At American Priority Conference, Speakers Sowed Distrust, Peddled Conspiracy Theories, and Called for Civil War

Backstage at American Priority Conference. From left to right, speakers Ned Ryun, Tracy Beanz, George Papadopolous, Tom Fitton, and Corey Lewandowski of the "Unmasking the Russian Hoax" panel. Screenshot from American Priority tweet.

Joshua Feuerstein took the main stage at the American Priorities Festival and Conference at the Trump Doral National Miami resort to deliver a message: the Civil War was here.

Feuerstein, a former evangelical pastor, used his sermon voice to recall the original Civil War, which he called the “turning point of America,” the battle of Gettysburg, which he deemed the “turning point of the war,” and the men who fought in Pickett’s Charge, which he labeled “the turning point of Gettysburg.” He paced the stage in his navy blue suit, passing by the large red “AMP” letters on the screen behind him, and painted a picture of heroic men and hand-to-hand combat during Pickett’s Charge. “Those men did not think it anything special,” he said.

“I need you to know that 2020 is a civil war that will change the face of America forever,” Feurestein said, his voice rising, as the crowd began to applaud. “And it’s God, ladies and gentlemen, it’s God that calls the qualified, that qualifies those that are called, that are willing to step up in the moment that matters, that has greatness thrust upon them. And tonight, together here in this place to say that we are willing to fight, we may think ourselves insignificant, but that we will stand together in 2020, and we will win the war that will change the face of America.”

Feurestein’s declaration of war wasn’t the only one at the conference. Earlier in the evening, evangelical Pastor Mark Burns had called for war; “We’ve come to declare war!” he said, and attendees in the back of the ballroom replied with “War! War!” 

Over three days, speakers at the pro-Trump conference sowed seeds of distrust in nearly every American institution imaginable and cited conspiracy theories to bolster their case for the use of such civil war rhetoric, as they perpetuated sentiments of victimization and loathing. The conference could have been dismissed as a meeting of the fringe, but big-ticket speakers like Don Trump Jr. and Sarah Huckabee Sanders lent legitimacy to the conference, as did more respectable Republican groups like the Leadership Institute, which held a series of trainings in side rooms. By the time Don Trump Jr. took the stage on Friday evening, he simply invoked themes hammered into the audience throughout the day using subtler language, and it worked the crowd into a frenzy.

In this Trumpian, upside-down world, it’s hard to understand where one has landed until you take one conspiracy at face value: the “deep state.” The so-called deep state is supposedly comprised of supporters of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in high-rank positions in different government agencies who aim to sabotage Trump at every opportunity and eventually overthrow him. Originating on the fringe, the conspiracy theory has now entered the mainstream GOP and has become a staple of right-wing media messaging. At the American Priority Conference, the speakers legitimized the deep state, and layered more conspiracy theories on top. 

Perhaps most telling was the “Unmasking the Russian Hoax” panel with Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, a right-wing “investigative” organization, conservative activist Ned Ryun, George Papadopolous, who went to federal prison for making false statements to FBI agents about the timing of his contact with Russian intermediaries in 2016, and Corey Lewandowski, former Trump campaign manager and author of Trump’s Enemies: How the Deep State Is Undermining the Presidency. Tracy Beanz, a booster of the QAnon conspiracy theory, moderated the panel.

In Fitton’s world, bad actors had been planning a coup before Trump was even elected.

“Anytime you heard the word impeachment, you can substitute the word coup, because that’s what’s going on here,” Fitton said. “It began during the campaign, when they weaponized intelligence agency against Trump, people like George [Papadopoulos], and who knows who else, to protect Hillary Clinton, to protect Barack Obama, and as Mr. Strzok said, to have an insurance policy if Mr. Trump won.”

The “insurance policy” Fitton references is a conspiracy theory birthed on 4chan message boards that Democrats had a ready-to-go scheme to impeach Trump if he won. Amplified by right-wing media, the conspiracy theory has reached the White House and influenced the president’s policy making.

“They [Congress] weren’t getting the traction they needed, so the intelligence agencies, it looks like, that were targeting him to begin with, came up with another smear operation,” Fitton continued. “They had a leak they wanted to get out on this Ukrainian conversation, but they recognized doing it would be illegal, so they gussied it up in a whistleblower complaint and illegally communicated classified information, it looks like, with Adam Schiff and lied about it. And now it’s led to the coup operation of President Trump.“

Papadopoulos floated the deep state theory as well. “Some of the same spies that went after Michael Flynn in 2015 were after me in 2016,” he said. As for the whistleblower report, Papadopoulos noted that it came out when WIlliam Barr was, he said, trying to investigate the previous administration. “This was a preemptive strike by the deep state,” Papadopoulos said, suggesting that it was an effort by deep state actors to protect themselves.

Lewandowski focused on the FBI. “I look at the fact that they spied on American citizens who were participating in the political process, because they didn’t like our politics,” Lewandowski said.  “What we know see over the course of the last three and a half years is that Jim Comey, and Andy McCabe, and the lovers, Dr. Page, which Trump talked about last night, James Baker who is the general counsel at the FBI, they use their badges and guns to go after American citizens because they don’t like our politics.” 

The bad actors need to punished, the panelists agreed. “People have to go to jail,” Ryun said, to which an audience member yelled: “Barack Obama!” 

According to the panelists, the media was among the bad actors, conspiring with Democrats. “The media intentionally wanted to brainwash all of you. They wanted to create chaos and division, and attempt a silent coup,” Papadopoulos said.

Later that evening, Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA  warmed up the stage for Don Trump Jr. He zoomed in on the Jussie Smollett story, an actor who apparently staged a hate crime against himself, claiming it was indicative of the Democratic situation and “Democratic privilege,” where Democrats, like Smollett, are never prosecuted for wrongdoings. Kirk used the Smollett story to sow doubt—if Smollett fabricated a hate crime, what else could they lie to you about?—and bolster another debunked conspiracy theory that Adam Schiff changed the whistleblower laws just before the whistleblower filed his complaint.

“Guess what happens when we don’t hold them accountable? What happens is Congressman Adam Schiff then flies his staffer up to Ukraine, changes the whistleblower laws, uses a friend that he has in the CIA, and then do it all over again, just with a different country,” Kirk said. 

Kirk then moved on to other supposed deep state actors. “If [Trump] would’ve won and did the typical Republican thing … maybe the deep state actors would’ve just stayed at bay. But the fact that they’re relentlessly going after him should give you renewal and confidence that this president actually doing what he said he was going to do,” Kirk said.

When Don Trump Jr. walked out onto the stage Friday night following Kirk, he wasted no time in getting to the Smollett story and attacking Schiff and the media. “Adam Schiff is the Jussie Smollett of Congress on steroids,” he said as his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle, stared at him adoringly from her chair on stage. “And he gets away with it because people in the media protect him.”

“On paper, 2020 should be over, but it’s not, because we’re not in a fair fight,” Trump Jr. said, claiming that “the mainstream media has made a conscious decision to be the marketing team of the opposing party.”

While Trump Jr. didn’t go as far as to call for civil war or double down on the deep state, he didn’t need to. His presence lent legitimacy the conspiracy theories floated all day.  It’s this very type of environment that civil war rhetoric on the right has grown. In early October, it appeared to reach Trump himself, who went as far as to quote Fox News contributor Pastor Robert Jeffress on Twitter saying, “If the Democrats are successful in removing the President from office (which they will never be), it will cause a Civil War like fracture in this Nation from which our Country will never heal.” 

In an upside-down world, where a deep state is conniving to imprison administration officials just doing their jobs, continues to get away with spying and crimes, and stages a coup against a democratically elected president, calling for a civil war doesn’t seem like that big of a leap.