Ned Ryun was strolling through the offices of the American Conservative Union two weeks ago when he stumbled on a whiteboard with a draft schedule for the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference.
“I looked at the board and said, ‘Why do we have Alex Marlow of Breitbart speaking for 30 minutes?” said Ryun, an ACU board member, referring to the editor-in-chief of the controversial right-wing news outlet.
It turned out that — according to Ryun — Marlow’s name was a placeholder for Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor and professional provocateur who lost both his job and his CPAC speaking slot this week after a video of him appearing to endorse pedophilia was posted online.
“We disinvited him over pedophilia,” Ryun said. “The debate I wanted to have, and which [ACU Chairman Matt] Schlapp didn’t want to have, is why are we inviting somebody who calls himself a fellow traveler of the alt-right?”
The episode encapsulated the debate that’s roiled the Republican Party over the past year, as Donald Trump and his army of nationalist-populist followers eviscerated a field of more traditional Republicans. The controversy is casting a pall over CPAC’s kickoff on Thursday, throwing the identity crisis that wracked the conservative movement during the presidential campaign into stark relief once again.
It’s not the first time that CPAC — which draws over 10,000 conservative activists to National Harbor, Maryland, each year — has been at the center of heated debate. A host of Trump’s opponents bore down on the organization last year, pressuring organizers to disinvite the real estate mogul from the event two months before he seized the Republican nomination. In 2013, the ACU’s decision to exclude New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — as well as the gay Republican group GOProud — sparked similar controversy on the right, though not nearly as many national headlines at this year’s fracas.
As the conservative movement has grown, the ACU has struggled to hew to conservative doctrine while simultaneously appealing to young activists and turning a profit. In doing so, some say it has suffered the fate of many conservative organizations and media outlets, transforming politics from a serious ideological endeavor into a moneymaking cult of celebrity.
“An organization that agonized about whether to invite gay dudes so moderate they probably don’t take off their blue blazers when they have sex but thinks Milo has to be there because he has star power just shows you the corrupting power of celebrity,” said Jonah Goldberg, a senior editor of National Review. Celebrities, he noted, are held to a different standard, allowed to behave and to say things that regular people are not — something conservatives have traditionally criticized.
CPAC began in 1974 as a somewhat sleepy gathering of doctrinaire conservatives: parents, children, political candidates and elected representatives. “In two days of meetings with questions from the floor there wasn’t a single kook in evidence, a fact that testifies to the respectability of the conservative movement (not, really, that the respectability is seriously disputed anymore),” read a report in National Review, which served at one time as a co-sponsor of the event.
The report said that “while every movement has its fringe…no fringist was visible at the conference. No people who made your hair curl; no one you felt embarrassed for; no one, in short, whom a conservative would have been afraid to have the liberal media interview.”
Over the years, however, and particularly under the chairmanship of David Keene, who oversaw the ACU for nearly three decades, CPAC grew into one of the central yearly events on the right, drawing an enormous and predominantly college-age crowd that skewed toward the fringe. In 1992, Pat Buchanan won the conference’s much-vaunted straw poll; either Ron Paul or his son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, has won several of the straw polls since then. For the past several years, a blowout bash hosted by Breitbart has been the central social event of the long weekend.
CPAC also — perhaps naturally — became a vehicle for the agendas of the ACU’s various chairmen. That drew criticism that the organization, which awards ratings to state and federal lawmakers based on their adherence to conservative doctrine, was an unreliable keeper of the faith.
Keene, for example, maintained his lobbying practice while he presided over the organization, which — according to two sources familiar with the situation — led National Review to sever its affiliation with the ACU and CPAC.
He came under fire in 2009 when evidence surfaced that he had asked FedEx for $2 million in exchange for the ACU’s support in a legislative battle — and then sided with UPS when FedEx declined to pay up.
On his watch, CPAC ballooned from a modest event to its present-day bonanza — with the help of speakers who blurred the line between seriousness and celebrity, from Ann Coulter to Sarah Palin and, in 2011, for the first time, Trump, who appeared at the invitation of GOProud without contributing a dime.
After writing a six-figure check from his charitable foundation to the ACU in 2013, Trump showed up to tell conservatives that if they thought they were going to reform Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and win elections at the same time, “it just really is not going to happen.”
This year’s CPAC will be the first in nearly a decade with a Republican president in office. And Trump, who has been greeted in previous years with a decided lack of enthusiasm, will undoubtedly receive a hero’s welcome from the grass roots. It will be an honest reflection of the feelings of the Republican base, a majority of which continues to rejoice at holding the majority position in both houses of Congress after years in the political wilderness.
Schlapp is certainly a reflection of that sentiment. A former Capitol Hill aide who served as political director in the George W. Bush White House, Schlapp doesn’t fit the profile of most Trump supporters. And it was significant that the chairman of the ACU emerged as a prominent supporter of the most heterodox candidate in the history of the Republican Party — Trump had famously declared, “This is called the Republican Party, not the Conservative Party.”
But Schlapp has devoted himself to rehabilitating CPAC’s image, which has been one of his biggest challenges. “The event had become a series of stump speeches; it didn’t have a theme, and it was not well balanced in terms of cultural, national security and economic issues,” he said. “We have rekindled the organization, and it is more effective.”
In the three years since he assumed the chairmanship, the conference has included far more educational programming than in previous years. And speakers — even big names like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway — are now interviewed rather than invited to deliver canned speeches.
Last year, Trump’s scheduled remarks were canceled at the last minute when he refused to agree to a question-and-answer session.
Schlapp’s critics say his support for the president has affected his ability to distinguish between the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Several conservatives mentioned his unwillingness to criticize the president’s intervention to keep hundreds of Carrier manufacturing jobs in the United States — a move they slammed as the same sort of crony capitalism they objected to when Trump’s Democratic predecessor engaged in it.
Ryun and his fellow ACU board member John Eddy said in a phone interview on Tuesday that they found out about Yiannopoulos’ invitation “by chance.” Schlapp had extended an invitation to Yiannopoulos — whose provocative views have gotten him shouted down at several college campuses — to talk about free speech.
Schlapp declined to discuss the conversations he has had with board members or to comment on draft conference schedules. But he said he has not traditionally consulted with his board, which is comprised of nearly three dozen members, before extending invitations to speakers.
Despite the divisions within the movement and dissension within his own organization, the ACU chief says this year’s controversy is not cause for alarm. He said his organization is weathering it just as it has past flare-ups.
“I’ve never gotten so many emails and text messages,” Schlapp said, “from people praising the way we’ve handled a very tough situation.”
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