For years the Conservative Political Action Conference has had an extremist problem –– budding white nationalists, young and excited leaders of the racist “alt-right” and angry voices in the anti-LGBT movement all cozying up with conservative political leaders and hoping to have their voices heard.
But just one year after President Trump rode a wave of populist nationalism into the White House, event organizers seem to have accepted a hard lurch toward something more akin to a carnival of conspiracy theorists, white nationalists and mainstream Republicans all uniting under President Trump.
From the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre claiming that the Democratic party is “infested with saboteurs who don’t believe in capitalism, don’t believe in the Constitution, don’t believe in our freedom and don’t believe in America as we know it,” to former advisor to the president Sebatian Gorka declaring that the election of President Trump is proof God exists, the annual conservative confab was anything but tame.
Even Trump, whose administration has normalized ideologies on the far right, basked in the response from the crowd who had come to hear him speak, often punctuating their applause with chants including “U-S-A” and “Lock her up!” a common campaign refrain targeting Hillary Clinton.
In many ways, CPAC has become an annual measure of how far the radical right has moved into the mainstream of the conservative right, especially in recent years as anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT groups have found political friends in the United States and Europe. To that point, two of this year’s prominent speakers were Nigel Farage, former leader of the U.K. Independence Party and one of the chief architects of the Brexit vote, and French politician Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who drew widespread condemnation last year for saying that France was “not responsible” for deporting Jews during the Holocaust.
Still, Farage and Maréchal-Le Pen were but a few of those whose political work has pushed the conservative movement across the globe toward an intimate embrace of nationalism.
Conspiracy theorist turned Washington insider Mike Cernovich, whose reporting has been embraced by the president, strolled the halls in conversation, while Richard Mack, the former Arizona sheriff who heads the antigovernment Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, sat down with the National Rifle Association, which broadcast live from event.
While some alt-right figures like Richard Spencer were banned from CPAC, it hasn’t stopped them from piggybacking on the weekend. Identity Evropa, a white nationalist hate group, announced on Twitter that members of the group were in attendance. And Spencer, as CPAC was underway, invited young conservatives to his hotel suite just minutes from the convention floor to discuss the issues of the day.
Not everyone remained in hiding like Spencer, though. In fact, most chose to hide in plain sight.
In one breakout event focused on what the alt-right has increasingly claimed is a social media crackdown on conservative voices, James Damore, a Google employee fired for circulating a memo critical of the company’s diversity goals, sat alongside Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe. In the audience Marcus Epstein listened intently. An attorney who has helped Pat Buchanan research for a least one of his books, Epstein got his political start in the white nationalist movement with Youth for Western Civilization and the Robert Taft Club. (Both groups are now defunct.) Epstein, who pleaded guilty in 2009 to karate-chopping and racially abusing an African American woman, was seen at fraternizing at CPAC with Scott Greer, the Daily Caller deputy editor who has ties to white nationalists.
There were others, too:
- Peter Brimelow, the founder of the racist VDARE blog, a hub for white nationalists and antisemites who write about the issue of immigration, attended the gathering along with his wife. During an interview with Slate at the conference, Brimelow said, “[M]y heart is with civic nationalism, but my head is with racial nationalism. Because I think that’s the way things are going — I think the country is precipitating out on racial lines.”
- Brimelow was seen with Carl F. Horowitz who writes about immigration issues and is a regular speaker at the annual H.L. Mencken Club conference, a white nationalist gathering.
- Nick Fuentes, who formerly co-hosted the “Nationalist Review” radio program with white nationalist James Allsup, also attended the event. Fuentes is scheduled to speak at the upcoming American Renaissance (AmRen) conference. AmRen was founded by Jared Taylor, one of the most prominent white nationalists of the past quarter century.
- Phil Kent, a Georgia-based anti-immigrant activist with extremist ties, was also at CPAC this year. Kent sits on the board of two anti-immigrant hate groups: ProEnglish and the American Immigration Control Foundation (AICF). His articles have been published by the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the white nationalist group that Charleston killer Dylann Roof cited as his gateway into the radical right.
- Members of other anti-immigrant hate groups were also in attendance, including Bob Dane, the executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group whose leaders have ties to white supremacist groups and eugenicists and have made many racist statements. ProEnglish executive director Stephen Guschov and Maria Espinoza, the leader of the anti-immigrant hate group the Remembrance Project, also attended CPAC.
The presence of such a wide-reaching mix of extremists should come as no surprise, especially as mainstream conservatives take increasingly harder stands on immigration and LGBT rights. What’s more, the American Conservative Union (ACU), which hosts CPAC, has left a surprisingly inconsistent record on banning extremists from the event. Every year, it lets some with political clout be part of the program while leaving others deemed too toxic for the conservative brand out in the cold.
For example, MassResistance, a Massachusetts-based anti-LGBT hate group was scheduled to have a vendor table until just days before the conference began. Announcing the news that its vendor table had been banned, the group said it was because “of our Biblical approach to fighting the ‘culture war’ (particularly the transgender agenda in public schools).” But this year, and almost every year at CPAC, Frank Gaffney of the anti-Muslim Center for Security Policy is invited to speak.
The division in the conservative movement over how to respond to a base increasingly driven by economic and ethno-nationalist impulses ––and one that has increasingly embraced racist ideologies –– was perhaps best exemplified during a speech at a private dinner last Friday. There, Ian B. Walters, communications director for the American Conservative Union (ACU), drew gasps when he said, “We elected Mike Steele to be the R.N.C. chair because he’s a black guy. … That was the wrong thing to do.”
Later in the conference, Matt Schlapp, ACU chairman, met with Steele, who argued that comments like Miller’s “undermine” efforts to “expand this party and its reach into communities of color across the country.” Ever holding the conservative line, Schlapp apologized to Steele on his SiriusXM radio program, but noted the comment –– was likely in response to Steele’s criticism of President Trump.
Stephen Piggott contributed to this report.