Inside the Western Conservative Conference: Activists Sold on Guns, Gold and the Threat of China
PHOENIX -- The demographic death spiral of the conservative movement has a laugh track. It was recorded live in Barry Goldwater's hometown on Saturday night, in front of a 1,000-person ballroom audience, during a banquet roast of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the gala conclusion to the annual Western Conservative Conference, known until last year as Western CPAC.
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne laid down the basic comic framework for his fellow roasters, totaling a dozen conservative dignitaries of local and national reputation. "Apologies to the Civic Center," said Horne, "but half of the kitchen staff was arrested tonight upon arrival of Joe and his deputies. Because of a budget crunch, the sheriff's cutting way back. No more green baloney for prisoners -- just an extra beating at suppertime. Over the years, Joe's touched many people. We know because many are now pressing charges."
Chuckling throughout Horne's routine on stage next to Arpaio was Russell Pearce, a recalled state senator with a documented fondness for neo-Nazi websites, and the primary architect of Arizona's controversial immigration bill S.B. 1070. Pearce smiled as his one-time ally in the 1070 fight, Arizona State Rep. John Kavanagh, began his set asking, "How many Hispanics did you pull over on the way over here, Arpaio?" He later added, "All these years I figured he was rounding up Hispanics because you had a grudge from [fighting in] the Spanish-American War. But if you were in the Korean War, how come you're not rounding up Asians?" Kavanagh was doing a bit about the difficulties of dining out with Arpaio -- "When we go into a restaurant, most of the wait staff and cooks dive out the back window" -- when he spotted a passing waiter holding a platter of stuffed chickens, and screamed, "There's a brave one! Get him! Sic 'em!"
The crowd roared; the waiter turned red. Thus did a day of strategy sessions on how to reclaim the White House and build a new conservative majority end with national movement leaders affectionately teasing a divisive deport-'em-all drug-war dinosaur, whose roast material revolved entirely around the three facts of his being old, sadistic, and having a bit of a brown-person problem. The Tea Party's loud rejection of immigration reform shows it has also refused the message of electoral emergency delivered by Barack Obama's 2012 victory map. But if anyone needed another reminder, they now have the image of Joe Arpaio receiving a "Medal of Freedom" award in recognition of his rough detainment and deportation techniques, and a taste for racial profiling so aggressive it has resulted in a federally appointed monitor in Maricopa County.
The man behind the Western Conservative Conference, Floyd Brown, has never been very good at helping the GOP build bridges. In 1988, he created the infamous "Willie Horton" ad that has dogged his party's outreach efforts ever since. But Brown's interests and achievements are more diverse than scorched-earth political advertising. He has been a Zelig-like presence on the right for the better part of three decades, zig-zagging his way through and connecting the worlds of conservative organizing, publishing, opposition research, campaigning, fundraising, marketing, and predatory investment advice.
A co-founder of Citizens United, Brown now runs a marketing company, Excellentia Inc., helping clients "achieve success in the conservative and Christian marketplace." He works as a traveling speaker for groups like the Oxford Group claiming to offer "insider" stock tips and advice. He also pushes gold coins and municipal bonds, sometimes in mutual exclusion of the other, depending on his audience.
All of which makes Brown a perfect impresario for today's conservative grassroots activist circuit, where organizing and politics can seem incidental to the interests of an interlocking constellation of thinly veiled data mining, fundraising, and precious metals operations. This was sometimes the case in Phoenix, where an older, nearly all-white group of activist-attendees from Western states paid $399 to train under the tutelage of organizers from Heritage Action and the Leadership Institute, as well as hear national figures pitch gold coins and radio shows. The bold-face names who appeared live or by video included Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. Rick Perry, and embattled National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent, who was welcomed despite being under fire for racist attacks on President Obama.
The main organizer behind the conference, the Western Center for Journalism, did much to anticipate this combine. Joseph Farah founded the WCJ in the early '90s to churn out Clinton conspiracies with arch-conservative billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife's money, which it did in enough volume to spin off WorldNetDaily in 1998. (Brown's tactics during this period were notably ruthless. In 1992, the Bush-Quayle campaign called Brown and his associates "the lowest forms of life" for hounding the family of a woman who had killed herself). The WCJ went dormant during the Bush years, while an increasingly scammy WND grew its traffic and for-sale email list. WCJ reopened for business in 2007 to underwrite and promote Jerome Corsi'serror-filled book, The Obama Nation, and brought Brown in to revive the site. It was in his capacity as president of the Western Center for Journalism that Brown chaired the host committee in Phoenix. (The American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, the larger, better-known annual event that will be held next weekend outside Washington, D.C., did not respond to questions about its relationship to Brown's event, or why it is no longer called Western CPAC.)
The conference began on Friday night with a keynote speech by Trevor Loudon, a dour New Zealander who has found steady work peddling stories of a modern-day Red Scare on the Tea Party circuit. As attendees lined up for drinks and baby carrots, Loudon sketched out the contents of his most recent book, The Enemies Within: Communists, Socialists, and Progressives in the U.S. Congress. It is Louden's belief that "98 percent of the Democratic Party" is far-left, anti-American, and actively working toward an economic collapse to allow communism "a second chance." With his haunted imagination and lottery-ticket approach to numbers, Louden evokes the South Pacific-accented ghost of Fred Schwartz, an Australian anti-communist speaker who made a good living on the Bircher circuit of the 1950s and 60s selling books and warning of Reds under every bed.
Like Schwartz, Louden believes he has a crucial role to play in uniting the American Right and positioning it for victory. "Here's what you need to do," Loudon told the crowd in Phoenix. "You need a new Reagan coalition and a Reagan type leader that inspires people, like Ted Cruz. And Cruz should promise the following cabinet to unify the right: Allen West, VP; Rand Paul, Treasury; Sarah Palin, Energy; Scott Walker, Labor; Herman Cain, Commerce; John Bolton, State; Health and Human Services, Ben Carson. Attorney General, Mark Levin. Education, David Barton. U.N. -- nobody. Everybody gets something. It would energize the whole movement."
Among the last people to leave the ballroom following Loudon's speech was Floyd Brown, who stayed behind signing copies of his 2008 book, Obama Unmasked: Did Hollywood Handlers Create the Perfect Candidate?, and giving them away to whoever would take one. As Brown personalized my copy -- "To Alex: Keep fighting for freedom!" -- I asked him if he thought any of the old Clinton scandals he pushed in the 90s could have traction if Hillary Clinton runs for president in 2016. He paused, looking for a moment as if the question had never occurred to him, then quickly recovered the confident tone of a professional dealer of "insider" information and analysis. "No," he said. "Not unless the other side brings them up. I know for a fact that there are people on the other side who are going to challenge her."
The next morning Brown hosted a breakout session entitled, "Is An Economic Collapse Coming?" He opened with another question: "You may be wondering, 'Why are we holding a meeting on economic collapse?'" But it's unlikely anyone in the room found the subject, or its gold-dealer sponsor, out of place. Wherever conservatives gather these days, gold dealers are close at hand. Even the NRA's annual meeting now offers seminars on buying gold as a form of "economic self-defense."
Listening to Brown tout his "training as an economist" (by which he meant his bachelor's degree) and riff on gold's imperviousness to "counterparty risk," it was tempting to admire his career as a journeyman pitcher of junk in the conservative gutter league. "First, please, I beg you, limit your exposure to bonds," said Brown. "They have performed extraordinarily well over 30 years. But sometimes when it has been the best, it is preparing to be the worst. Please, please, please, try and limit your exposure to bonds. Not even CD's and Social Security are safe anymore, because they're protected by the government -- and the government is bankrupt."
At that very moment, as he pitched gold by trashing all government-backed paper, Brown was pushing city debt as an investment in his capacity as "Chief Political Analyst" at a website called Capitol Hill Daily -- "The Unofficial News Source of Every Wealthy Congressman." The site currently features an article by Brown hyping stock in a fund specializing in municipal bonds called Invesco CA Value Muni Common. "Political insiders are sinking their money into one niche investment that could shoot to the moon following a municipal bond bailout," it states. "[Muni bonds are] as close to foolproof as it gets, since both the Fed and Capitol Hill have the muni bond market's back."
Meanwhile, back in Phoenix, Brown's anti-bond rap was so thick you could see the trace of a cringe on the face of Jim Clark, his fellow panelist and CEO of the panel's sponsor, the Arizona-based Republic Monetary Exchange. When Clark spoke, he dialed back some of the alarmism of Brown's talk, but warned the retiree crowd that the government was coming for their IRA's.
Loudon, the New Zealander, spoke next on the geostrategic dimensions of the panel's assumed looming hyperinflation and economic cataclysm. It's worth considering his comments at length, bearing in mind that he was a keynote speaker at an event featuring conservative senators, congressmen, presidential candidates, and thought leaders like Grover Norquist and Lew Uhler. "When the collapse comes," said Loudon:
You can't just escape [to the hills] with a few chickens and survive. The bad guys of this planet -- Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, North Korea and their Islamic allies -- are going to come here, folks. The Chinese have every aquifer in the U.S. mapped out. They know that some of them flush out nuclear radiation very quickly, and some of them hold them for a long time. They need to know where they can settle their people. The Russians have an unreliable army -- too many drunks and Moslems -- but they will nuke the hell out of the continental United States. The big regret of the U.S.S.R. is that they didn't take out the U.S. during the Great Depression -- a former KGB agent told me this -- and this time they have a plan. They will invade Alaska and parts of Canada. Then the Chinese will send their people across the Pacific in wave after wave. Their friends in Latin America will be invited up into the southern United States for looting rights. The left will welcome this, which is why 90 percent of Obama's cuts are to the U.S. military, the only thing keeping the world together.
Loudon was followed by onetime Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller, who warned of a solar electromagnetic pulse that could "shut down this country, and within a year, 90 percent of the country could be dead, effectively." Louden nodded sagely along, likely doing the mental math of how to hold back the Chinese Army with so few Americans. Jim Clark, the gold company CEO, looked relieved when it was finally time to wrap things up by reminding the gathered to roll their 401k and IRA accounts into gold.
"Outside the door, my colleagues can explain to you how to do that," said Clark. "We have videos."
The afternoon's NRA-sponsored luncheon began with heads bowed in prayer to a shirtless, gun-toting Jesus. True to the tone of the event, Charles Benninghoff, a Los Angeles-based creator of dubious PACs and fundraising groups that rely on so-called "sucker lists," delivered the invocation.
"Jesus knew that his followers would be under attack," intoned Benninghoff. "Even today, Hussein Obama is sending millions of dollars to the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaeda with the result that they will go after Christians. If you don't have a gun, Jesus admonishes you, in Luke 22:36, to run around naked from the top up, but make sure you got a gun. We are to defend the body of Christ worldwide. We call on every Christian to follow your admonition to sell our shirts and buy a gun. And if any tyrant tries to pry our gun from our hand, you strike them dumb and blind."
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks followed with an unusually honest discussion of personal and national security. Speaking in his capacity as chairman of the Congressional Missile Defense Caucus, he described the U.S. missile defense program in offensive terms, in direct contravention of longstanding U.S. policy and confirming the rational fears of other nuclear powers. "I will tell you [missile defense] is not the strategy for protecting this country," said Franks. "It's to give us time to activate our offense, ladies and gentlemen. And if we don't have an offensive capability, then we do not have a defensive capability. We can talk of this in great national geopolitical terms about how we have strategy, but really its about having the capability to be able to tell the enemy that if you bother us, we have got the force, and we can win, we are in a position to win." Conservatives have always preferred to see nuclear weapons as tools for winning wars, as opposed to preventing them, and it's understood that many see missile defense in this light. But it is exceedingly rare to hear them say it.
Alan Korwin, the Frank Luntz of gun-rights movement, followed Franks with a quick lesson in pro-gun messaging. "Don't say pro-gun, say pro-rights," he instructed. "Say pro-freedom, say pro-self defense. Don't call them assault weapons, but household firearms." Before ceding the stage to Herman Cain, he compared his book about gun laws in Arizona to The Communist Manifesto and Silent Spring.
Cain brought his usual energy to the keynote, mixing some scrambled Koch-approved version of Marxist rhetoric with roughly 20 plugs for his radio show. "We are a divided nation, thanks to the liberals, between the political class, who represents the ruling class, and the working class, and we the working class have got to take our country back," said the Fox News contributor. "The first thing is to stay informed. You do that by listening to the Herman Cain show, syndicated on 147 stations, including here in Phoenix on KFNX -- 1100 on your dial, don't you know!"
Neither Cain nor any of the other Arizona-based speakers mentioned the biggest political story in the state that weekend: S.B. 1062, the bill, since vetoed by the governor, that would have allowed private businesses to deny service to gay customers based on religious belief. Aside from a brief cameo during the Arpaio roast -- "1062 isn't as controversial as S.B. 1070, so we knocked it down eight points!" -- the speakers stayed clear of social issues. In this void was much discussion of radical tax overhauls. Retired talk radio host Neil Boortz stumped for a Fair Tax that would replace all taxes with a single national retail sales tax, thus removing the need for an IRS. Boortz later defended his plan in a debate with Grover Norquist, who argued in favor of first working toward a Flat Tax that would leave the IRS temporarily intact.
Both Boortz and Norquist owe much to Lew Uhler, the speaker in Phoenix with a movement conservative pedigree dating back to his days on then-Governor Ronald Reagan's first economic team. In 1975, he founded the National Tax-Limitation Committee and established what he boasts was the first Congressional scorecard in Washington. Uhler's ambition and energy haven't dimmed much with age. Along with his tax reform work, he's organizing an effort to distribute California's electoral votes proportionately (a huge boon to the GOP) and setting up hearings across the country to explore turning all means-tested entitlements into state block grants with work requirements attached. The first of these is scheduled for March 20 in Arizona, chaired by Congressman Matt Salmon. What has Uhler most excited these days is progress toward his oldest, grandest dream: bypassing Congress and getting the states to force a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution. With recent votes by Georgia and Ohio, Uhler was giddy in Phoenix over having 22 of the 34 states necessary to force a ratification convention.
"In '82 we almost had it, but it was blocked by [Democratic House Speaker] Tip O'Neill," said Uhler. "But now there really is some hope, folks. Let Obamacare self-immolate, and we'll be in a position to win in November, and take the White House in 2016, and then we can finally restore American exceptionalism."
Maybe. But if any of these victories are to last long enough to build on, the conservative movement can't avoid coming to terms with the changing cultural and racial complexion of the country. In terms of undermining the political power necessary for the realization of Uhler's IRS-elimination fantasies, the forces represented by Joe Arpaio are a bigger threat than Tip O'Neill ever was.