NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As news stories emerged from New Delhi on Thursday evening, all offering proof of an appalling anti-Muslim pogrom there, 50 or so American conservatives, many in red “Make America Great Again” hats, filed into a windowless hotel conference room in suburban Maryland to watch a panel discussion called “Without Religious Freedom, What’s Left?”
The panel was part of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the premier annual gathering of the American right, where Republican senators and representatives mingled with pundits, activists and journalists inside a sprawling convention center outside Washington, D.C.
The urgent plight of India’s Muslims earned only 15 seconds of discussion during the hourlong CPAC panel on religious freedom. The brief mention came when Sam Brownback, the U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom, described President Donald Trump’s visit two days earlier to India to meet with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“He had a great trip there,” Brownback said of the president. “Thirty-six hours, and in a private meeting with Modi he’s going, ‘Look, you gotta take care of the religious freedom business. You got a persecution taking place of a lot of your population here.’”
But what Brownback did not mention to the CPAC audience was that Trump had publicly praised Modi as a champion of “religious freedom” during a press conference in New Delhi, despite the Indian prime minister being the leader of a blood-and-soil Hindu nationalist movement that seeks to expel Muslims from India. The ambassador did not mention that, during Trump’s visit, at least 42 people were killed as Hindu nationalist mobs roamed the city’s streets.
Instead, he moved on to other topics. After the panel concluded, as Brownback walked through the halls of the Gaylord National Conference and Convention Center — past groups of college-aged Republicans in oversized suits toward “Broadcast Row,” where far-right news outlets like Breitbart and the Epoch Times had booths — a member of his staff prevented HuffPost from questioning him about Trump’s actions in New Delhi.
At this year’s CPAC, organized by the American Conservative Union, attendees everywhere expressed a deep loyalty to Trump and refused to entertain criticisms about his response to what’s happening in India — a response the Council on American-Islamic Relations said has only “added fuel to the fire” there.
More importantly, though, CPAC 2020 served as yet another demonstration of the Islamophobia that animates modern American conservatism and that makes it an active partner in the tide of anti-Muslim violence and repression sweeping the globe, including in Modi’s India.
The man all the CPAC attendees were here to celebrate, after all, once stated, “I think Islam hates us.”
Rabbi Aryeh Spero, a frequent Fox News guest and a spokesman for the conservative National Conference on Jewish Affairs, stepped out of the main ballroom at CPAC on Saturday and browsed the booths in the hallway. He’d traveled to the conference from Canton, Ohio, he said, to hear the president’s speech and to be amongst like-minded people.
He told HuffPost that he wasn’t familiar with the violence in New Delhi, but that regardless, “I wouldn’t criticize the president. I have a lot of faith in what he says.”
“There are wars there, I know, between the Hindu population and the Muslim population,” Spero said. “They’ve had these wars for a long time. I don’t think any of these things are one-sided.”
HuffPost offered Spero some details about the current situation: Since August, Modi’s government has implemented a series of Hindu-first citizenship laws that could render many of India’s 200 million Muslims stateless. The government has also started to construct massive detention camps for those affected by the law.
Scholars of fascism say these developments mirror 1930s Germany, and in fact, Hindu nationalists and members of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party have long drawn inspiration from Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party. Modi himself is a member of a BJP-affiliated paramilitary group modeled explicitly after the Nazis.
Spero appeared to grow defensive at the suggestion that what’s happening in India might be fascist.
“What about the Muslims around the world that are attacking Christians?” he said. “Does that bother you too? Do you have a report about that? Do you interview people about that?”
“Have you talked about maybe all the Muslim states being fascist because they’re killing Christians?” he continued. “I just hope that your good feelings regarding religious freedom would be equally distributed.”
Down the hall from Spero, a gregarious middle-aged man with a long white beard, black sunglasses and a bald eagle skullcap walked around starting conversations with fellow attendees. He said he was a retired New York City cop who goes by the name Grizzly Joe. A business card he handed HuffPost described him as “The Original Blue Supremacist” who blogs about “politics and counter-jihad.”
“Counter-jihad, to be clear, does not mean anti-Islam,” Grizzly Joe explained. “For me, I don’t care if you’re Muslim, atheist, Christian, whatever. Counter-jihad, to me, is more about what I call Quranic literalism. The Islam, if you will, of al Qaeda, etc., etc. The Taliban. Not westernized Islam.”
Grizzly Joe emphasized that he’s not one of those guys who thinks Trump “walks on water.” Still, he thought the president’s approach to the violence in India was probably pragmatic.
“To work on everything with India that he needs to work on, you know, all of our interests, all of India’s interests, sometimes you gotta unfortunately look the other way, with the little specific points that go on here and there,” Grizzly Joe reasoned.
The same kind of Islamophobia that’s driving the repression and violence in India — which views Muslims as invaders and infiltrators —was everywhere on display at CPAC.
In the exhibit hall, a vendor hawked copies of books by anti-Muslim fanatics like Robert Spencer, including “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam” and “The Complete Infidel’s Guide to the Koran.”
In the hallways, white supremacist Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wandered around shaking hands and posing for photos with fans, including anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist Laura Loomer. (“Text me,” the congressman could be heard telling Loomer.)
In 2018, HuffPost discovered that King sat down for an interview with a neo-fascist publication in Austria to discuss the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, which holds that Muslim immigration to Europe and North America amounts to an extinction-level event for white culture and identity. A year ago, Republican House leadership stripped King of his committee assignments over separate comments he made condoning white supremacy.
And yet at this year’s CPAC, King was a speaker on a panel about freedom of speech, giving opening remarks in which he lashed out against the “politically correct police” around the world and recommended that people read the work of fellow panelist Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, an anti-Muslim activist convicted of hate speech in Austria.
When it was Sabaditsch-Wolff’s turn to speak, she told the audience about how her activism against the “Islamization of our societies” had made her a pariah in her home country. “I am unemployable,” she lamented. “Not even McDonald’s will hire me. Who would want to hire someone like me, right?”
Someone in the audience jokingly offered her a job.
By the time Trump took the CPAC stage on Saturday to give the closing speech of the conference, the violence in New Delhi had stopped, but yet more harrowing tales of the pogrom were emerging in the news: two Muslim brothers beaten to death, their bodies tossed into a sewer drain; an 85-year-old woman burned alive in her home; mosques set on fire.
The president did not address this violence in his remarks. Instead, he offered what was essentially a standup routine, ranting about windmills, “sleepy Joe” Biden, Mike Bloomberg’s height, “Never Trumpers,” “crazy” Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg’s resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman.
As the speech ended and the crowd erupted in cheers and applause, Trump walked over to an American flag on stage — just like he did last year — and gave it a hug.