Conservatives at CPAC grapple with the rise of the alt-right

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — White nationalist Richard Spencer arrived at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) Thursday, appearing to be a sign of the “alt-right” movement’s attempts to fit in with conservatives. 

And then he got kicked out. 

Escorted from the event by security, Spencer was left to talk to reporters outside while the conservatives continued their annual convention without him.

Spencer’s abrupt exit was just one way conservatives tried to grapple with the rise of the alt-right movement Thursday at CPAC, offering differing interpretations about who falls into that category and even what the term means.

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Both conservatives and the alt-right have challenged the Republican Party establishment. But conservatives emphasized that they shouldn’t be equated with the so-called alternative right, or alt-right, an umbrella term for the nebulous white nationalist movement that has been accused of bigotry.

On Thursday, CPAC kicked off its first full day with a speech titled “The Alt Right Ain’t Right at All.” The conference also featured White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, later in the day. 

As recently as last summer, Bannon called Breitbart “the platform for the alt-right.”

A board member of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which organizes CPAC, says it’s “always” an issue of who should be included in the speaker lineup, but argued that their ultimate goal is to make the conservative movement “as broad a coalition as you can possibly have.”

“If you’re going to have a big tent, there are going to be people in there who don’t necessarily agree, and maybe disagree, on a lot of issues,” that board member told The Hill on the condition of anonymity.

Spencer had been talking to reporters for more than 30 minutes when security escorted him out, according to several reports, because his views did not match those of CPAC. 

The ejection of Spencer, who had paid at least $150 for a CPAC ticket, comes on the heels of the conservative gathering rescinding its invitation to alt-right provocateur and former Breitbart senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos after videos resurfaced showing him appearing to defend pedophilia.

Aiming to be more inclusive with its lineup, CPAC drew heavy criticism from liberals and conservatives alike over Yiannopoulos’s prominent keynote speaking slot. Following the outcry over the video, ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp called his comments “disturbing.” Yiannopoulos has since resigned from Breitbart amid the controversy.

Spencer's swift removal brought more attention to a presentation by a member of the ACU leadership Thursday morning that targeted the alt-right. During the event's first speech, ACU Executive Director Dan Schneider sought to place the alt-right outside the bounds of acceptable GOP politics.

“There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks, and we must not be duped, we must not be deceived. This is serious business,” Schneider said, not long before Spencer was kicked out.

The term “alt-right” has been “hijacked” by a “hate-filled, left-wing fascist group” — the same one, he says, that descended with Spencer upon Washington last year and caused a stir with nationalist rhetoric and Nazi salutes.

“This group has hijacked it, hijacked the term, and they did it intentionally to try because they want to deceive the media and deceive you all about what they stand for so that they can try to become normalized,” he added. “We must not let them to be normalized; they are not part of us.”

Despite Schneider’s comments, there’s debate over whether “alt-right” was ever an innocuous term — and how much white nationalists could “hijack” the term when Spencer himself is regularly credited as its originator.

Shortly after Schneider’s speech, Spencer excoriated the ACU executive for name-calling and not being fully informed about the alt-right movement.

“Dan Schneider has a small and closed mind,” Spencer told a group of reporters huddled outside the main event. “He didn’t even do basic research on what the alt-right is and he denounced it. That’s pretty pathetic.”

Spencer noted that he felt welcomed at the conservative gathering. “They’re not punching me, are they?” he laughed, referring to an incident on the day of President Trump’s inauguration, where he was punched on the streets of Washington, D.C., captured in a video that went viral.

A CPAC spokesman called Spencer “repugnant,” according to an NBC News reporter. On Twitter, Breitbart London Editor-in-Chief Raheem Kassam said he had expressed “a concern” about Spencer’s presence before he was removed.

But the conference welcomed one frequent critic of traditional conservatism and of CPAC itself: Bannon.

It’s not unusual for a White House official to appear at CPAC. But Bannon’s appearance, which saw him expound on his ideas of “economic nationalism” that are often at odds with free-trade conservatism, was a sign of CPAC’s attempts to adapt to the Trump era. 

Bannon spoke at a panel with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus to discuss the administration and their working relationship.

Bannon was quick to acknowledge his past absence from CPAC and thanked Schlapp for “finally” inviting him to speak, prompting laughter from all three.

The controversial former head of Breitbart News did his own counter-programming, “The Uninvited,” in 2013 for speakers who weren’t include in CPAC’s lineup. Bannon noted that there were “many alumni in the audience” at Thursday’s panel.

But this year, conservative leaders are going out of their way to paint Bannon in a positive light and demonstrate that the conservative movement is seeking to be more inclusive. Bannon did his part, making no mention of the “alt-right” he once allied himself with through Breitbart.

“Here’s what we decided to do at CPAC with ‘The Uninvited’ at CPAC,” Schlapp said. “We decided to say that everybody is part of our conservative family. And that’s what Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE has done to so many of us around the country politically.”

While Schneider’s own speech condemned the alt-right, Schneider defended Bannon’s character and noted Breitbart’s religiously diverse staff.

“He does not have a bone of hate in his body,” Schneider told reporters at CPAC.

While conservatives’ perception of Bannon has morphed since he signed on to Trump’s campaign and became a prominent fixture in the White House, organizers within CPAC argue that it’s important to make the distinction between the alt-right and who Bannon is today.

“I know Dan [Schneider] speaks for a large number of people here at CPAC, and I think there’s going to be some tension between those folks, but I don’t know how much of Steve Bannon is tied to the alt-right today,” the CPAC director said.