War Between Conservatives And ‘Alt Right’ Dominates CPAC

An organizer at the annual conservative conference began with a disparaging address about the "alt-right"

"Alt-right" leader Richard Spencer at CPAC — REUTERS
Feb 23, 2017 at 1:40 PM ET

CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual prom of sorts for America’s right wing, kicked off Thursday in a conference center just south of Washington D.C. Hundreds have gathered to listen to speakers like Ted Cruz, Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence and the president himself, along with dozens of others.

One of the first was Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the event. Unlike the other speakers, Schneider wasn’t there to talk about the future of conservatism, he was there to distance his movement from the “alt-right,” the anti-Semitic, anti-feminist, and racist arm of conservatism that slithered its way into the mainstream during the 2016 presidential election.

In an address Thursday morning titled “The Alt Right Ain’t Right At All,” Schneider attempted to claim that the “alt-right” isn’t conservative at all — rather, a ruse by liberals to hijack a wing of the right-wing movement under the guise of conservatism.

“There is a sinister organ trying to worm its way into our ranks and we must not be duped,” Schneider told the crowd, as many poured out of the ballroom as if to not pick a side in the growing rift between the oft-blended political movements. He described the “alt-right” as “garden-variety left-wing fascists” and went on to describe members of movement in a way that some of the more fringe alt-righters describe themselves.

“They are anti-Semites,” he said. “They are racists. They are sexists. They hate the Constitution… they despise everything we believe in. They are not an extension of conservatism.”

Just outside, in the lobby of the conference center, a man with a different perspective waited. White supremacist Richard Spencer — the punchable face of the “alt-right” movement — milled about, talking to press. He called the speech a “pathetic” attempt to cast his budding movement as liberal in any way.

“[Schneider] denounced me in totally stupid ways,” Spencer said, adding that the “alt-right” “was always about a right-wing that was against the conservative movement.”

The split between traditional conservatives and the “alt-right” — and even those who buy into the “alt-right’s” rhetoric about nationalism and identity but don’t necessarily want to admit it — is clear at CPAC; as I was talking with Spencer, a man who appeared to be in his early 20s walked up to him and asked for a photo. He then thanked him and said “praise Pepe,” a nod to a cartoon frog that has become the symbol of the “alt-right.” Another similarly aged man was overheard saying, “If [Spencer] can piss off antifa he’s OK by me,” a reference to the growing number of left-wing “anti-fascist” activists like those who rioted in D.C. on inauguration day.

On the other side of the split, other conservatives are echoing Schneider’s insistence that the “alt-right” is not conservatism. Just feet away from Spencer stood a group of men and women who were outraged that Spencer was even in the same hemisphere as conservatives, let alone at the same conference.

“It’s bullshit that they try to categorize him as [conservative],” said Laura Lightstone, a Maryland conservative who wants nothing to do with people like Spencer and his cartoon frog. “[The media] is gonna categorize us as being accepting of him being here…[his beliefs are] not conservative. They’re not Republican…he doesn’t represent Trump voters…the conservatives I know and live around down here, nobody believes in that shit.”

To try and say the “alt-right” isn’t a wing of conservatism today is a tall tale to tell, particularly given President Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as his chief adviser. Bannon is the former head of Breitbart News, which he described as “the platform for the ‘alt-right.'” Bannon is also pegged to speak at CPAC on Thursday. Not to mention, “alt-right” provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, a now-former editor at Brietbart who was slated to speak at CPAC until video surfaced of him advocating for pedophilia.

Despite Schneider’s — and many other conservatives’ — hopes of distancing themselves from Spencer’s explicitly racist “alt right,” Spencer and his cohort see opportunity, believing that Trump and his team are more aligned with his movement than traditional conservatism.

“The way to think about it is Donald Trump is stumbling towards a sort of nationalism — a nationalist ideology, and in that way he has a connection with the ‘alt-right,'” Spencer said. “He has a deeper connection with us that he has with conservatives…because we are about the nation, too.”

Of his conservative critics, Spencer said an old adage applies.

“First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win,” he said. “I think right now they’re fighting us. The fact is they weren’t talking about the ‘alt-right a year ago,’ or two years ago. They now feel the need to talk about us so they’re objectively fighting us.”

A little while later, Spencer was escorted out of the hall by conference security.