The Conservative Political Action Conference has long been a parade of the Republican fringe. But in 2016, the fringe took over and now they have the main stage all to themselves.
Last year, shortly after the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, the board of directors of the American Conservative Union convened a conference call to discuss the party’s newly minted presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.
The GOP had just undergone a brutal, bruising primary, and the call focused on whether or not the board would back the ACU if the group endorsed Trump, a hugely divisive and hardly traditionally conservative figure within the Republican Party.
According to two sources with direct knowledge of the conference call, a slight majority were for endorsing—after all, Trump was the Republican presidential pick. Many others were, however, not so forgiving.
“If [ACU endorses] him, it will be the darkest day in this organization’s history,” Thomas Winter, first vice chairman of the ACU and former Human Events editor, warned on the call, according to the sources speaking on the condition of anonymity. Winter could not be reached for comment on this story.
This year, Trump is scheduled to return to the ACU-hosted Conservative Political Action Conference—but now not just as a mainstage speaker but as President of the United States and the Republican Party’s standard bearer.
Still, tensions remain in the ACU at the beginning of the Trump era—and they’re perhaps stronger than ever.
Last week, CPAC nearly went full alt-right, with a much-publicized invitation extended by ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp to Breitbart editor and professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos for a prominent speaking slot.
Over the weekend, the ACU board and others revolted against the decision: “This mental patient enjoys playing footsie with Nazis—I’m not into that, and neither are many on the [ACU] board, it’s that simple,” one board member told The Daily Beast earlier this week as the controversy was ongoing.
By Monday, Schlapp and CPAC had kicked Yiannopoulos to the curb. But to many on the board, damage had already been done.
On Wednesday, the ACU board of directors held a meeting at a conference room at the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, an event complex just outside of Washington, DC, where the four-day conference is held. During the final third of the nearly two-hour meeting, several board members started grilling Schlapp, who was in attendance, about the alt-right’s infiltration into mainstream conservatism.
According to two sources with knowledge of the meeting, multiple board members—such as Winter, Sabrina Schaeffer of the Independent Women’s Forum, and Ned Ryun of American Majority—passionately voiced their objections and concerns, with much of the room concurring. Some even called out the ACU chairman not only for inviting, then ditching, Yiannopoulos, but for inviting Stephen Bannon, Yiannopoulos’s former boss, as well.
Schlapp, Schaeffer, and Ryun did not respond to requests for comment.
Bannon, who now serves as President Trump’s chief strategist in the White House, has called his Breitbart site “the platform” for the racist American alt-right. On Thursday afternoon, Bannon is slated to speak alongside Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, in a chat moderated by Schlapp.
Ryun, in particular, was vocal during Wednesday’s meeting about his opposition to Bannon’s inclusion, as well as the GOP’s continued coddling of what he deems “white supremacist” alt-right voices. Schlapp did not address the Bannon criticisms head-on, though he did point out that he “didn’t know half the stuff” about Yiannopoulos that made him such a despised figure.
Some in the meeting told Schlapp that he could have simply “Googled it.”
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Multiple board members told The Daily Beast that many attendees left the private meeting continuing to gossip and vent about the “fascist” and “Jew-hating” and “white nationalist” elements that have “infected” the Republican Party, and how the conservative movement had a long way to go to purge them.
On Thursday morning, CPAC will also host a speech by the ACU’s Dan Schneider in the main ballroom area titled, “The Alt-Right Ain’t Right at All.”
Still, the alt-right might as well be doing victory laps at National Harbor this week: their guys are in the White House, and moderate Republicans and liberals are still fuming and humiliated.
Trump’s rise to power, as well as the schedule for speakers at this year’s conference, plainly show this is no longer the party of Mitch McConnell, or Paul Ryan, or any “establishment” icon. Today, it is more than ever the party of Trump, Bannon, Bannon’s former flagship Breitbart, and all of the wild, unchecked right-wing excesses that come along with them.
For example, Sheriff David Clarke, Jr. is speaking on the mainstage, as he did last year. In the time between the last CPAC and this year’s, Clarke has gone from simply being Fox News’s favorite sheriff who said Black Lives Matter would team up with ISIS, to someone who had been considered by Trump to head the Department of Homeland Security.
“The revolution is here, and it’s bloody, man,” one ACU board member told The Daily Beast. “The craziest elements of the [party] have managed to get every single thing they wanted over the past year. I care about the [conservative] movement and I care where it goes. This is the shape our movement is in today.”
This year, the fringe is the center of power.
While the Breitbart crew and Bannon stand tall, the Republican establishment has by and large gone into hiding. There are no senators speaking in the ballroom, except for Ted Cruz on Thursday, and GOP heavyweights such as McConnell and Ryan are nowhere to be found on the schedule.
Spokesmen for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan said neither leader had planned to attend the conference this year due to other scheduled events during the congressional recess.
Last year, Sen. Ted Cruz briefly became the GOP establishment’s brightest hope at stopping Trump. A year ago, when he spoke at CPAC, Cruz won the conference’s presidential straw poll—after all, the Evangelicals were supposed to be his people. Trump, on the other hand, was scheduled to speak at CPAC 2016, but ditched it short notice. Cruz is still slated to deliver remarks this year on Thursday morning.
But Trump, on Friday morning, makes his CPAC homecoming as leader of the free world, and is the clear main event.
—Jackie Kucinich contributed reporting.
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