Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), an annual political conference attended by conservative activists and elected officials from across the United States and beyond.
Since 2019, CPACs have been held also outside of the United States, in Australia, Brazil, Hungary, Japan, and South Korea. The inaugural CPAC Israel conference was held in Tel Aviv on July 20, with political commentator, media host, and columnist Ben Shapiro as the keynote speaker.
TML: Thank you for joining The Media Line.
Schlapp: Great to be with you today.
TML: Matt, for the past decade, there has been an often-cited perception that Israel’s political conservatives fall ideologically into a subset of Republican Americans. Although simplistic, it does underscore a trove of voters registered in the States that could prove valuable to any ticket. What are American expat voters telling you on this visit?
Schlapp: So many interesting things. We’ve been here for almost a week, and we’ve had so many conversations. I’ll tell you one conversation struck me last night. It was with one of our tour guides. We were taking a sunset cruise on the Sea of Galilee. She said that she thought that politics were shifting – she was an American living in Israel – that the politics were shifting in America and in a lot of other democracies around people who have a belief in God, and people who are either secular or have a hostility toward the traditions of people who believe in God. It really kind of struck me: That, too, was simplistic. But it is interesting, with the battle we have in America, we are raising a couple of generations of kids – it’s going on now, it happened in Virginia – we’re training our kids to hate our country, we’re training our kids to believe that religion is a hateful force in society. We’re teaching kids that parents are literally domestic terrorists. That’s what the Biden Administration called them when they wanted to inquire about what was being taught in their classrooms. So I would say what’s going on in America is a complete re-shifting of things. Think about it: The Democratic Party was a party that would always be endorsed by the police unions, the firefighter unions. The Democrats embrace this idea of immigration and immigrants making America better. But today’s immigrants are listening to this Democratic Party and their hostility toward family and religion, and they don’t like it. And if you love a cop, why would you want to support a party that believes that those cops are racists, that those cops need to be defunded. So there’s quite a lot of shifting.
TML: Do you feel it’s too late? There are so many people in America that we’ve heard from that feel it’s beyond repair.
Schlapp: That’s a great question. It really troubles me. I co-wrote a book on this called The Desecrators. That keeps me up at night. I don’t know if America’s done. I’m quite worried that America could be done and the end will be ugly. But I also feel like, what else would you do but try to re-found her, and try to convince people that the reasons for America are needed even more than when she was founded? My passion, my wife’s passion – I wrote this in the foreword to the book – is this fight, the fight for America.
TML: There was a time when America was looked at as the superpower, when they were looked up to both in terms of all Israelis, which some of it still remains, but also beyond, into the region we cover, into the Middle East. It doesn’t exist in the same way it did even a decade ago. Do you feel that the division in the United States has contributed to this issue?
Schlapp: You mean just the fact that people don’t view America as a superpower as it once was? Look, America is in a certain amount of decline. There’s no question. We are not the people we were because we don’t have a common purpose. The question is, could we regain that? If we regain that, or enough of that, we have all the natural resources in the world, we have all the money in the world, even though we’re spending it at an alarming rate. We still are strategically unique. And I think that the extent to which China is on the rise, and Russia is on the rise – they’re responding to perceived weaknesses. And if those perceived weaknesses aren’t actual weaknesses, and if they realize that, I think we could be in for a period of time where America’s even more powerful. Because I don’t see Europe stepping up. I see Europe having real divisions from this whole EU concept or strategy that they implemented. So I’m bullish that America’s going to get it back together and play this role it needs to play overseas. Not having our troops everywhere and not dictating things. We talked to [Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs President] Dore Gold this morning, we talked to so many eminent people here in Israel. I just got gobsmacked at how many times America tells Israel what it can do or not do. That’s outrageous and insulting. Israel should do what’s right for its people. And America should facilitate what’s right for the Israeli people.
TML: Where do you see the greatest synergy? Some issues that are highly charged in the States don’t resonate with Israelis, like some of the social havoc we’re seeing in the United States.
Schlapp: They don’t understand? They can’t quite grasp it? This is part of when people say, if you’re trying to save your own country, why are you going overseas? Why are you having these CPACs in Japan, Korea, Australia, and Brazil? We went to Hungary, we’re going to Mexico. Obviously, we’re here in Israel. Why are you doing that? Part of that is I do feel like people need to understand that the messages are getting to the Biden Administration. Certainly on the question of Israel. They need to understand that people don’t support it. That’s a function of this new socialist Democratic Party. I do think for freedom-loving people all over the world, I said on the stage of CPAC here in Tel Aviv, I said, America is in a bad place, and America’s hurting. And I think people need to understand that. There’s a battle inside America. Now, why is that good? That’s maybe making them think that we’re weaker, and we don’t want that, right? That was part of your previous question. But I also think there’s some honesty to it. They need to understand we have our own battles. It’s not guaranteed that the good guys will win and that you’ll be supported as you need to be. It could go very, very, very wrong. And I think specifically for the Israeli population, dual citizens, and just people who spend a lot of time in both countries, they need to understand that we need to have that fight as well. To make sure that the good guys win.
TML: As head of America’s grassroots conservative coalition, you have your finger on the pulse of political trending. Progressive Democrats were initially dismissed by the pro-Israel world as being too fringe to be worrisome. But each bill they submit displays more signatures, and their add-ons to major legislation continue to increase. Both parties have the pro-Israel mantra down pat, but isn’t the US-Israel relationship in fact vulnerable?
Schlapp: Yes, the people of Israel should know that it’s incredibly vulnerable. Natan Sharansky told us yesterday morning that BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] is CRT [critical race theory]. And it really hit me, because in the book that I was describing, we talk so much about CRT and BLM [Black Lives Matter], and in America that’s always on the wrapping paper of racism. And the fact that someone like me, who looks like me – I don’t even get a voice in the conversation, I don’t even get to talk. That’s happened to me when I go on CNN and MSNBC. It’s kind of like the opposite of mansplaining. You tell the man who’s white, Christian: “You have to shut up, you can’t talk on these matters.” I stopped buying into that, and I stopped using their language. And you pay a terrible consequence for that. Mercedes [Schlapp, Matt’s wife and a communications specialist and political commentator], in the beginning, she was a little bit mad at me. And then she realized that this is the fight. We have to take our words back. They have to mean something. And we have to start re-explaining what things are. And we have to teach our kids to be brave enough to not use those words. The idea is similar here. When I hear someone who is a hero of mine like Natan Sharansky basically use better words to describe the fact that here it’s these white-complected Jewish folks who are accused of racism and terrible human rights evils over supposedly people of color. The one thing that this has nothing to do with that I can determine is the color of people’s faces and skin. It has nothing to do with it. The struggles that are going on here are, like in so many things, it’s the opposite of what they’re trying to say. Nobody could look at the history of the Jewish people and say, oh yeah, that’s a group of people that loves to dominate people, to enslave people, to try to harm people. You can’t find that in the history. It’s the opposite. It’s outrageous. And by the way, in America it’s all about class, right? It’s all about, oh, you’re white so you have privilege, you have wealth. A guy like me that grew up like I grew up, I don’t want to hear it. Everything I have – I think God gives me, first of all – everything I have, I worked for. Just why just because I’m white, why do I have to be lectured to about the fact that I have privilege? And I told my kids this is another lesson from Donald Trump. If they say that you have wealth, tell them, yes, maybe it’s a lot. Lead with it. If they tell you you have privilege, say yeah, I do have privilege. You know what my privilege is? I grew up in the greatest country in the world. And I got an education. And we have freedom. Yes, we have a lot of privilege. These people who are making these arguments are hateful, they want to destroy the country, they would love to destroy this bilateral relationship between Israel and America. They would love nothing more. And I just don’t think we’re going to let it happen.
TML: The word ‘Zionist’ was prominent with President Biden’s recent visit. Is it productive to argue about Zionist credentials?
Schlapp: I don’t know if I fully understand what that means. But I’ll just say this: Zionism is considered a little bit of a sore point in some circles, I say elite circles, in America. There’s a growing acceptance of being anti-Israel but trying to explain that doesn’t mean you’re being antisemitic, it just means you don’t necessarily believe that there should be a State of Israel. But then if you actually unpack that, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. What if you don’t have a State of Israel, where do the Jewish people go? Are we going to go back and replay history all over again? And by the way, why shouldn’t they have a state? So what you realize is that they have a hostility toward Israel, they have a hostility toward the way Jews wish to govern themselves. At what point is that just clearly antisemitism, right? To me, it seems very clear. And I think that Joe Biden himself is a conundrum. I don’t think he’s anti-Israel. I think he has it down. What was the word he used?
Schlapp: He has the terminology, he’s been saying it for 40 years, he knows the words to use. But the fact is he’s surrounded himself with…. He has locked on to this radicalized, dominant part of the Democratic Party now. And I’m sorry, they don’t care about Jewish voters anymore. I had this explained to me in the green room at MSNBC. I was sitting there – we were going to talk about the Iran nuclear deal, which is so obviously odious, stupid, dangerous for America. Obviously the same for Israel. And I couldn’t figure it out. So I said to him, he’s someone I have a relationship with. I was like, clearly, the Democrats are going to figure this out, just from a political standpoint. They raise a lot of money from the Jewish community, it has always been a big part of their backbone. As you all know, Jews in America do not vote for Republicans. So it’s like, why would they offend this constituency? He goes, “Oh, we don’t care about the Jews anymore. They’re not big enough.” He goes, “These other voting blocs are more important to us.” I wish I had my phone on. I wish the Jewish voters could hear the fact that the Democratic Party literally doesn’t put them into the calculations anymore.
TML: What do Americans living in Israel want from CPAC?
Schlapp: That’s a great question. I think they want the respect of knowing that we understand what’s going on here. I’ve always felt like that’s a part of my Jewish friends wanting to teach and wanting to educate folks on what’s going on here and the struggles that we have. I think the other piece of it is they are feeling abandoned by the Democratic Party and they’re trying to figure out how do they really burnish conservative credentials or Republican credentials. Look, I have to look at our own history. You know we had CPAC Hungary [in Budapest in May]. Hungary doesn’t have a great history when it comes to the Jews who were slaughtered in their own country. But the conservatives are doing what they can to rebuild that community and to make the world understand that part of their history is unacceptable. Now they don’t erase it. It’s still there, but it’s unacceptable. And they want Jewish people to feel welcome in their country. Now the media constantly does the same old stereotypes, right. And I would say, just for the conservative movement’s history, I think it might have been acceptable at some point to be antisemitic within the conservative movement in America. Or at least I’ve been told by people that there was an element of that. There was an element of people that thought going into World War II, there was no reason to. There were isolationists that were uncaring about human rights, the people who were slaughtered in those death camps. And the other dynamics – it wasn’t just Hitlerian atrocities; it was terrible what Stalin was doing. We woke up to that as well. The conservative movement was better at that, better at being anti-communist. And I think today, as we go around the globe, it’s really clear that it’s the conservative movement that’s standing up for human rights. Those kids that protested in Hong Kong – they asked CPAC to come in. They weren’t asking other people to come. Why?
TML: Which begs my next question: Was it just Americans that attended the conference you just had, or did you have Israelis who were born in Israel who came?
Schlapp: Yes, we had Americans who were born in Israel.
TML: And did you also have Israelis who were born here and not Americans? Was the goal just the Americans, or was the goal larger?
Schlapp: That’s a great question. It was the first one [CPAC conference in Israel], so I’m experiencing everything for the first time. Can I answer it this way? There were people who spoke Hebrew and not English, and there were people there who spoke both, and there were people who clearly spoke English in a way that I knew they were Americans. So it was a mixture of everything.
TML: Is conference No. 2 happening next year? What would you do differently?
Schlapp: A lot of things differently. It doesn’t mean that anybody did a bad job. It just means that when I go to these things, I’m kind of thinking through all the things that could be better or changed. And so I’m going through that. There were a lot of things I would do differently. Yes, we want to do conference 2. We’ll walk through some of these kinds of questions, and we will make it better and better. That’s what we’ve done in America with the conference. I mean, we’ve had setbacks, we’ve made mistakes, you do that when you’re running something large and important, right?
TML: President Biden has surprised some with his embrace of the Abraham Accords. Will we see the 2024 midterms fought on a domestic agenda?
Schlapp: You have important elections here in Israel in November. We have very important elections in America because in America this is the election that determines whether or not the American people are fine with America just kind of drifting toward socialism, America throwing away its important role across the globe and slipping on this road that we’re on where we’ve become just another European socialist blah-blah country, or whether we get it back, get back. I’ve been doing this my whole adult life. And I think the American people are appalled by what’s going on in their country. Everyone thinks it’s going to be about high gas prices and inflation. And I think that’s great. Because most of that’s self-inflicted and we should reverse those policies. But it’s really about the woke agenda. That’s what this election is about. People don’t like to talk about it because you get into some touchy areas. But they don’t really like their boys being taught that they’re girls and their girls being taught that they’re boys. And they don’t like this idea that if you’re white you’re bad. This is what the elections are about. Now they don’t tell pollsters that. Because if you say these things, you’re homophobic or you’re a white nationalist – that one they love to throw out. And they’re exhausted from all this. People aren’t perfect and there’s bigotry in the world and there’s unkindness and intolerance. I don’t want to say that doesn’t exist – of course it exists. But America’s filled with millions of wonderful people who are being systematically canceled and shut down until they can’t even take certain jobs because of their personal views, their religious views, the intangibles of how they were born. This is insane.
TML: Is the next election about issues or is it more personal? Is it about the personas?
Schlapp: What’s interesting about the persona part of this is that the only way you’re going to lose an election if you’re a Republican this cycle is if people don’t like you. Your personal traits, in the negative sense, would have to overcompensate for the fact that the voters literally want to tell the Republican Party: “Here are the keys to all the buildings. Could you guys run things for a while?” They want to do that, and it would just be kind of an odious personality that would get in the way of that. This is a nationalized election, on national themes, and the Republican Party – it’s kind of one of those times where they just have to shut up and win. They might not be smart enough to do that; they might think, one candidate might think it’s all about how wonderful they are. So they can screw up their elections, and some will. I mean, if I were running for office, and I were as conservative as I am, this would be the year to go.
TML: Are you?
Schlapp: No. But this would be the year to do it. You’re going to win. Think about this: They [Democrats] are getting kicked off school boards in San Francisco. Come on, they’re going to lose in the vast majority of places across the country.
TML: If issues were labeled differently, perhaps more descriptively, would there be more agreement between the parties or has the gap become unbridgeable?
Schlapp: I think the parties don’t matter that much. I don’t think the Republican Party matters that much. The Republican Party is like a bank, it’s like a financing institution. But I don’t think anyone’s looking at the party to try to figure out, OK, how do we solve this. The question is this: Does blue America – I just mentioned San Francisco – New York City, all the big cities … that’s what we’re talking about, the big cities versus everyone else, that’s this whole thing, that’s what the division is. And the big cities, they are all crime-ridden, they are all falling apart, they are all bankrupt. They all need huge cash infusions just for their pensions. They’re attacking cops, crime is on the rise, the sidewalk outside your front door has probably now become a public restroom. Now the big cities that are functional, they’re all in red states. You spend time in Miami – it’s working pretty well. You spend time in Dallas – we’re going to be in Dallas for CPAC – it’s working pretty well. Yes, they’re more liberal in the big cities [in Republican-dominated states], but there’s a functionality to them. The problem with the big blue broken bankrupt cities is that there’s no functionality to them. And the American people know that because they’re traveling again. And they’re like, “This airport is disgusting. Or this train station is unsafe. This is an insane thing that’s happened. I don’t feel safe to go downtown shopping.”
TML: But is there more that the American people can agree on than disagree on?
Schlapp: I guess what I’m going to say is, yes. Because nobody’s for crime, and nobody’s for living in a pigsty. And no one’s for having crappy schools for their kids and their grandkids. So I think a lot of their coalition has woken up to this, and they’re saying this is not working. Why did the people in New York City elect Rudy Giuliani, and why did the Democrats like Ed Koch so much – he was more of a reasonable Democrat. Why did a Republican get elected to be the mayor of Los Angeles? Because they had those terrible riots, they had this breakdown, they had the increase in crime. It’s a lot of the same issues. A lot of Democrats obviously went to those booths and said, you know, when it really comes to these questions – basic, practical questions – I’m going to vote Republican. Maybe I’m a Democrat In my views when it comes to issues like gay rights, or what they should teach in schools, maybe I believe in a lot of taxes, but I want these streets to be safe. So I think you’re going to see a lot of Democrats pull those levers for Republicans.
TML: Matt, we’re sitting a mere stone’s throw away from the corner of George Washington Street and as they call it here, Linco-lin Street. And no one wants to tear down the street signs or rename them. What do you say to Israelis who are befuddled by the open display of disrespect spreading throughout America?
Schlapp: OK, you got to give me that again.
Schlapp: Because I was told that there’s a [Lincoln Street in Jerusalem]. Linco-lin, that’s awesome. OK, so I have a message for Americans: No country we visit, unless it’s a communist country, rips down statues or renames streets. Nobody in Europe – I just came back, obviously we went to Hungary, I took my daughter to Paris. First of all, Paris had no gay pride flags. There’s no problem for gay people feeling completely free in Paris, they have all the rights in the world. But they didn’t feel the need to put on a show about it, because they just do it. They just accept people. And they don’t rip down statues because they think they’re beautiful. Even if the king was a terrible person, they don’t rip down the statue. We are the only country, unless it’s a communist country, that is ripping down their statues, trying to sanitize their history, trying to indict the majority of their population as being complicit in the evil bad times. And this is the thing that’s most upsetting about it: Take Lincoln, take Washington. Washington’s family fled Great Britain for lots of reasons. One is that they wanted different opportunities. They didn’t have opportunities; they were going to get them in America. That is the whole idea of America. You don’t have to have been there for generations to be an important family, to achieve success. Look at Lincoln: Lincoln didn’t go to college. He got his degrees but he taught himself. And he was not considered a great lawyer. But today looking back on it everyone thinks he’s one of the greatest debaters and shrewdest politicians we ever had. And he’s a hero of mine. So everything they’re doing in America to destroy these people belies the idea of America. They say they’re for the little guy, they say they’re for the immigrant, they say they’re for the dark-skinned person, the person of color. They say that. That is a lie. They don’t care about those people. They don’t care about those people. They use those people. If they cared about those people, then how come things haven’t gotten better for some of these communities? If you really cared about a community, you would raise them up. There’s a great Hebrew word for that, right, you’ll have to teach me that word. I can’t remember right now. But it raises you up, it doesn’t take you down, it doesn’t keep you down. And this lie that somehow, it’s traditional ideas that are keeping those people down, is wrong. And what those people are beginning to realize – look at Hispanic and Blacks in particular – they’re beginning to realize, and the polling shows it: “Wait a minute, I didn’t know that the Democratic Party hated families. I didn’t know they hated the unborn child. I didn’t know they hated gender. I didn’t know they hated me because I go to a hateful church.” They’re waking up to this. And then you realize how ironic it is. Martin Luther King Jr. – when I was a kid, he was a hero for a lot of people, but some conservatives were concerned by some of his rhetoric…. Was he too much of a socialist or a liberal or whatever? Today, you look back at what he said, even within the span of my lifetime, and they’ve [the Democratic Party] rejected almost everything he believed in. They reject this idea that we should be treated equally, they’ve rejected this idea – because they don’t want to give me equal rights anymore. They’ve rejected this idea that you don’t judge a person by the color of his skin. They want to judge every decision in the world by the color of your skin, right? And they want to put you in the penalty box if you’re a religious person. That could be Jewish, that could be Christian, that could be any religion. They hate religion. And so the idea that we’re taking down these statues is insane. And to the Israeli people, I am just so honored, because we walked near Washington Street the other day and our hosts pointed it out as we were going to one of our dinners. And they were proud of it. They were proud to have these great men of history represented in Jerusalem. And we should be proud of it, too. Why can’t we be proud of that?
TML: Israel is heading into elections once again. As an American who heads a conservative organization, CPAC, does it make a difference who’s leading the Israeli people?
Schlapp: Yes, yes, it does to me. I’ll just speak personally. We had your previous prime minister on our show, Naftali Bennett. He seemed like a really interesting man. At that point, I believe, he was your defense minister. He was a very animated and interesting person. He seemed to have a bright future. Obviously, his coalition came crashing down, and you have this question of whether Bibi Netanyahu will get the number of votes in the Knesset to maybe not have a coalition government, or not have to worry about that very much. I’ve heard critics of Bibi Netanyahu who said that he’s too soft, he will give them too much real estate, we need to be more aggressive about what our rights are and security and everything else. So I understand that he’s not universally acclaimed for every decision he’s made. It just seems like when he’s your prime minister – I think he’s got a lot of charisma, and it comes across to the American people, and I generally think he’s a strong leader, and I think that’s awfully important for the State of Israel. I like this idea that it seems like in Israel you’re basically going in the right direction. You’re not embracing socialism; you’re moving away from your socialist past. Bibi Netanyahu has played a big role in changing some of your economic policies. Whether Bibi Netanyahu is the next leader or there’s a new generation of people to come.
TML: Or the opposition comes in.
Schlapp: That’s right. But I just think the country is generally going in the right direction. Let’s end where we started, the tour guide. It’s about people of God, people who respect people who have religious faith, versus people who think that’s a destructive force and they want to secularize everything, they want to have the government play the role of the parents and tell the kids what they must know. That’s the battle and I think Israel’s definitely on the right course. And Israel needs to help America. Because America … I think we’re going to have good elections in November, but we’re in a very troubled place. And they need to help remind the American people of the role America needs to play going forward. We must play it. Nobody else can.
TML: Matt Schlapp, thank you very much for joining us here at The Media Line.
Schlapp: What an honor to be with you.
TML: Thank you.