“Every movement that gets dusty or sclerotic relies on an infusion of energy from the bottom up,” said White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. “It also takes a transformative individual to bring about change.”
Panels scheduled for the four-day conference include how the left does “not support law enforcement”; why the United States can’t have the same security standards as heaven (“a gate, a wall and extreme vetting”); and a discussion of “fair trade” that will put Breitbart editor Joel Pollak and progressive anchor Ed Schultz, who hosts a show on Russian-owned RT, on the same side.
That may sound like a celebration of a young presidency and the ideas that helped him win in November. But the event will also showcase the tension created as these new voices reshape conservative thinking.
The new nationalist energy has already embroiled this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference in controversy. Organizers invited the inflammatory commentator Milo Yiannopoulos to speak after protesters at the University of California at Berkeley rioted to stop one of his appearances. They disinvited him as controversy swirled over 2016 interviews in which he had criticized the age of sexual consent and joked about statutory rape.
By Tuesday afternoon, Yiannopoulos had resigned from Breitbart News, but the thinking behind his invitation remained. Matt Schlapp, the president of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, said the gathering this year will be an acknowledgment of the “realignment going on politically in the country” and of the rising import of “American sovereignty” to conservatives nationally.
This year’s CPAC schedule represents a marked shift toward Trump’s politics and penchant for showmanship. Nigel Farage, the pro-Brexit politician from Britain who spoke to an emptying room in 2015, will speak the same morning as Trump. Reality TV star Dog the Bounty Hunter will appear with a super PAC trying to draft Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, a regular Trump supporter on the cable news circuit, into Wisconsin’s 2018 Senate race.
“There used to be Pat Buchanan’s people, the populist revolt-types and the establishment of the anti-establishment, who’d get a third of the vote in the primaries and we’d beat them back,” said Mike Murphy, a veteran Republican consultant who led a super PAC that supported former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign. “Now they’ve hijacked the Republican Party.”
White House chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who led Breitbart before joining Trump’s team and has been a standard-bearer for conservative populism, will speak Thursday alongside his colleague, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. Bannon hopes to explain Trump’s actions in his first month in office, in particular, policies on immigration and the creation of manufacturing jobs, according to an official familiar with White House discussions.
By sitting with Priebus, the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, Bannon aims to showcase how the party guard and formerly obscure players on the right are in power and working together to enact a new kind of conservative agenda, the official said, one that is directed at reaching working-class voters who are disillusioned with the global economy and elites.
And Breitbart, which has been a sponsor of CPAC for years, has more visibility than ever. As Bannon has pointed out to associates, a site that once organized panels titled “The Uninvited” for guests too controversial for CPAC is now shaping the movement’s agenda. The annual Breitbart party, usually held at the outlet’s Washington office, has been upgraded to an exclusive cruise along the Potomac River.
Antiabortion activists will have a presence at CPAC. Hedge fund manager Sean Fieler, a major donor to related groups, will appear, as will filmmakers Ann McElhinney and Phelim McAleer, who have produced a documentary on Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor who was convicted of first-degree murder five years ago for killing three infants who were born alive during attempted abortions. He was also found guilty for the wrongful death of a patient.
Meanwhile, the libertarian flavor of the conference during the Obama years has faded. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who won the conference’s presidential straw poll three years running, is not coming to CPAC. The immigration debate that once roiled Republicans has largely been settled, in Trump’s favor.
“During my tenure we emphasized expanding the conservative base by reaching out to women and minority conservative upcoming leaders as guest speakers and panelists,” said Al Cardenas, who ran the American Conservative Union from 2011 to 2014. “Yes, to the chagrin of some, we insisted on panels to discuss the various points of view within the conservative movement on the issue of immigration.”
Richard Spencer, the white “identitarian” president of the National Policy Institute, suggested that the movement has gained ground with Trump’s victory. The decision to book Yiannopoulos, said Spencer, “represented a creeping recognition on the part of CPAC” that the alt-right is a force. The alt-right is known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist views.
“CPAC recognizes that it’s not 1979 or 1984 anymore and that it has to change its ideology and adjust to new circumstances,” Spencer said.
Schlapp has denounced the “alt-right” movement, telling MSNBC this week that “we won’t endorse it and we won’t rationalize it.” On Thursday morning, ACU board member Dan Schneider will give a CPAC speech denouncing it.
Schlapp said he invited Yiannopoulos because of the way he represented the need for free speech on college campuses, including at the University of California at Berkeley, where his event prompted riots.
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said Schlapp and others on the ACU board have to face the reality that connecting the Trump wing and more traditional conservatives will not be easy.
“When Milo admitted on Bill Maher’s HBO show the other night that he wasn’t a traditional conservative, he sounded like a lot of the young people that come to CPAC. They’re libertarian, mostly, and deconstructionist in how they see politics. They’re open to working with the LGBT side. So on a political level, you see why he’d be invited,” Steele said. “But can everyone coexist?”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a Trump ally who has given a series of speeches recently on “Trumpism,” said he is “impressed that CPAC has very intelligently anticipated the direction that Trump is going to take the country and understood that he’ll be the dominant voice on the right for the foreseeable future.”
“Everyone in the media and some in my party are overreacting to his personality and not paying attention to the depth of the change that Trump is leading,” which Gingrich compared to the way Franklin D. Roosevelt reshaped the Democratic Party in the 1930s. “His critics instinctively understand what’s happening and want to stop him.”
As even his supporters acknowledge, Trump first arrived at CPAC as an interloper. The gay Republican group GOProud, which was sometimes denied a table at the conference, capped off its 2011 CPAC agenda by inviting Trump to give a speech about “making America respected again.”
In 2016, when Trump canceled on CPAC at the last minute, his presidential primary rival Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) said he had learned “there were conservatives that were going to be here.” Trump trailed Cruz and Rubio in the event’s presidential straw poll.
Yet Sam Nunberg, a former Trump adviser who worked on the businessman’s CPAC arrangements in the years before the 2016 campaign, said the conferences were “pivotal” for Trump because they gave him a tangible sense of how his celebrity could be translated to a career in conservative Republican politics.
“He starts going in 2011 and he’s followed around by Republicans like the paparazzi,” Nunberg said. “He realized that with that kind of star power, he could really take the air out of everyone else there.”
“It’s definitely a show,” said Jimmy LaSalvia, a co-founder of GOProud who left the Republican Party in 2015. “It’s a show that is now designed to perpetuate a fight. Donald Trump lives for the fight. He feeds off the fighting. So does, frankly, the Breitbart organization. It’s all about us versus them. It’s not about ideas.”