The Right is in a bit of a bind. After spending months attacking the “intolerant left” for purportedly abridging right-wing troll Milo Yiannopoulos’s right to free speech, the American Conservative Union has now disinvited him from its annual CPAC conference because of a video dredged up that appears to show him defending sex between grown men and thirteen-year-old boys.
“We continue to believe that CPAC is a constructive forum for controversies and disagreements among conservatives,” ACU President Matt Schlapp said. “However there is no disagreement among our attendees on the evils of sexual abuse of children.”
A day later, asked about his position on the “alt-right” more broadly — the loose coalition of white supremacists, misogynists, and others that has gained prominence since Donald Trump’s ascent — Schlapp clarified that “racism has no voice within the conservative movement,” and that the alt-right doesn’t “have anything to do with the conservative movement.” “We won’t endorse it, and we won’t rationalize it,” he concluded.
Just today, ACU executive director Dan Schneider told attendees the alt-right was “trying to worm its way into our ranks” and, jumping on a familiar right-wing talking point, warned that it was a “hateful left-wing fascist group.”
But racism and the “alt-right,” of course, have a lot to do with the conservative movement, and they are far from left wing. Over the years, Schlapp’s own organization and CPAC have often played host to conservative figures who are either part of the “alt-right” or hold beliefs that overlap considerably with the racist movement.
Looking at some of the worst offenders in recent years not only gives the lie to Schlapp’s defense, but lays bare a conservative movement where the odious and the mainstream are often indistinguishable.
1. Rush Limbaugh
Rush Limbaugh’s well-honed shtick was the forerunner to Milo’s act. Limbaugh spent decades spewing obnoxious, deliberately offensive material over the airways to irk liberals and leftists and rile up an excited GOP base.
But while much of Limbaugh’s material tends to the kind of provocative, anti-left shock-jockery meant to get conservatives nodding in agreement, he’s also trafficked into numerous ugly sentiments that in theory should be deplorable to “mainstream” conservatives like Schlapp and Schneider, who disavow racism.
There was the time Limbaugh said the NFL “all too often looks like a game between the Bloods and the Crips without any weapons.” Or the time he charged that “all composite pictures of wanted criminals resemble Jesse Jackson.” Or when he told a caller to “take that bone out of your nose and call me back.” Or when he said the NAACP “should have a riot rehearsal” and “practice robberies” on liquor stores, said women are worse at multiple choice tests because the Biblical Eve chose “multiple orgasms” instead, and professed that he didn’t “give a hoot that [Columbus] gave some Indians a disease that they didn’t have immunity against.”
He suggested that white college students who “see a couple of black boys dressed in baggy clothes with their hats on backwards swaggering toward them” have a right to “fear that they’re going to be shot in the face for their ATM cards.”
For some on the Right, Limbaugh took it a step too far when he played a “parody” song in 2007 titled “Barack the Magic Negro,” featuring an Al Sharpton impersonator singing “humorous” lyrics to the tune of “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Various Republicans fell over themselves to condemn the song when an RNC chair candidate circulated it a year later, with Newt Gingrich — Newt Gingrich! — saying “it should disqualify any Republican National Committee candidate who would use it.”
For the ACU, however, using it apparently qualified Limbaugh to give the keynote address at CPAC 2009, one met with a rapturous crowd reaction.
2. Tony Perkins
What do you do about a man who once spoke to a racist group that opposed “all efforts to mix the races of mankind,” tried to use former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke’s phone bank for a Senate campaign, believes and peddles the idea that homosexuality and pedophilia are related, and heads what the Southern Poverty Law Center calls an anti-LGBT hate group? Why, invite him to speak at your political conference multiple times over the years of course.
Perkins is in many ways par for the course for the conservative movement: his organization, the Family Research Council, promotes gay conversion therapy, opposes allowing gays and lesbians in the military, and supports anti-LGBT discrimination. He’s lambasted an anti-bullying campaign as “disgusting” and supported legislation in Uganda that would imprison gay people for life or even execute them on the basis that it would “uphold moral conduct.”
More recently, Perkins has somewhat broadened his horizons by dabbling in Islamophobia, claiming that “only 16 percent of Islam is a religion,” warning that Americans could “lose our identity in the shadow of multiculturalism,” and crying crocodile tears over last year’s awful murder of gay nightclub-goers in Orlando by a Muslim man.
3. Frank Gaffney
Think of just about any kooky, racist, anti-Muslim conspiracy theory over the past few years and you can probably trace it back to Frank Gaffney and his think tank, the Center for Security Policy.
Obama a secret Muslim? Check. Clinton aide Huma Abedin working for the Muslim Brotherhood? You betcha. American government and society being infiltrated by a fifth column of Muslims and slowly coming under the sway of Sharia Law? Do you even have to ask? Gaffney’s imaginary network of secret Muslim agents extends to encompass Keith Ellison, David Petraeus, Obama Supreme Court pick Elena Kagan, right-wing anti-tax campaigner Grover Norquist, and many others.
Not surprisingly, Gaffney has links to the same “alt-right” that CPAC now purportedly opposes. He hosted white supremacist Jarod Taylor on his radio show in 2015, and attended two events organized by the Breitbart News focusing on the danger of radical Islam and government cronyism. (Conservative luminaries like Newt Gingrich and former Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey were also attendees.)
The ACU did stop inviting Gaffney to CPAC at the start of this decade — not because of his conspiracy mongering, but because of his increasing attacks on fellow conservatives — which culminated in his accusation that conservative movement was being infiltrated by, who else, the Muslim Brotherhood, a charge partly based on the fact that Norquist’s wife is Muslim.
But time heals all wounds. Gaffney returned as a speaker in 2012, and he and the center were back in 2015 and had “an expanded presence in 2016.” “Although CPAC and the Center have had some differences in the past, this is no longer the case,” Senior Vice President for Policy and Programs Fred Fleitz wrote last year. Gaffney’s views are considered so pedestrian he was advising Ted Cruz during the Texas senator’s 2016 campaign. Gaffney’s back again this year, hosting a “CPAC Conversation” on “The Vulnerability of the Electric Grid.”
4. Phyllis Schlafly
Schlafly was a regular speaker at CPAC, and there’s little doubt she would have been invited to speak at this year’s conference had she not died last year.
Perhaps best known as the legendary conservative activist who led a successful effort to kill the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and 1980s, Schlafly was militantly antifeminist, preaching a vision of the world where men had careers and women stayed at home to enjoy a life of domestic bliss (a vision she herself never remotely ascribed to in practice).
Conservatives outraged that Milo would seemingly offer a defense of pedophilia appeared to be less concerned when Schlafly white-washed marital rape in 2007, arguing that “by getting married, the woman has consented to sex.” A year later, she continued to defend the comments. She also accused the Violence Against Women Act of being a feminist scheme to win child custody more easily, mocked the idea that verbal abuse qualified as domestic violence, charged the “gay ideology” with being about an assault “on our fundamental right to free speech,” and asserted that sexual harassment wasn’t “a problem for the virtuous woman except in the rarest of cases.”
None of this stopped CPAC from inviting Schlafly to speak year after year.
5. Pamela Geller
Pamela Geller stands apart from most others on this list because she hasn’t been allowed to speak at CPAC for what she claims has been seven years.
Geller exaggerates: she was part of a panel in 2012 titled “Islamic Law in America: How the Obama Justice Department is Selling Us Out,” and in 2011, her film The Ground Zero Mosque: the Second Wave of the 9/11 Attacks — which cast a proposed Islamic cultural center (with a public swimming pool and basketball court) two blocks away from the World Trade Center site as a “triumphal mosque” — was screened at CPAC. Before that, she was a regular at the conference.
But Geller should have been persona non grata long before 2012. In various unhinged posts on her blog, she claimed the State Department was “being run by Islamic supremacists,” called Obama a “third worlder” who was “appeas[ing] his Islamic overlords,” and labeled him “President Jihad,” one who was “agitating Muslims against Jews.”
According to her, Iranian-American author Reza Aslan is a “little wretched jihadist” and Grover Norquist a “stealth jihadist.” Besides vociferously opposing the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque,” she also attacked a Disneyland employee who sued the company because they wouldn’t let her wear a headscarf.
Geller used her appearances at CPAC to spread the kind of hateful views that are the bread and butter of the “alt-right.” At CPAC 2009, she told the crowd that “Hitler was inspired by Muhammad” and brought along far-right Dutch Islamophobe Geert Wilders to speak to assembled conservatives. Wilders was greeted with a forty-second standing ovation, complete with chants of “We love Geert,” and received applause when he told the audience that “Islam is a threat to the West.”
6. Steve Bannon
The most ludicrous aspect of Schlapp and Schneider’s supposed disavowal of the “alt-right” is that the ACU and CPAC have for years hosted some the most high-profile figures associated with the movement: namely, Steve Bannon and the team behind Breitbart. If Breitbart is the “platform for the alt-right,” as Bannon candidly admitted, then CPAC has served as the platform for that platform.
Various editorial staff, including current editor-in-chief Alex Marlow and editor-at-large Joel Pollak, have spoken or taken part in panels at CPAC over the years. The website itself boasted in 2013 that it had a “tremendous presence” at that year’s conference, hosting a variety of panels, speeches, discussions, and even a movie screening. This year is no different, with Breitbart staff sprinkled throughout the schedule.
Bannon, while less well known until a year or two ago, has been a fixture over the years, either in person, speaking, or through screenings of various films he’s directed. In 2015, he chaperoned Nigel Farage, the British right-wing populist, and former Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson, who was receiving a “First Amendment” award for homophobic comments he had made. Today, Schlapp is hosting a “conversation” with Bannon and Priebus, making his claim doubly ridiculous.
Bannon’s toxic worldview involves an apocalyptic vision of a war between the “Judeo-Christian West” and the “Muslim world,” a vision often reflected in Breitbart headlines — and completely acceptable at CPAC.
7. Ann Coulter
Where to start with Ann Coulter? In many ways, Coulter should be annoyed that Milo stole her gimmick. For the better part of two decades, Coulter has been the Right’s go-to provocateur, saying deliberately awful things to get a rise out of liberals and leftists, all barely masked in a semi-sarcastic, “just kidding” style that gives her the barest semblance of plausible deniability.
The list of hateful, noxious remarks she’s uttered over the years could fill a book — in fact, they’ve filled several — but here is a brief greatest hits. She:
- Said “there ought to be a poll tax to take the literacy test before voting” because “way too many people vote.”
- Stated that “few failures have been more spectacular” than court-ordered desegregation, with “illiterate students knifing one another between acts of sodomy in the stairwell.”
- Mocked the United States’s immigration policies, arguing America “welcomes” terrorists and lamenting that America is “so good and so pure we would never engage in discriminatory racial or ‘religious’ profiling.”
- Urged the government to “invade [terrorists’] countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity,” and implied that the United States should kill civilians as in the carpet-bombing of World War II.
- Claimed that “all terrorists are Muslims.”
- Said her “only regret with Timothy McVeigh is he did not go to the New York Times building,” later clarifying that she meant only when everyone but the reporters and editors had left the building.
- Said “it would be a much better country if women did not vote.”
- Complained that women shouldn’t be in the military because they’re not “able to carry even a medium-sized backpack.”
- Complained that “the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas to sit within yards of the president.”
- Said to applause, at CPAC 2006: “Our motto should be post-9-11, ‘raghead talks tough, raghead faces consequences.’”
- Accused 9/11 widows who called for an independent commission on the government’s failure to stop the attack of being “self-obsessed women” who were “enjoying their husbands’ deaths.”
- Said that she and other Christians “just want Jews to be perfected” — in other words, converted.
- Said Muslims should be banned from flying on airplanes and should take “flying carpets” or “a camel” instead.
It’s not as if Coulter has been some sort of fringe figure at CPAC. She’s been a major draw. The conference’s organizer told the Washington Examiner in 2015 that Coulter was consistently the most popular speaker among attendees, Coulter herself claimed she had been voted “best speaker” in previous years, and her books were bestsellers at the event.
It wasn’t until 2015 that the ACU stopped sending Coulter invites to their yearly confab (not counting a brief hiatus after her “raghead” comments at CPAC 2006).
So to recap, the things that will apparently get you disinvited from CPAC (after a number of years, anyway):
- Appearing to defend pedophilia
- Attacking other conservatives
- Promoting a particularly conspiratorial form of Islamophobia
Things that won’t get you disinvited from CPAC:
- Association with well-known racists and racist groups
- Defending marital rape
- Defending verbal abuse by a spouse
- Advocating for war crimes
- Calling for the murder of journalists
What’s more, while this list above may name some of the worst offenders, it doesn’t even begin to account for the likes of Islamophobic congressman Steve King, Black Lives Matter–hating sheriff David Clarke, anti-gay former senator Rick Santorum, disgraced former Reagan staffer Oliver North, and the many other reactionaries who are every year invited to speak to “mainstream” conservatives who applaud and cheer for them.
Aside from Geller, none of the figures named here are considered particularly far outside of the mainstream in today’s conservative movement. And while the ACU has tried to clean house, the Milo disinvitation being the most recent and well-publicized instance, it’s clear CPAC has been and remains a platform for a variety of odious figures who are fortunate enough never to have been caught on tape appearing to defend pedophilia.
The ACU presumably disinvited Milo because defending child molestation is considered so beyond the pale it would be obscene and/or damaging to give him a platform. What does it say that they don’t feel the same way about everything else on this list?