ORLANDO — The Conservative Political Action Conference, the nation’s premier gathering of right-wing, pro-Donald Trump die-hards is here this year. The American First Political Action Conference, the nation’s premier gathering that includes right-wing, pro-Donald Trump die-hards who are also overt and public white nationalists, is here this year too. In theory, the two events are separate, hosted at different hotels, selling different tickets, and separated by 10 miles of Florida highway. In practice, and in ideology, the lines are a bit blurry, and it’s unclear whether anyone in CPAC leadership cares enough about the white nationalist presence to do anything significant about it.
It is clear, however, that some prominent CPAC speakers are, as the kids say, here for it.
That’s most obvious with Rep. Majorie Taylor Greene, the House Republican from Georgia who proudly took the stage at AFPAC on Friday night, hours before her Saturday speaking appearance at CPAC. On Friday she was introduced by Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist whose own AFPAC address featured giggling praise of Adolf Hitler. Greene spoke at CPAC on Saturday morning, and pressed afterward about AFPAC and Fuentes, she said she was there to address his audience and claimed to have no knowledge of him nor any affiliation with — effectively pleading total ignorance and detachment from a conference she’d been a featured speaker at and a leader who’d introduced her.
Greene is a walking internet troll who made clear a long time ago that her internal compass is pointed perpetually at the area of greatest overlap between “bigotry” and “self-promotion.” And so her appearance at CPAC and AFPAC is shocking but unsurprising. Nor is it surprising that Sheriff Joe Arpaio attended CPAC to hawk his new book but also got a speaking slot at AFPAC. Arpaio is right at home in with CPAC’s MAGA faithful because of their shared obsession with undocumented immigrants, and when he’s at AFPAC, he gets to say the quiet part out loud.
But the rot goes deeper than Greene and Arpaio.
Last year, when CPAC came to my hometown in Dallas I saw the leader of the Oath Keepers, Stewart Rhodes, and a couple Proud Boys. But when Fuentes tried to enter last year, he was denied entry. He later staged a showy protest in the hotel lobby, only to have security show him the door. This year in Orlando, Groypers — a group behind AFPAC — are once again trying to leverage CPAC to their advantage: they’re holding a parallel conference next door, and as I wandered CPAC, I saw and confirmed Groyper Army members in the crowd. They’re more demure, wearing discrete accessories that didn’t make them conspicuous to the average bear but made them stick out like a sore thumb to anyone in the know. Namely, they’re clad in matching blue hats emblazoned with “America First.”
The Groyper mission here is clear: to establish AFPAC as the movement’s truth-tellers and paint CPAC as phonies. A pro-Groyper meme posted on Telegram makes this clear: The left side of the screen is labeled CPAC and features illustrated signs reading “Let’s Go Brandon,” “GOP Proud,” and “[Critical Race Theory] actually hurts minorities!” The right panel is labeled AFPAC. The “GOP Proud” sign has been replaced by a cross; “Let’s Go Brandon” swapped out for “Trump Won: Decertify 2020.” The CRT sign is edited to read: “CRT is ANTI WHITE.”
On the CPAC sign side of the meme, the American flag has rainbow and Israeli flags behind it. On AFPAC’s, the exact flag behind it isn’t clear, but it bears more than a passing resemblance to a white Christian flag with a blue square and red cross.
But if anyone in CPAC’s leadership has a problem with the presence of a group that the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center have described as white nationalists, they’re not willing to say so out loud. Attempts to contact CPAC organizers via email and tagging on Twitter were unreturned. I tried to track down the leaders in the hallway, but I always seemed to miss them. Causal background conversations with attendees gave the impression that few wanted to address the elephant in the room.
There’s still time for CPAC to fix this, if it wants to. It could condemn Greene’s appearance and make clear that attendance at AFPAC was a lifetime ban from CPAC. We’ll gladly update here if we hear back from anyone at the CPAC shop. And big picture, the conference could be more overt about its own policies on racism and white nationalism, and it could come down heavily on speakers and attendees who cross that line.
All of this is true for the Republican Party writ large. But the first step toward a solution is admitting there’s a problem, and on that front, the early signs aren’t good. Republican National Committee chair Ronna McDaniel, whose organization recently censured two GOP members for criticizing Trump, had this to say: “White supremacy, neo-Nazism, hate speech and bigotry are disgusting and do not have a home in the Republican Party.”
On the one hand, it’s tough for anyone at CPAC to engage in any sort of moderation. Denying white nationalists and their allies access to your platform sounds a lot like “cancel culture” to a movement up in arms over Twitter and Facebook doing even the most limited of content curation. On the other hand, history has not been kind to people who keep quiet when white nationalism is on the rise.
And what happens at CPAC matters. There was a time when CPAC was a sideshow, a place for the conservative fringe to gather and rant about how the Republican Party was taking them for granted. Reporters would attend on extremist safaris, right-wing pundits would swing by for autographs and adultion, and then — once the conference was over — the actual power centers of the party would go back to business as usual. But CPAC isn’t fringe anymore; it’s the party base. That’s not because it has gotten more moderate. It’s because the party has embraced the extreme.
I probably should have seen this coming. While I waited to board my flight to Orlando from Dallas, I noticed a man who I knew — barring the presence of a truly uncanny doppelganger — to be a member of the Patriots for America Militia, an extremist organization whose leader was escorted off the TX Capitol grounds on Jan. 12, 2021 for carrying an AR-15 assault rifle. I later saw him near the main event hall at the Rosen Shingle Creek wearing a CPAC lanyard. It’s a big tent, to say the least.
While the leadership stays quiet, the resistance is coming from individuals. I spoke with one man who was willing to speak out against the growing presence of white nationalists, conspiracy peddlers, and all sorts of kooks in the conservative movement. He goes by Grizzly Joe and he’s been going to CPAC for 10 years. I first ran into him at CPAC Dallas in 2021, where he spoke with me for an article I penned for the outlet that had sent me. This time, he didn’t mince words when it came to the current state of the conservative movement. If it were a party at his house, Grizzly Joe said, “I’d say get the fuck out” to the Groypers, QAnon peddlers, militia members, and January 6ers who he condemned in particular as “morons” who are into “extremist shit.”
A year ago, Grizzly Joe seemed as solid a Trump supporter as anyone. But these days, he’s not so sure. “I’m on the fence. I would like for Trump to run if he can dial it down from 11. But realistically, he can’t fucking do it because there has to be people with him.” He says he’s unsettled by what he sees as a sort of Frankenstein’s monster that’s gone out of control. “This thing the other night, you know the racist whatever the hell you call them. I have no use for them.”
Some speakers, like Senator Marco Rubio, didn’t stray as far into the deep end as some others. Relatively speaking, the Florida Senator gave what could be considered a pretty normal conservative speech. Rubio in the past has gone out on a limb to condemn racist elements in and around his party, including in his unsuccessful 2016 primary run against Trump. But when his staff was approached for comment regarding whether he was at all concerned with sharing the stage with folks who had just spoken at a white nationalist conference, they did not get back.
AFPAC overlap aside, this year’s CPAC was graced by at least a few people who seemed to have been unwelcome just a few years ago. One featured speaker was a right-wing media influencer who goes by the moniker DC Draino. He said on stage that he had been escorted out of CPAC Orlando two years prior for refusing to wear a mask.
In the words of a longtime Republican activist with extensive CPAC credentials who might be mad at me for putting this on the page, what happens on stage is a sideshow, a sort of distraction from what CPAC is really about. And what it’s really about is rubbing shoulders and making connections.
So I tried to do some of that myself and in the process linked up with Uncle Big Tim, a local Orlando Tik Tok comedian who was on his own mission to take photographs with people wearing silly hats. He also secured selfies with some big names, including Dr. Oz, embattled Congressman Matt Gaetz, election fraud huckster and pillow salesman Mike Lindell, and a man named Vincent Fusca — who some in the QAnon world believe is secretly JFK Jr with cosmetic veneers and plastic surgery.
Uncle Big Tim also found a way to go where the rest of us didn’t. AFPAC was closed to the press, but he says that he managed to get his hands on a ticket because someone had recognized him from CPAC and remembered that he’d been asking where the afterparty was. Inside AFPAC’s party, he says he noticed quite a bit of overlap in terms of attendance. Before he left AFPAC, Uncle Big Tim snagged a photograph with Gavin McGinnis, founder of the Proud Boys, and grabbed a goodie bag featuring a Pepe the Frog pin — a meme the ADL says did not originally have bigoted connotations but has since been hijacked by white supremacists types on image boards like 4chan and 8kun.
Confronted by the bigotry within their ranks, conservatives frequently accuse the media of hysteria, so let’s take a look at what’s coming out of AFPAC.
Arizona State Representative Wendy Rogers said she wants to set up “new gallows” for the “crimes committed” by Democrats. Another speaker, Stew Peters, called his political enemies “creatures” and “lizard things” who aren’t people. “Christ is King,” Peters said. The crowd chanted it back in return. When he eventually took the stage, Fuentes swiped at the media for comparing Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler: “As if that isn’t a good thing.”
If your head is spinning, you’re not alone. I’m in my third day of this, and struggling to find words to accurately describe this sort of politics that don’t ring certain historical alarm bells. So I’ll borrow from the late Umberto Eco, an Italian philosopher and cultural critic who grew up under Benito Mussolini’s fascist regime. Fascism is hard to define and harder to pin down, and history has shown that it can go unrecognized past the point when it’s too late, and so Eco came up with a checklist of sorts for spotting fascism as it’s on the rise. The list includes items such as “rejection of modernism,” “selective populism,” and “machismo and weaponry.”
As I crawled the halls of CPAC and watched the AFPAC live stream, I mentally checked off each flavor until there were none left. And Donald Trump still hasn’t even taken the stage.