This year’s Conservative Political Action Conference was—to borrow a phrase—“low-energy.” Except, that is, when it came to praising President Trump. CPAC has historically been a measure of what people and ideas are allowed into the conservative movement’s big tent. This year, the ideology that seemed to matter most was love of Trump.
Trump’s influence on the larger conservative movement was apparent on stage at CPAC, but it played out also in the surrounding circus at the Gaylord convention center in National Harbor, Maryland, where white nationalists rubbed elbows with “New Right” internet celebrities and far-right European politicians, many of them echoing Trump’s talking points.
On the conference’s schedule, more traditional conservative fare about the joys of capitalism and national security threats was mixed in with sessions dedicated to aggrandizing Trump.
“This Is Awesome”
Trump’s speech on Friday morning drew the largest crowd of the weekend; lines began forming at 4 a.m. and the crowd grew so large that convention center staff had to expand the ballroom to include a standing-room-only section behind the press filing center.
At the podium, Trump made a point to shower attention on each of his various voting blocs. For the NRA and its supporters, he promised to protect the Second Amendment from liberal gun-grabbers and suggested that the best way to prevent school shootings is to arm teachers. For the Religious Right, he took a moment to praise the recently deceased evangelist Billy Graham–and to praise Graham’s children for supporting him in the 2016 presidential race.
For his anti-immigration supporters, Trump brought back a campaign trail favorite, a poem called “The Snake,” which he used to compare immigrants to wily and poisonous snakes. Trump told attendees that if they listened to the poem and thought it was “terrible,” that was OK because “that’s peanuts compared to the way they treat me,” gesturing to the cameras in the press pool. CNN later reported that the author of the poem wrote it to convey the lesson that “kindness can be betrayed” and that his family has asked Trump to stop using it in speeches.
Trump offered up other campaign-trail favorites too, prompting chants of “Lock her up!” with a reference to Hillary Clinton and “Build the wall!” when he promised, once again, to wall off the border with Mexico.
During the speech, security confiscated multiple handfuls of small Russian flags with the word “TRUMP” printed on them. A protester was removed after screaming that Trump was a “traitor.”
Other speakers and attendees at the conference, predictably, showered Trump with praise. Even the more establishment conservative crowd celebrated that Trump had collaborated with them to roll back Obama-era regulations and pass tax reform.
“This is awesome,” Laura Ingraham, Fox News host, said about the political climate under Trump.
Pro-Trump sentiment at this year’s CPAC ran so strong that a conservative writer required a security escort after she criticized Republicans for standing by people like Trump and former Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore.
Capturing the mood of the event, conservative pundit Ben Shapiro closed his speech with the song “Turn Down For What.”
The Fringe-Right Settles In
Last year, CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp took a stand against welcoming the alt-right onto the stage, claiming that the racist movement was not conservative. But that hasn’t stopped conference organizers from awkwardly courting other far-right political movements. Far-right speakers received varied receptions.
There was poor attendance for Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, niece of the far-right extremist leader of the French National Front party, when she followed Vice President Mike Pence. But Nigel Farage, who was one of the leaders of the “Brexit” movement in the United Kingdom, spoke to a highly energized crowd, praising Trump and warning that his experience in the Brexit campaign proves that liberals will do nearly anything to delegitimize the conservative movement in general and Trump in particular.
Farage reportedly met with Trump the night before each spoke at CPAC and told reporters that he saw Trump backstage after his Friday speech. After the speech, while smoking a cigarette on the conference center balcony, Farage said that Trump told him he was excited about the “potential” of working together and that he was optimistic about their partnership going forward.
Leading figures of the self-declared “New Right” movement also attended the conference and could often be found perusing radio row. These included self-declared “New Right” leader Mike Cernovich, pro-Trump pundit and conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec, Gateway Pundit reporter Cassandra Fairbanks, Gateway Pundit White House reporter Lucian Wintrich and political operative Ali Akbar.
In addition to a handful of “New Right” activists, a couple of the movement’s hopeful insurgent candidates set up shop at the event. Shiva Ayyadurai, who is running to unseat Sen. Elizabeth Warren in Massachusetts, had a booth in the exhibit hall and handed out fliers bearing his slogan “Only a REAL INDIAN can defeat the fake Indian.” Omar Navarro, who is challenging Rep. Maxine Waters in California, wandered the halls.
Will Chamberlain, a “New Right” figure and organizer of the “MAGA Meetups” happy hour series, said that he believed the conference showed that “moderate Trumpists”—Republicans who support Trump but are willing to negotiate with establishment GOP and Democratic politicians—are the strongest force in the conservative movement.
“The modern establishment understands the power of Trump and wants to work with the Trumpists to coalesce the party around that. That’s what is actually working right now,” Chamberlain said, adding that many “New Right” figures sought to become “a part of this” collaboration.
Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist and anti-Semitic YouTube blogger, spent most of his time loitering in radio row and asking prominent media figures and politicians for selfies. Fuentes also chatted for a while with Wintrich, who has been working with Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft to attack survivors of the Parkland high school shooting who have been speaking out in favor of tighter gun laws.
A handful of members of Gavin McInnes’ bizarre “Proud Boys” fraternity, which has recently been designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, were present at the event. Jezebel reports that white nationalists Marcus Epstein and Peter Brimelow also attended. The has-been father of the alt-right movement, Richard Spencer, made a sad appearance operating out of a hotel room at the Gaylord hotel, since he has been barred from the official CPAC event since last year.
Firearms And “Fake News”
The event’s first panel was dedicated to attacking the media covering the event and to promoting breakout pro-Trump media stars such as Campus Reform’s Lawrence Jones and Turning Point USA’s Candace Owens, formerly known online as “RedPillBlack.” The panel worked on the premise that legacy media outlets had allied with radical activists to push the left’s agenda of socialism, which made it more important now that conservative activists work as citizen journalists to counter “fake news.”
Attacks on media continued throughout the conference. NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch, fresh from a controversial appearance at a CNN town hall with survivors of the Florida school shooting, claimed that “many in the legacy media love mass shootings” because coverage of mass shootings brings in good television ratings.
Both Loesh and NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre used their time on the main stage to attack media outlets that have been critical of the NRA.
In the hallways outside the main stage, multiple attendees described Loesch and LaPierre’s speeches as “tone deaf” toward current national conversations about gun laws. Loesch and LaPierre’s claims that the way to stop school shootings is to place more firearms in schools were especially bizarre coming at an event that was patrolled by armed secret service officers and had a strict no-weapons policy for attendees.
The NRA also gave FCC Chairman Ajit Pai a handmade rifle for his “courage under fire” in repealing net neutrality rules, but did not present the award on stage, perhaps because of the conference’s anti-firearm policy.
Thursday morning on radio row, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka shoved Mediaite reporter Caleb Ecarma, who he had once challenged to a fight after Ecarma mocked his car on Twitter. Gorka came unhinged when Ecarma asked if he remembered who he was and leaned into Ecarma’s face to tell him, “Fuck you,” repeatedly. When Gorka began to walk away, Ecarma asked if Gorka would answer any of his questions, after which Gorka told Ecarma that he monitors his Twitter account and deemed him too irrelevant to speak with. Shortly afterward, Gorka spoke to CPAC.
“My physical altercation with Sebastian Gorka is just the result of the anti-media rhetoric that Donald Trump and his lackeys have been pushing for the past two years,” Ecarma told Right Wing Watch. “Ex-White House officials shoving and grabbing reporters is a legitimate hindrance to reporters trying to do their jobs, and it’s only going to get worse as Trump continues to stir up anger toward everyone in media who doesn’t run pro-administration propaganda.”
The “fake news” line had also gained traction among some of the college-aged Republicans who attend the conference each year. One young woman walking through the radio broadcasting hallway wearing a “MAGA” hat and carrying a tote that depicted Trump as a profile on the dating app Tinder told a friend that she was happy to be at CPAC because at the conference she gets to be her real self instead of her “fake news self.”
That Free Speech Panel
In the hallways of the Gaylord conference center and on the stage at CPAC, claims that tech companies are systematically oppressing conservatives online were particularly pronounced, with much of the conversations revolving around a scheduled, canceled and then re-scheduled internet free speech panel.
At a private off-site happy hour in the upstairs bar of a nearby restaurant the day before the panel, the former Google employee James Damore—fired for circulating a memo attacking the company’s diversity initiatives and claiming that biological traits may make women less suited for engineering—and other activists on the panel including software developer Marlene Jaeckel, gathered for drinks with many prominent right-wing activists including Posobiec, GOP “dirty trickster” Roger Stone and a handful of authors at Breitbart and Gateway Pundit.
The panel was almost canceled after CPAC organizers barred Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft from speaking at the conference because his site had kicked into overdrive attacking the teenage survivors of the Parkland shooting. Anti-Muslim activist Pamela Geller, after having refused to remove Hoft from the panel, also didn’t participate.
Jaeckel said she had been denied professional development opportunities in the technology industry because she voiced her conservative political views and spoke against liberals who claimed the tech industry was full of rampant misogyny and bigotry. Jaeckel said that Hoft’s removal from the panel was not a pressing concern for her because she believed that the panel’s message was more important than the lineup.
“Nobody really thought of the internet as something that’s going to have the impact on our lives it does today,” Jaeckel said. “It needs to be regulated because that’s the town square.”
Jaeckel’s comment seemed oddly contrast to CPAC’s celebration of Pai for repealing net neutrality rules.
The tech-centric panel experienced some technical difficulties. While a projector was being set up, attendees rattled off various entities that could be to blame.
“The Russians did it,” one attendee joked.
“James Comey,” another suggested.
“Obama,” another said.
“Deep state,” Posobiec chimed in.
The panel included a brief presentation from Project Veritas president James O’Keefe, who presented videos that his organization claims show Twitter staffers talking about methods to systematically isolate conservative or overly pro-Trump accounts they believe to be automated bots, an issue that Twitter has made attempts to resolve in recent weeks. O’Keefe has been exposed numerous times for his deceptive editing and undercover research tactics.
Damore, Jaeckel and RNC National Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon went on to present a series of statistics, screenshots, and anecdotes that they claimed proved that conservative voices had been built out of the technology industry and that free speech was in jeopardy.
Dan Gainor from the conservative Media Research Center chimed in at the end of the panel, and told the handful of journalists and activists assembled that the problem of censoring conservative voices will only get worse.
“The old media don’t like us, so why should we be in the new media? And the new media, when they want to deal with media who do they hire? They hire people from traditional outlets,” he said.
On behalf of Gateway Pundit, Fairbanks asked moderator Terry Schilling why the panel, which focused on the preservation of free speech, had disinvited Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft. Schilling refused to field Fairbanks’ question, resulting in a small chorus of boos from those in attendance.