NATIONAL HARBOR, Md.—On Thursday, white nationalist Richard Spencer was thrown out of the Conservative Political Action Conference. As security escorted him to the door, a college junior in a blue blazer and fashy haircut followed him. “I’m representing the alt-right club at Penn State,” said James O’Mailia, who then invited Spencer to come and speak. “Please come!” he said. “We’ll host you and everything.”
O’Mailia’s club, the Bull-Moose Party, was formed to support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign; it made news last year for building a pro-Trump plywood wall around an American flag on campus. He says he grew up as a “George W. Bush conservative” and got into the alt-right, in part, through Breitbart. “It’s the new punk rock,” he said, meaning it’s edgy and subversive.
O’Mailia was resentful that people on campus had called his group racist. “In this new social justice warrior–dominated society, people will look at someone waving the American flag as being a white supremacist,” he said. That may be, I replied, but he just invited Spencer, an actual white supremacist, to speak at his school. “I just think it’s a good idea to bring his opinion into it,” he shrugged.
CPAC, the country’s largest annual conservative gathering, has long drawn energy from young people who are resentful about liberal hegemony on college campuses. Now, however, it’s flailing as it tries to establish its own moral boundaries on right-wing speech. Its trouble started when Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s chairman, invited professional troll Milo Yiannopoulos to give a keynote address, sparking a furious backlash from traditional conservatives, who dug up statements by Yiannopoulos justifying man-boy sex. That ultimately led to Yiannopoulos losing his book deal, as well as his CPAC slot, and resigning from his job at Breitbart. In the aftermath, CPAC is trying to distance itself from the alt-right. Yet top Trump aide Steve Bannon, who once boasted that his website, Breitbart, was the “platform of the alt-right,” still had a prime Thursday afternoon speaking slot. And many young people in attendance reveled in the alt-right’s rebellious frisson of fascism.
Shortly after the conference began on Thursday, Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union—the group that puts on CPAC—gave a speech denouncing the alt-right as left-wing infiltrators. “There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” he said, arguing that the term “alt-right” had been “hijacked” by a “hate-filled left-wing fascist group.”
Schneider referred specifically to the conference in November where Spencer, standing before a giddy crowd of clean-cut racists, gave a Nazi salute and said, “Heil Trump, heil our people, heil victory!” Schneider’s argument was similar to the one Jonah Goldberg made in his risible book Liberal Fascism: Fascists are inherently left-wing because they believe in government power. (Apparently this is true even when they’re hailing the government power to crush the left.) “Hateful left-wing fascists are not like anybody here,” Schneider said.
Even if you accept his absurd framing, what he said was wrong. Spencer himself—who, far from hijacking the term alt-right, actually coined it—was there watching from a seat near the stage. And it was clear that there were fellow travelers in the crowd. “There are lots of people here that I know,” Spencer told me after Schneider’s speech. Soon he was mobbed by journalists as well as by eager young conference goers who wanted to pose with him for selfies. One young man called out “Praise Kek!”—an alt-right in-joke. A guy named J.P. Sheehan pulled a T-shirt saying RADIX—the name of Spencer’s online journal—out of his bag, happily flashing it toward Spencer. “I know a lot of people are afraid of him, but Richard Spencer is like, the coolest guy,” he said.
Sheehan, who wore a black MAGA hat, told me that he’s president of the College Republicans at a state school in New England. (I agreed not to name it.) Schneider’s speech denouncing the alt-right had not impressed him. “It kind of reminded me of those ’80s teen comedies with the assistant principal who’s like”—here Sheehan did a parody of a stern, hectoring voice—“ ‘Rules and regulations! You crazy kids!’ ”
Sheehan, 26, says he voted for Obama twice, but as Obama’s presidency progressed, he came to feel like minorities had become emboldened at his expense. He realized, he said, “This actually isn’t in my best interest, and I can do better for myself.” Eventually, Sheehan came to see his whiteness as a source of meaning. “The thing about racial identity and ethnic heritage is that it’s like your shadow,” he said. “It’s going to be with you everywhere you go, but it reminds you that the sun is shining on you. People think the alt-right is just simply about being mean to other people. It’s really not. The alt-right is simply identity politics for white people.”
This, he insisted, has great appeal among many of the young people at CPAC. “Young people especially identify with the alt-right because the alt-right says: You’re right,” Sheehan said. “All that consumerist culture that you are being bombarded with, all of that stuff that the mainstream media or cultural Marxists or your Marxist professor says, they do hurt your spirit after a while. They do make you feel spiritually fatigued, and there is a way out of it, and it’s been under your nose the whole time.”
A few moments later, with Spencer still thronged by reporters, conference honchos Schlapp and Schneider walked by. They seemed disconcerted by all the attention Spencer was getting. “We made it very clear that we don’t believe that the alt-right is a legitimate voice of the conservative movement,” Schlapp said. “We basically opened up our conference with that point of view.” If that’s the case, I asked, why did they invite Bannon, who described the website he used to run as the platform of the alt-right? “He has not said that,” said Schlapp. I insisted he has.
I think Schneider realized I was right, because he repeated the claim from his speech that “alt-right” used to mean something else. “There’s this sinister group that has hijacked the term,” he told me.
“The term was coined by Richard Spencer, who’s right there!” I replied.
“The term has been used for several years,” Schneider insisted. It has indeed, as one could learn by reading a laudatory piece about the alt-right that Yiannopoulos wrote for Breitbart last year—when Bannon was still running it. “The media empire of the modern-day alternative right coalesced around Richard Spencer during his editorship of Taki’s Magazine,” wrote Yiannopoulos. “In 2010, Spencer founded AlternativeRight.com, which would become a center of alt-right thought.” Was Schneider arguing that the term predated that? He deflected, “Do you know who Steve Bannon hired to run Breitbart? A Jewish man. And how about who he hired to run London Breitbart? A Muslim man.”
Actually, Raheem Kassam, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart London, is a far-right ex-Muslim. He’s written that people who look like he does should be racially profiled: “Why in heaven’s name should Israeli or American security be concerned with what John Smith is doing in their country, when the most virulent threat emerges from people who look and sound like me?” He’s speaking at CPAC on Friday.
Not long after we spoke, Schneider and Schlapp evidently decided they’d had enough, and Spencer was tossed out. After O’Mailia followed Spencer to the door, I asked him if he thought there was an alt-right subculture at CPAC. “Yeah, I think there is,” he said. “Definitely. It’s kept hidden, because it’s not what the elites in the Republican Party want to talk about. At the end of the day, politics is about winning votes, and someone who talks about ethnic cleansing isn’t exactly a person who would bring in the votes for a large group of people where we need it.” You can say this for the alt-right: At least they’re honest.