The following speech has been adapted and was delivered by Michael Knowles at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland on March 4, 2023. This full length version includes a portion not heard on stage.
Thank you! It is an honor to be back at CPAC. Thank you to Matt and the rest of the team for the invitation. It is especially a pleasure to be here this year because I think I may be the only speaker who is not actively planning to run for president in 2024. Obviously, President Trump is running. I’m noticing a lot of other people on the docket seem to be at least interested: governors, senators, businessmen … Candace. A lot of people. But not me. (I am not old enough!) The political stakes this year for me personally are not very high, but the political stakes for our country have rarely been higher.
This is why, I suspect, so many people want to run for president. They’re seeing what we’re all seeing: That when it comes to protecting our country, Joe Biden has failed on every front. That is not hyperbole. That is not a cheap political shot. It is just plain fact.
Our country faces mounting threats on every single front: inflation at 40-year highs, illegal immigration at all-time highs, and for the first time since World War II, the outbreak of a major war in Europe — a war that we are funding to the tune of over $100 billion with no end in sight. (The only silver lining in that particular storm cloud is that I’m pretty sure we can now list Zelensky as a dependent on our tax returns.)
Basic aspects of life are breaking down in our country. Marriage rates and birth rates are at all-time lows. In recent years, for the first time in history, our nation’s life expectancy has declined, driven largely by suicide and drug overdoses. Our nation, allegedly the most advanced on earth, cannot even protect its citizens from street criminals. The murder rate has reached its highest level in nearly three decades.
Many conservatives are tempted to throw up their hands. The challenges seem too enormous. The conservative optimists differ from the conservative pessimists only inasmuch as the conservative pessimists say things can’t get any worse, and the conservative optimists say, “Oh yes, they can.” And things might get worse, but they do not have to. These problems are not as complicated as many people would have us believe. Most of these problems are pretty simple.
The patron saint of this conference, Ronald Reagan, was once mocked for making this point. The liberals, he said, “say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer — not an easy answer — but simple: If you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right.”
President Reagan did his part. But we don’t need to look back to the 1980s to see the wisdom of his words. We can look around today and not all that far from home. Until recently, El Salvador was the most dangerous country on earth. Today, it is one of the safest countries in Latin America. El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, cut the nation’s murder rate in half in just one year. How did he do it? He built a big prison and put all the criminals in it. (Pretty simple!) He humiliated the most notorious criminals in the country, he knocked down their symbols and monuments, and he enforced the law to protect his people. I’m sure it wasn’t easy, but it was simple: Demoralize the bad guys, encourage the good guys, and pursue a national policy based on what we know in our hearts is morally right.
President Bukele explained the secret to his nation’s improbable success. He said his nation was turning back to God — turning back to the most important values: honor, loyalty, courage, love for our fellow man. He said those values had been degraded in El Salvador, as they are now degrading in our own country. But it was not too late. “How,” he asked, “could a nation not rise up with values such as these?”
If one of the weakest countries on earth can turn its fortunes around, why can’t we? I think we can. But many conservatives do not. Because conservatives, though we have many virtues — we are intelligent, funny, devilishly handsome — sometimes, I am sorry to say, we lack imagination. We suffer from low expectations. We believe that the very best we can hope for is to halt the Left right where it is, preserve the status quo, and hope we do not lose any more ground. It sometimes seems as if all conservatives ever do is defend the policies that the liberals fought for 10 years ago.
The clearest example of this is the battle over transgenderism. On one side of the debate, you have the liberals who argue that third-graders ought to be taught to change their sex; on the other side of the debate, you have the conservatives who argue that schools ought to wait until the fourth grade to start trans-ing the kids. Not much of a difference if you ask me.
The problem with transgenderism is not that it is inappropriate for children under the age of nine; the problem with transgenderism is that it is not true. The problem with transgenderism is that it puts forward a delusional vision of human nature that denies the reality and importance of sexual difference and complementarity. The problem with transgenderism is that its acceptance at any level necessarily entails the complete destruction of women’s bathrooms, women’s sports, all of the specific rights and spaces that women currently have for themselves.
There can be no “middle way” in dealing with transgenderism. It’s all or nothing. If transgenderism is true — if men really can become women and women really can become men — then it is true for everybody of all ages. If transgenderism is false, as it is — if men and women really are different, as we are — then it is false for everybody too. And if it is false, then we should not indulge it, especially since that indulgence requires taking away the rights and customs of so many people. If it is false, then for the good of society and especially for the good of the poor people who have fallen prey to this confusion, “transgenderism” must be eradicated from public life entirely — the whole preposterous ideology, at every level.
Simple. It is as simple as the advice Don Corleone gave to Johnny Fontane: “You can act like a man! What’s a matter with you?” We talk a lot about rights. And rights are important. But so are duties. And men have a duty to act like men. It’s not that complicated. But some people — maybe not in this room, but in the online and television audience — are probably clutching their pearls at such a clear and simple statement. I’m not sure why. Transgenderism did not even exist as a political issue until about eight years ago when Barack Obama and some liberals in North Carolina proposed this lunacy through military policy and bathroom ordinances. Eight years ago, the notion that a man of any age had some sort of “right” to strap on stilettos and read a book to your child at the library would have met nothing but laughter and scorn from pretty much everyone in the whole country.
And then a handful of devoted, radical left-wing activists pushed relentlessly to normalize this crazy notion. The craziest part is that now many conservatives want to meet them halfway. But there is no meeting halfway between truth and falsehood, between reality and delusion. There is no neutrality either. We are either gaining ground or losing ground. Meeting the liberals halfway will always take us all the way down their road to perdition in the long run. That’s the story of the last 50 years.
It goes like this: The liberals introduce some crazy idea. The conservatives briefly oppose it. The liberals stand firm. And then the conservatives give up. The conservatives say, “Okay, we’re fine with that idea — but this new idea the liberals are proposing, that’s crazy!”
In the ‘70s, when the feminists started burning their bras and claiming that women need men like fish need bicycles, the conservatives said that was crazy. Then, pretty soon, the conservatives caved. They said, “Okay, feminism is fine — but all this sexual revolution stuff, all those Village People over there — that’s crazy.” Then what happened? Pretty soon they said, “Okay, most of this sexual revolution stuff is fine, but we’ll never let you liberals redefine marriage — that’s crazy!” And then what happened? You know what happened: The liberals redefined marriage, the conservatives briefly stood firm, then many of them caved. They said, “Okay, this radical new definition of marriage is fine — but transgenderism is crazy!” And now we have reached the stage in which many conservatives are fine with transgenderism for adults, just so long as they don’t trans the kids! Now, in fact, there are some conservatives who are fine with trans-ing the kids, just so long as we don’t trans the really young kids.
And so it goes. And so our culture moves ever further to the left. It was ever thus. It was ever thus from the moment conservatives accepted the liberals’ premise. The moment conservatives accepted the liberals’ premise back in the ‘70s that men and women are interchangeable, it was only a matter of time before we got to transgenderism. It all flows naturally from the premise. Conservatives became nothing more than “progressives driving the speed limit,” to quote my friend Michael Malice. They “offered voters, not a choice, but only an echo,” to quote Phyllis Schlafly.
There is one issue on which conservatives haven’t caved, haven’t squished even one little bit. And it’s an issue on which we achieved an historic victory just this past year. That issue is life — protecting babies in the womb from being murdered. Conservatives have not compromised on that issue. We never agreed to meet the liberals halfway because on that issue at least we understood that one cannot split the baby. We held firm: Murder is wrong. We held firm, we didn’t give up, and now Roe v. Wade is no more.
It is no coincidence that one of the only issues for which conservatives have kept things simple is one of the only issues on which we have been able to hold our ground.
National decline is not inevitable. It is only inevitable if we believe it is. If we give up and give in to popular and destructive fashions as though they could ever supplant simple and eternal truths. As Cardinal Manning said, “There is a day to come which will reverse the confident judgments of men.” Those men say we offer simple answers to complex problems. I hope we still do. I hope we still have the simplicity and the courage to say that men ought to act like men. That criminals ought to go to jail. That marriage — real marriage, the kind between a man and woman — is the fundamental building block of society, the basic, unchangeable political unit. That our republic was built for a moral and religious people, and so our country, founded as a shining city on a hill, should always give glory to God and relentlessly pursue what we know in our hearts is morally right — no matter the odds, no matter the consequences, and no matter the passing fashions of the day. Thank you very much.
This article has been updated for clarity.