conservative movement looks like?

Mona Charen

Absolutely.

Jane Coaston

How so?

Mona Charen

Just for example: For at least 20 years, there’s been a strong view expressed by many conservatives that we have too much immigration and that we need to cut back. And that’s a perfectly respectable point of view. I don’t happen to agree with it, but ... I’m sort of a mushy moderate on immigration.

But Trump engages in the worst kind of demagoguery about it, and he demonizes immigrants. One of the things he did in his speech at CPAC, which is not untypical of him, was he recited that awful snake poem. He didn’t say “illegal” immigrants. He demonized immigrants and said they were terrorists and criminals that are being sent here to kill us. And that is a degradation of the conservative point of view.

Jane Coaston

In your New York Times op-ed, you said, “For traditional conservatives, the last two years have felt like a Twilight Zone episode.” But a lot of people who would think of themselves as being traditional conservatives voted for Trump and support Trump.

Even traditional conservatives who have expressed views on gender and race that are aligned with yours. When you see people who, in many ways, share your views or share your own conservatism going along with Trump, why do you think that you didn’t go along, and why do you think they did?

Mona Charen

Jane, that’s the $64,000 question. I don’t know. I cannot speak for other people. And I guess the charitable interpretation is that they think he’s a lot of bluster but that in the end it’s worth it because you get some good policy outcomes.

And I don’t dispute there have been some good policy outcomes. I like Nikki Haley at the UN, and some of the deregulation. But I just have an extremely different view about the price that we are paying in sacrificing our principles to get those small gains and certain policy wins.

I can’t explain other people. I can, I guess, only explain myself.

Jane Coaston

For a lot of people who don’t know very much about CPAC, it’s definitely a conference that’s aimed at young conservatives. It’s chock-full of teenagers and college students who very much are, in many ways, the future of this movement.

When you were in that room, what do you think they saw at CPAC?

Mona Charen

Well, they saw cheerleading for the president, almost exclusively, at CPAC. And they saw tolerance for certain kind of nativism and nationalism that is worrisome.

And then they also saw, at least in my case, somebody who [spoke out]. And for what it’s worth, I’m not saying it’s all that much, but Alice Lloyd, who is a reporter for the Weekly Standard, told me that when I spoke, there were several young guys, college age, who, when I said what I did, they stood up on their chairs and applauded.