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CPAC 2021 shows how conservatives have learned nothing about the coronavirus

CPAC organizers begged attendees to wear masks — and got booed.

Sen. Ted Cruz speaks at CPAC on Friday.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

One of the most enduring clips from the 2020 Conservative Political Action Conference was Mick Mulvaney dismissing the coronavirus pandemic as a media-driven “attempt to bring down the president.” More than 500,000 deaths and a year later, the first two full days of CPAC 2021 in Orlando, Florida, illustrated how little conservatives have learned.

Throughout the day on Friday, speakers characterized the coronavirus — which continues to claim more than 2,000 lives each day in the US — as something that only liberal wimps worry about or, more nefariously, as little more than a pretext Democratic public officials have used to shut down businesses and schools.

This type of rhetoric might seem absurd to people who take science and public health seriously, but it doesn’t to CPAC attendees.

One of the most memorable scenes from Friday’s festivities came early on, when event officials had to take to the stage and beg people to respect “private property rights” and “the rule of law” by wearing masks while walking around the hotel where the conference is being held. Unhappy attendees responded by booing and yelling “freedom!”

People could be excused for experiencing some cognitive dissonance. The speakers who came before and after that incident demonstrated that enduring a year-long pandemic hasn’t motivated conservatives to take basic public health practices more seriously.

This was perhaps most evident on Saturday, when South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a Republican, gave the headlining speech. Despite the fact that more than 1 in 500 South Dakotans has died from Covid-19 — a mortality rate that places the state among the 10 hardest-hit — Noem took a victory lap and portrayed public health responses to the pandemic as largely unnecessary.

“Let me be clear — Covid didn’t crush the economy, government crushed the economy,” she said, before taking a direct shot at trusted public health experts.

“Dr. Fauci is wrong a lot,” she added.

Noem’s comments encapsulated the tone with which the coronavirus is being talked about at CPAC. Though America’s disastrous response to the pandemic was the responsibility of a Republican president, Noem and other speakers have pointed at the fact that blue states like New York and Massachusetts are among the highest in per capita deaths to discredit public health science and make it seem as though Trump’s bungling was actually a success story. Unfortunately, contrary to what Noem claims, it was not.

“This is just dumb”

Notably, a trio of Republican senators was among the worst offenders when it came to spreading Covid-19 misinformation on Friday.

Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) got the morning going by bragging not only about going to church “during a time of Covid” but also about singing during the service.

“I even dared to sing in church, contrary to California doctrine,” he said.

But it has nothing to do with “California doctrine,” whatever that is. Singing in church was linked with superspreader events in the early days of the pandemic last spring, so public health experts recommended against it, and some states banned it (until a Supreme Court ruling in November found such bans to be unconstitutional). It’s not safe, unless you’ve already been vaccinated — which Lankford has been, but most Americans still have not.

Lankford’s comment set the tone. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) began his speech by cracking a joke about his decision to travel to Mexico for a family vacation last week while millions of his constituents languished without power. He then pretended to not understand why it’s important to wear masks during a pandemic, describing it as “strange” that restaurant-goers are required to wear masks in many states unless they are eating or drinking.

“You walk in, you gotta put your mask on — sadly, I’ve got two — you walk in, you gotta put your mask on. You sit down, you can take your mask off. See, apparently, the virus is actually connected to elevation,” Cruz quipped, adding later: “This is just dumb.”

Later, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) mocked Maryland officials for state public health guidelines that ended up prohibiting CPAC from having the conference in its usual location just outside Washington, DC.

“Even though cases are plummeting and vaccination rates are surging, we are still banned from getting anywhere near our nation’s capital,” Cotton said, as if the fact that daily new cases and deaths are down from where they were two months ago is a good reason to immediately drop all public health guidelines.

In hindsight, CPAC 2020 was one of the earliest indicators that Republicans would politicize public health responses to the coronavirus pandemic by framing any measure that closed businesses or schools as an impingement on their personal freedoms. That mentality went on to infuse a reelection campaign in which Trump spread disease and misinformation across the country at rallies that made a mockery of basic public health measures.

But even after Trump’s defeat, conservatives’ approach to the coronavirus pandemic remains unchanged.

It’s still Trump’s party in more ways than one

Beyond making a mockery of the coronavirus, another big theme from Friday was speakers pushing the same lies about the 2020 election and the January 6 insurrection.

Wayne Dupree, a conspiracy theorist who once claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting was a false flag, used a panel discussion to try to blame antifa and Black Lives Matter for an insurrection that was perpetrated by Trump supporters. Later, a panel discussion devoted to “How Judges & Media Refused to Look at the Evidence” of election fraud had to be interrupted on Right Side Broadcasting’s CPAC stream so hosts could distance themselves from the panelists’ claims. (Voting machine companies have filed and threatened billion-dollar lawsuits against individuals and media organizations that have falsely claimed machines were rigged against Trump.)

And, of course, the day was infused with lots of culture war grievances about everything from social media companies having the temerity to fact-check Trump to Mr. Potato Head’s genitalia.

The big takeaway from all this is that conservatives haven’t even tried to learn lessons or make adjustments following an election cycle in which they lost control of the White House and the Senate.

Like it was last year, CPAC 2021 is a cultish celebration of Donald Trump that will be headlined Sunday with a speech by the former president — an embodiment of a movement that stands for little more than owning the libs.