CPAC's Flirtation With the Alt-Right Is Turning Awkward

Conservative conference organizers just cannot decide how to feel about the white nationalist movement

Richard Spencer at CPAC Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty

Late the night before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, Richard Spencer, the de facto leader of the white nationalist movement calling itself the Alt-Right, texts me to say he'll be there – not to disrupt, he insists, but to ask questions after the "Anti-Alt-Right speeches on [the] main stage." The next day, at the Gaylord Convention Center just outside of Washington, D.C., there is no Q&A, but Spencer, who gleefully attracts a throng of reporters everywhere he goes, holds forth outside the hotel ballroom. Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the conference, has just decried the Alt-Right as a "sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks." Spencer denounces the speech as "stupid" and "pathetic."

Inside the ballroom, four Republican governors are speaking about how they are "reclaiming America's promise," something reporters might have covered in years past to glean glimmers of presidential ambitions. But Trump – and his success at electrifying the Alt-Right – has changed all that. Instead, dozens of reporters cluster around Spencer, who most recently made headlines for eliciting Nazi salutes at a conference he hosted in November, and becoming the butt of a meme about whether it is acceptable to punch Nazis.

Surrounded by media, Spencer persists for so long that organizers eject him from the conference. No matter: His mission is accomplished.

Schneider, rather than provoking a serious discussion of the conservative movement's relationship with the Alt-Right, has thrown up a straw man. The Alt-Right, he says (correctly) are "anti-Semites," "racists" and "sexists." But, he adds (incorrectly), they do not emerge out of conservatism's own trenches. Instead, he maintains, "they are garden variety left-wing fascists."

That is, as one of the morning's other speakers, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, has said, an "alternative fact." The origin story of the Alt-Right is one of far-right, authoritarian white nationalists who broke with movement conservatism, and toiled in relative obscurity until Trump's campaign elevated them to the national stage.

Schneider insists to Rolling Stone that the term Alt-Right originated with "a Jewish man" who sought a break from George W. Bush's foreign policy, but that the racists have "wormed their way in, stolen the term intentionally so they could deceive people about who they are." (Schneider did not name the Jewish man, but Paul Gottfried, who is credited with coming up with the term "Alt-Right" with Spencer, claims that "America is no longer a republic or a liberal democracy," a view for which he "was banished from the mainstream of political discourse," according to a profile in Tablet.)

Spencer says the Alt-Right "was always about a right wing that was against the conservative movement, it was against George W. Bush in its origins." In other words, the Alt-Right's opposition to conservatism was not confined to foreign policy. Spencer mocks Schneider, derisively saying he is unaware that "garden variety left-wing fascists were so numerous," and insists that the ranks of the Alt-Right are. As if on cue, a CPAC attendee pops in to ask Spencer for selfie while saying, "Praise kek," the Alt-Right's homage to its "god" of "meme magic."

Like conservatives' baseless claims that protesters at marches or town halls are paid leftist protesters, Schneider's effort to depict the Alt-Right as a creature of the left is a denigration of anything that disrupts their mirage that Trumpism is a spectacularly successful restoration of America's greatness. But even attendees at CPAC see through Schneider's characterization. Nick Gricus, a student at DePaul University, calls it a "deflection mechanism." The Alt-Right, Gricus says, "is bigotry. That's not a partisan definition."

The dissonance between Schneider's speech and a series of events leading up to it show how his effort to peg the movement as left-wing is a sign of deep anxiety of how Trumpism, fueled by the Alt-Right, is altering conservatism, and how the movement may have lost control over defining itself. (Why else would the ACU have opened its conference with a series of speeches intended to explain what conservatism stands for?)

Last summer, Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart executive who is now chief strategist to Trump, boasted that his publication is "the platform for the Alt-Right." Just days ago, the ACU was forced to disinvite Milo Yiannopoulos, a (now former) Breitbart editor with a long history of racism, sexism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. He was poised to be toasted at CPAC until an anonymous conservative group called the Reagan Battalion exposed radio interviews in which he praised pedophilia – and the world finally discovered ACU's bridge too far. Although Yiannopoulos was ultimately shunned, Bannon is given the rock-star treatment in an interview with ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp, conducted on the main stage, and without a single mention of the Alt-Right.

Schneider has little to say about Bannon's characterization of Breitbart, saying only that the definition is "fuzzy" and he gave his speech so people could "have clarity on this." The Alt-Right, he adds, has "nothing to do with the American tradition" and is "inconsistent with the very idea of conservatism."

Yet the Alt-Right sees in Trump and Bannon signs that conservatism is being abandoned for nationalism. "Trump is stumbling toward a nationalist ideology," Spencer tells reporters. "In that way, he has a connection with the Alt-Right, he has a deeper connection with us than he has with conservatives." Bannon, too, while not Alt-Right, Spencer says, "seems to be open to other ideas besides just the conservative pabulum." He cites Bannon's own references to Alexandr Dugin, the far-right Russian writer, and the Italian fascist Julian Evola, both deeply influential to the Alt-Right.

Spencer also praises Bannon's deputy, Stephen Miller, whom he knew while they were both students at Duke, as someone who appears "very committed ... toward nationalism, and that we have a sovereign right to determine our future."

Bannon signals his – and the Trump administration's – break with movement conservatism in the interview with the ACU's Schlapp. "There's a new political order being formed out of this," he says. He repeatedly extols Trump's "economic nationalist agenda." The "center core of what we believe, that we are a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders," says Bannon. "We are a nation with a culture and a reason for being," he adds, with words redolent of Spencer's self-described "identitarianism." Bannon pitches the CPAC crowd: "I think that's what unites us."

Regardless of whether they understand what the Alt-Right is, or how it is altering conservatism, Trump has already drawn new devotees to CPAC. Devon Hunter, a University of California-Merced student, sporting a Make America Great Again hat, says Trump made him more interested in the gathering. As for the Alt-Right, Hunter says it’s "a monster that the left points to and that the right doesn't want anything to do with."

Thomas Melvin, a retired school principal from Charleston, South Carolina, also has come to his first CPAC, though he had followed it on television in the past. He says Trump is the reason he's here. "People are happy because he's doing what he said he'd do," says Melvin. Even "Republicans who were against him are supporting him now," he says. "They know he's got a heart for America."

Watch Donald Trump's Speech at CPAC 2017.