CPAC

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CPAC

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9 CPAC

On February 23, a 75-degree day in Washington, the president woke up complaining about an overheated White House. But for once, the president’s complaints were not the main concern. The excited focus in the West Wing was organizing a series of car pools out to the Conservative Political Action Conference, the annual gathering of conservative movement activists, which had outgrown the accommodations of Washington hotels and moved to the Gaylord Resort on Maryland’s National Harbor waterfront. CPAC, right of right-of-center and trying to hold steady there, ambivalent about all the conservative vectors that further diverged from that point, had long had an uncomfortable relationship with Trump, viewing him as an unlikely conservative, if not a charlatan. CPAC, too, saw Bannon and Breitbart as practicing an outré conservatism. For several years Breitbart had staged a nearby competitive conference dubbed “The Uninvited.” But the Trump White House would dominate or even subsume the conference this year, and everybody wanted to turn out for this sweet moment. The president, set to speak on the second day, would, like Ronald Reagan, address the conference in his first year in office, whereas both Bushes, wary of CPAC and conservative activists, had largely snubbed the gathering.

Kellyanne Conway, a conference opener, was accompanied by her assistant, two daughters, and a babysitter. Bannon was making his first official pubic appearance of the Trump presidency, and his retinue included Rebekah Mercer, the pivotal Trump donor and Breitbart funder, her young daughter, and Allie Hanley, a Palm Beach aristocrat, conservative donor, and Mercer friend. (The imperious Hanley, who had not met Bannon before, pronounced him “dirty” looking.) Bannon was scheduled to be interviewed in the afternoon session by CPAC chairman Matt Schlapp, a figure of strained affability who seemed to be trying to embrace the Trump takeover of his conference. A few days before, Bannon had decided to add Priebus to the interview, as both a private gesture of goodwill and a public display of unity—a sign of a budding alliance against Kushner.

In nearby Alexandria, Virginia, Richard Spencer, the president of the National Policy Institute, which is sometimes described as a “white supremacist think tank,” who had, peskily for the White House, adopted the Trump presidency as a personal victory, was organizing his trip to CPAC, which would be as much a victory march for him as it was for the Trump team. Spencer—who, in 2016, he had declared, “Let’s party like it’s 1933,” as in the year Hitler came to power—provoked an outcry with his widely covered “Heil Trump” (or “Hail Trump,” which of course amounts to the same thing) salute after the election, and then achieved a kind of reverse martyrdom by taking a punch from a protester on Inauguration Day that was memorialized on YouTube.

CPAC, organized by the remnants of the conservative movement after Barry Goldwater’s apocalyptic defeat in 1964, had, with stoic indefatigability, turned itself into the backbone of conservative survival and triumph. It had purged John Birchers and the racist right and embraced the philosophic conservative tenets of Russell Kirk and William F. Buckley. In time, it endorsed Reagan-era small government and antiregulatory reform, and then added the components of the cultural wars—antiabortion, anti-gay-marriage, and a tilt toward evangelicals—and married itself to conservative media, first right-wing radio and later Fox News. From this agglomeration it spun an ever more elaborate and all-embracing argument of conservative purity, synchronicity, and intellectual weight. Part of the fun of a CPAC conference, which attracted a wide assortment of conservative young people (reliably mocked as the Alex P. Keaton crowd by the growing throng of liberal press that covered the conference), was the learning of the conservative catechism.

But after a great Clinton surge in the 1990s, CPAC started to splinter during the George W. Bush years. Fox News became the emotional center of American conservativism. Bush neocons and the Iraq War were increasingly rejected by the libertarians and other suddenly breakaway factions (among them the paleocons); the family values right, meanwhile, was more and more challenged by younger conservatives. In the Obama years, the conservative movement was increasingly bewildered by Tea Party rejectionism and a new iconoclastic right-wing media, exemplified by Breitbart News, which was pointedly excluded from the CPAC conference.

In 2011, professing conservative fealty, Trump lobbied the group for a speaking slot and, with reports of a substantial cash contribution, was awarded a fifteen-minute berth. If CPAC was supposedly about honing a certain sort of conservative party line, it was also attentive to a wide variety of conservative celebrities, including, over the years, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, and various Fox News stars. The year before Obama’s reelection, Trump fell into this category. But he was viewed quite differently four years later. In the winter of 2016, during the still competitive Republican primary race, Trump—now eyed as much as a Republican apostate as a Republican crowd pleaser—decided to forgo CPAC and what he feared would be less than a joyous welcome.

This year, as part of its new alignment with the Trump-Bannon White House, CPAC’s personality headliner was slated to be the alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, a gay British right-wing provocateur attached to Breitbart News. Yiannopoulos—whose entire position, rather more like a circa-1968 left-wing provocateur, seemed to be about flouting political correctness and social convention, resulting in left-wing hysteria and protests against him—was as confounding a conservative figure as could be imagined. Indeed, there was a subtle suggestion that CPAC had chosen Yiannopoulos precisely to hoist Bannon and the White House on the implicit connection to him—Yiannopoulos had been something of a Bannon protégé. When, two days before CPAC opened, a conservative blogger discovered a video of Yiannopoulos in bizarre revelry seeming to rationalize pedophilia, the White House made it clear he had to go.

Still, the White House presence at CPAC—which included, along with the president, Bannon, Conway, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the oddball White House foreign policy adviser and former Breitbart writer Sebastian Gorka—seemed to push the Yiannopoulos mess to the side. If CPAC was always looking to leaven boring politicians with star power, Trump, and anyone connected him, were now the biggest stars. With her family positioned out in front of a full house, Conway was interviewed in Oprah-like style by Mercedes Schlapp (wife of Matt Schlapp—CPAC was a family affair), a columnist for the conservative Washington Times who would later join the White House communications staff. It was an intimate and inspirational view of a woman of high achievement, the kind of interview that Conway believed she would have been treated to on network and cable television if she were not a Trump Republican—the type of treatment, she’d point out, that had been given to Democratic predecessors like Valerie Jarrett.

At about the time that Conway was explaining her particular brand of antifeminist feminism, Richard Spencer arrived at the convention center hoping to attend the breakout session “The Alt-Right Ain’t Right at All,” a modest effort to reaffirm CPAC’s traditional values. Spencer, who since the Trump victory had committed himself to full-time activism and press opportunities, had planned to position himself to get in the first question. But almost immediately upon arriving and paying his $150 registration fee, he had attracted first one reporter and then a growing circle, a spontaneous press scrum, and he responded by giving an ad hoc news conference. Like Yiannopoulos, and in many ways like Trump and Bannon, Spencer helped frame the ironies of the modern conservative movement. He was a racist but hardly a conservative—he doggedly supported single-payer health care, for instance. And the attention he received was somehow less a credit to conservatism than another effort by the liberal media to smear conservatism. Hence, as the scrum around him increased to as many as thirty people, the CPAC irony police stepped in.

“You’re not welcome on the property,” announced one of the security guards. “They want you off the property. They want you to cease. They want you off the property.”

“Wow,” said Spencer. “Can they?”

“Enough debate,” the guard said. “This is private property and CPAC wants you off the property.”

Relieved of his credentials, Spencer was ushered to the CPAC perimeter of the hotel, where, his pride not all that wounded, he turned, in the comfort of the atrium lounge area, to social media and to texting and emailing reporters on his contact list.

The point Spencer was making was that his presence here was not really so disruptive or ironic as Bannon’s, or, for that matter, Trump’s. He might be ejected, but in a larger historical sense it was the conservatives who were now being ejected from their own movement by the new cadre—which included Trump and Bannon—of what Spencer called the identitarians, proponents of “white interests, values, customs, and culture.” Spencer was, he believed, the true Trumper and the rest of CPAC now the outliers.

In the green room, after Bannon, Priebus, and their retinues had arrived, Bannon—in dark shirt, dark jacket, and white pants—stood off to the side talking to his aide, Alexandra Preate. Priebus sat in the makeup chair, patiently receiving a layer of foundation, powder, and lip gloss.

“Steve—” said Priebus, gesturing to the chair as he got up.

“That’s okay,” said Bannon. He put up his hand, making another of the continual small gestures meant, pointedly, to define himself as something other than every phony baloney in swampland politics—and something other than Reince Priebus, with his heavy powder foundation.

The significance of Bannon’s first appearance in public—after days of apparent West Wing turmoil, a Time magazine cover story about him, nearly endless speculation about his power and true intentions, and his elevation at least in the media mind to the essential mystery of the Trump White House—could hardly be underestimated. For Bannon himself this was, in his own mind, a carefully choreographed moment. It was his victory walk. He had, he thought, prevailed in the West Wing. He had, again in his own mind, projected his superiority over both Priebus and the idiot son-in-law. And he would now dominate CPAC. But for the moment he attempted a shucks-nothing-to-it lack of self-consciousness even as, at the same time, he was unquestionably the preening man of the hour. Demurring about accepting makeup was not just a way to belittle Priebus, but also a way to say that, ever the commando, he went into battle fully exposed.

“You know what he thinks even when you don’t know what he thinks,” explained Alexandra Preate. “He’s a bit like a good boy who everybody knows is a bad boy.”

When the two men emerged onto the stage and appeared on the big-screen monitors, the contrast between them could hardly have been greater. The powder made Priebus look mannequin-like, and his suit with lapel pin, little-boyish. Bannon, the supposedly publicity-shy man, was eating up the camera. He was a country music star—he was Johnny Cash. He seized Priebus’s hand in a power handshake, then relaxed in his chair as Priebus came too eagerly forward in his.

Priebus opened with traditional bromides. Bannon, taking his turn, went wryly for the dig: “I want to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC.”

“We decided to say that everybody is a part of our conservative family,” said Matt Schlapp, resigned. He then welcomed “the back of the room,” where the hundreds of reporters covering the event were positioned.

“Is that the opposition party?” asked Bannon, shielding his eyes.

Schlapp went to the setup question: “We read a lot about you two. Ahem . . .”

“It’s all good,” replied Priebus tightly.

“I’ll bet not all of it’s accurate,” said Schlapp. “I’ll bet there’s things that don’t get written correctly. Let me ask both of you, what’s the biggest misconception about what’s going on in the Donald Trump White House?”

Bannon responded with something just less than a smirk and said nothing.

Priebus offered a testimonial to the closeness of his relationship with Bannon.

Bannon, eyes dancing, lifted the microphone trumpetlike and made a joke about Priebus’s commodious office—two couches and a fireplace—and his own rough-and-ready one.

Priebus hewed to the message. “It’s, ahh . . . it’s actually . . . something that you all have helped build, which is, when you bring together, and what this election shows, and what President Trump showed, and let’s not kid ourselves, I can talk about data and ground game and Steve can talk about big ideas but the truth of the matter is Donald Trump, President Trump, brought together the party and the conservative movement, and I tell you if the party and the conservative movement are together”—Priebus knocked his fists—“similar to Steve and I, it can’t be stopped. And President Trump is the one guy, he was the one person, and I can say this after overseeing sixteen people kill each other, it was Donald Trump who was able to bring this country, this party, and this movement together. And Steve and I know that and we live it every day and our job is to get the agenda of President Trump through the door and on pen and paper.” With Priebus gasping for breath, Bannon snatched the relay baton. “I think if you look at the opposition party”—throwing his hand out to the back of the room—“and how they portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition, and now how they are portraying the administration, it’s always wrong. I mean on the very first day that Kellyanne and I started, we reached out to Reince, Sean Spicer, Katie. . . . It’s the same team, you know, that every day was grinding away at the campaign, the same team that did the transition, and if you remember, the campaign was the most chaotic, in the media’s description, most chaotic, most disorganized, most unprofessional, had no earthly idea what they were doing, and then you saw ’em all crying and weeping that night on November 8.” Back in the White House, Jared Kushner, watching the proceedings casually and then more attentively, suddenly felt a rising anger. Thin-skinned, defensive, on guard, he perceived Bannon’s speech as a message sent directly to him. Bannon has just credited the Trump victory to everybody else. Kushner was certain he was being taunted.

When Schlapp asked the two men to enumerate the accomplishments of the last thirty days, Priebus floundered and then seized on Judge Gorsuch and the deregulation executive orders, all things, said Priebus, “that”—he paused, struggling—“eighty percent of Americans agree with.”

After a brief pause, as though waiting for the air to clear, Bannon raised the microphone: “I kind of break it down into three verticals, three buckets; the first, national security and sovereignty, and that’s your intelligence, defense department, homeland security. The second line of work is what I refer to as economic nationalism, and that is Wilbur Ross at Commerce, Steve Mnuchin at Treasury, [Robert] Lighthizer at Trade, Peter Navarro, [and] Stephen Miller, who are rethinking how we are going to reconstruct our trade arrangements around the world. The third, broadly, line of work is deconstruction of the administrative state—” Bannon stopped for a moment; the phrase, which had never before been uttered in American politics, drew wild applause. “The way the progressive left runs is that if they can’t get it passed they’re just going to put it in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all going to be deconstructed.” Schlapp fed another setup question, this one about the media.

Priebus grabbed it, rambled and fumphered for a while, and ended up, somehow, on a positive note: We’ll all come together.

Lifting the microphone, once again Joshua-like, and with a sweeping wave of his hand, Bannon pronounced, “It’s not only not going to get better, it’s going to get worse every day”—his fundamental apocalyptic song—“and here’s why—and by the way, the internal logic makes sense, corporatist, globalist media, that are adamantly opposed, adamantly opposed, to an economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has. And here’s why it’s going to get worse: because he’s going to continue to press his agenda. And as economic conditions continue to get better, as more jobs get better, they’re going to continue to fight. If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight you are sadly mistaken. Every day it is going to be a fight. This is why I’m proudest of Donald Trump. All the opportunities he had to waver off this. All the people he had coming to him saying ‘Oh, you got to moderate.’ ” Another dig at Kushner. “Every day in the Oval Office he tells Reince and me, ‘I committed this to the American people. I promised this when I ran. And I’m going to deliver on this.’ ” And then the final, agreed-upon-beforehand question: “Can this Trump movement be combined with what’s happening at CPAC and other conservative movements for fifty years? Can this be brought together . . . and is this going to save the country?”

“Well, we have to stick together as a team,” said Priebus. “It’s gonna take all of us working together to make it happen.”

As Bannon started into his answer, he spoke slowly, looking out at his captive and riveted audience: “I’ve said that there is a new political order being formed out of this and it’s still being formed. If you look at the wide degree of opinions in this room, whether you are a populist, whether you’re a limited-government conservative, whether you’re a libertarian, whether you’re an economic nationalist, we have wide and sometimes divergent opinions, but I think the center core of what we believe, that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global market place with open borders, but that we are a nation with a culture, and a reason for being. I think that’s what unites us. And that’s what’s going to unite this movement going forward.” Bannon lowered the microphone to, after what might be interpreted as a beat of uncertainty, suddenly thunderous applause.

Watching from the White House, Kushner—who had come to believe that there was something insidious when Bannon used the words “borders,” “global,” “culture,” and “unite,” and who was more and more convinced that they were personally directed against him—was now in a rage.

Kellyanne Conway had increasingly been worrying about the seventy-year-old president’s sleeplessness and his worn look. It was the president’s indefatigability—a constant restlessness—that she believed carried the team. On the campaign trail, he would always add stops and speeches. He doubled his own campaign time. Hillary worked at half time; he worked at double time. He sucked in the energy from the crowds. Now that he was living alone in the White House, though, he had seemed to lose a step.

But today he was back. He had been under the sunlamp and lightened his hair, and when the climate-change-denying president woke up on another springlike morning, 77 degrees in the middle of winter, on the second day of CPAC, he seemed practically a different person, or anyway a noticeably younger one. At the appointed hour, to the locked-down ballroom at the Gaylord Resort, filled to capacity with all stripes of the conservative faithful—Rebekah Mercer and her daughter up front—and hundreds of media people in an SRO gallery, the president emerged onto the stage, not in an energetic television-style rush, but with a slow swagger to the low strains of “I’m Proud to Be an American.” He came to the stage as a political strongman, a man occupying his moment, clapping—here he reverted to entertainer pose—as he slowly approached the podium, mouthing “Thank you,” crimson tie dipping over his belt.

This would be Trump’s fifth CPAC address. As much as Steve Bannon liked to see himself as the author of Donald Trump, he also seemed to find it proof of some added legitimacy—and somehow amazing in itself—that since 2011 Trump had basically come to CPAC with the same message. He wasn’t a cipher, he was a messenger. The country was a “mess”—a word that had stood the Trump test of time. Its leaders were weak. Its greatness had been lost. The only thing different was that in 2011 he was still reading his speeches with only occasional ad-libs, and now he ad-libbed everything.

“My first major speech was at CPAC,” the president began. “Probably five or six years ago. My first major political speech. You were there. I loved it. I loved the people. I loved the commotion. They did these polls where I went through the roof. I wasn’t even running, right? But it gave me an idea! And I got a little bit concerned when I saw what was happening in the country so I said let’s go to it. It was very exciting. I walked the stage at CPAC. I had very little notes and even less preparation.” (In fact, he read his 2011 speech from a sheet of paper.) “So when you have practically no notes and no preparation and then you leave and everybody was thrilled. I said, I think I like this business.” This first preamble gave way to the next preamble.

“I want you all to know that we are fighting the fake news. It’s phony. Fake. A few days ago I called the fake news the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources. They just make ’em up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said nine people have confirmed. There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said, Give me a break. I know the people. I know who they talk to. There were no nine people. But they say nine people. . . .” A few minutes into the forty-eight-minute speech and it was already off the rails, riff sustained by repetition.

“Maybe they’re just bad at polling. Or maybe they’re not legit. It’s one or the other. They’re very smart. They’re very cunning. And they’re very dishonest. . . . Just to conclude”—although he would go on for thirty-seven minutes more—“it’s a very sensitive topic and they get upset when we expose their false stories. They say we can’t criticize their dishonest coverage because of the First Amendment. You know they always bring up”—he went into a falsetto voice—“the First Amendment. Now I love the First Amendment. Nobody loves it better than me. Nobody.” Each member of the Trump traveling retinue was now maintaining a careful poker face. When they did break it, it was as though on a delay, given permission by the crowd’s cheering or laughter. Otherwise, they seemed not to know whether the president had in fact gotten away with his peculiar rambles.

“By the way, you folks in here, the place is packed, there are lines that go back six blocks”—there were no lines outside the crowded lobby—“I tell you that because you won’t read about it. But there are lines that go back six blocks. . . .

“There is one allegiance that unites us all, to America, America. . . . We all salute with pride the same American flag . . . and we are all equal, equal in the eyes of Almighty God. . . . We’re equal . . . and I want to thank, by the way, the evangelical community, the Christian community, communities of faith, rabbis and priests and pastors, ministers, because the support for me, as you know, was a record, not only numbers of people but percentages of those numbers who voted for Trump . . . an amazing outpouring and I will not disappoint you . . . as long as we have faith in each other and trust in God then there is no goal beyond our reach . . . there is no dream too large . . . no task too great . . . we are Americans and the future belongs to us . . . America is roaring. It’s going to be bigger and better and stronger than ever before. . . .” Inside the West Wing, some had idly speculated about how long he would go on if he could command time as well as language. The consensus seemed to be forever. The sound of his own voice, his lack of inhibition, the fact that linear thought and presentation turned out not at all to be necessary, the wonder that this random approach seemed to command, and his own replenishing supply of free association—all this suggested that he was limited only by everyone else’s schedule and attention span.

Trump’s extemporaneous moments were always existential, but more so for his aides than for him. He spoke obliviously and happily, believing himself to be a perfect pitch raconteur and public performer, while everyone with him held their breath. If a wackadoo moment occurred on the occasions—the frequent occasions—when his remarks careened in no clear direction, his staff had to go into intense method-acting response. It took absolute discipline not to acknowledge what everyone could see.

As the president finished up his speech, Richard Spencer, who in less than four months from the Trump election was on his way to becoming the most famous neo-Nazi in America since George Lincoln Rockwell, had returned to a seat in the atrium of the Gaylord Resort to argue his affinity for Donald Trump—and, he believed, vice versa.

Spencer, curiously, was one of the few people trying to ascribe an intellectual doctrine to Trumpism. Between those taking him literally but not seriously, and those taking him seriously but not literally, there was Richard Spencer. Practically speaking, he was doing both, arguing the case that if Trump and Bannon were the pilot fish for a new conservative movement, Spencer himself—the owner of altright.com and, he believed, the purest exponent of the movement—was their pilot fish, whether they knew it or not.

As close to a real-life Nazi as most reporters had ever seen, Spencer was a kind of catnip for the liberal press crowded at CPAC. Arguably, he was offering as good an explanation of Trump’s anomalous politics as anyone else.

Spencer had come up through writing gigs on conservative publications, but he was hardly recognizable in any sort of official Republican or conservative way. He was a post-right-wing provocateur but with none of the dinner party waspishness or bite of Ann Coulter or Milo Yiannopoulos. They were a stagey type of reactionary. He was a real one—a genuine racist with a good education, in his case UVA, the University of Chicago, and Duke.

It was Bannon who effectively gave Spencer flight by pronouncing Breitbart to be “the platform for the alt-right”—the movement Spencer claimed to have founded, or at least owned the domain name for.

“I don’t think Bannon or Trump are identitarians or alt-rightists,” Spencer explained while camped out just over CPAC’s property line at the Gaylord. They were not, like Spencer, philosophic racists (itself different from a knee-jerk racist). “But they are open to these ideas. And open to the people who are open to these ideas. We’re the spice in the mix.” Spencer was right. Trump and Bannon, with Sessions in the mix, too, had come closer than any major national politician since the Civil Rights movement to tolerating a race-tinged political view.

“Trump has said things that conservatives never would have thought. . . . His criticism of the Iraq War, bashing the Bush family, I couldn’t believe he did that . . . but he did . . . . fu@k them . . . if at the end of the day an Anglo Wasp family produces Jeb and W then clearly that’s a clear sign of denegation. . . . And now they marry Mexicans . . . Jeb’s wife . . . he married his housekeeper or something.

“In Trump’s 2011 CPAC address he specifically calls for a relaxation of immigration restrictions for Europeans . . . that we should re-create an America that was far more stable and more beautiful. . . . No other conservative politician would say those things . . . but on the other hand pretty much everyone thought it . . . so it’s powerful to say it. . . . Clearly [there’s] a normalization process going on.” “We are the Trump vanguard. The left will say Trump is a nationalist and an implicit or quasi-racialist. Conservatives, because they are just so douchey, say Oh, no, of course not, he’s a constitutionalist, or whatever. We on the alt-right will say, He is a nationalist and he is a racialist. His movement is a white movement. Duh.”

Looking very satisfied with himself, Spencer paused and then said: “We give him a kind of permission.”

Nearby, in the Gaylord atrium, Rebekah Mercer sat having a snack with her home-schooled daughter and her friend and fellow conservative donor Allie Hanley. Both women agreed that the president’s CPAC speech showed him at his most gracious and charming.

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