‘Fortifying freedom’ at the Western Conservative Summit

Where the ‘rule of law’ is synonymous with Trump.


Leslie Kalomas, 55, was among the attendees milling about the exhibit hall for the Western Conservative Summit, held last Friday in Denver’s Colorado Convention Center. The annual event is publicized as the largest conservative gathering outside of Washington, D.C.

Kalomas was volunteering for the Republican party and introduced herself to me while I was staring at a selection of dolls meant to resemble fetuses at the booth for Marisol Health, a Catholic health clinic that aims to eliminate abortion from the definition of women’s health care.

She approached me, wondering if I was one of “the liberal reporters” and started to chat. We talked about the president. She confessed that she was once part of the GOP’s “Never Trump” movement but came around to him when she saw how he was “improving the economy and creating jobs instead of giving handouts.”

Sure, his comments were offensive at times, but Kalomas assured me that Trump does not actually intend to offend people. “He just doesn’t have a garden variety use of the English language,” she said.

For years, Kalomas said, America had gone astray — a realization she came to 10 years ago when she suffered an accident that left her unable to work. When she applied for food stamps at Colorado’s Adams County Welfare Department, she was told she didn’t qualify because she had too much money in her bank account. (When asked about the procedure for administering food assistance, an Adams County spokesperson told me that they follow federal regulations for determining food stamp eligibility, which includes a rigorous verification process for all applicants’ citizenship and income.) When Kalomas complained to some friends who worked in the local Social Security department, they told her how they were forced to give many of the food stamps to undocumented immigrants with fake social security numbers. “It was upsetting to give people something they didn’t deserve,” she told me, and for her not to get her share.

Many of the groups who had set up booths inside the exhibit hall shared Kalomas’ view of an America under attack — a narrative that pits hard-working American people against the undeserving criminals and illegal immigrants in their midst. Big names like the American Lands Council, the National Rifle Association and the Heartland Institute mingled with smaller ones, like the Rocky Mountain Black Conservatives and the Blazing Holy Fire Church. Members of the evangelical ministry, led by pastor Christine Coleman, originally from Rwanda, were in attendance to promote a “Trump praying machine.”

“We believe the church should work with the government,” Coleman told me.

Many of the other organizations had a less accommodating view towards government. At the booth for Turning Point USA, a youth organization promoting free markets and limited government, there were T-shirts for sale printed with the words “Socialism Sucks” and banners trumpeting, “Taxation is theft.” Next to them sat Energy Citizens, a group backed by the American Petroleum Institute, with the slogan “Keep Washington out of our gas tank.”

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks during the Western Conservative Summit in Denver, publicized as the largest conservative gathering outside of Washington, D.C.
AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Just before 2:30 p.m., the exhibit hall emptied while Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” played through the loudspeakers. Then the star of Friday’s speaker line-up, Justice Department Attorney General Jeff Sessions, took the stage.

Amid a standing ovation, he started off by praising his boss for governing as a “law and order president.” Under Trump’s leadership, Sessions said, the Department of Justice was reducing crime, combatting the opioid epidemic, and cracking down on illegal immigration. When Sessions mentioned the quantity of drugs seized at the border, someone in the audience yelled, “build that wall” and the attorney general endorsed the notion.

“Build that wall, I hear,” he said. “We absolutely will.”

Pivoting to immigration, Sessions reiterated the president’s focus on the MS-13 criminal gang, which has become synonymous with immigrant crime in the U.S. “Some of my friends on the left are worried that President Trump may have hurt MS-13’s feelings,” he said. “Well, at this Department of Justice we are focused on the safety of the American people.”

Although research shows that crime rates among immigrants are lower than those by U.S. citizens, the attorney general delivered his standard rebuke of “sanctuary” jurisdictions that refuse to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and, from his perspective, contribute to crime, drugs and other ills.

To curb such lawlessness, Sessions has instituted a “zero-tolerance policy for securing the southwest border” that aims to prosecute anyone who dares to cross the line unlawfully. “People are not going to caravan in here or otherwise stampede our border,” he said in reference to a recent group of Central American migrants who arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border in April, seeking political asylum under U.S. and international law.

Sessions did not mention a highly criticized policy that is separating migrant children from their parents as part of the administration’s stricter border policies. Instead, he focused on the “civil right” of Americans to be safe — a right that Sessions stressed “applies to poor people and minorities. ... They’re entitled to public safety, too.”

“Here’s my message,” Sessions concluded, “we’re going to keep up the pace.” Then he asked the crowd: “Are you tired of it yet?”

“No!” the people shouted as Sessions walked off stage. The audience, which numbered around 700, trickled out of the ballroom, heading down the long hallway towards the building’s exit, beneath a large banner printed with the summit’s slogan: “Fortifying Freedom.”

Sarah Tory is a correspondent for HCN. She writes from Carbondale, Colorado.

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