CPAC has gone and done it again. They never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, and this year is no exception. It’s hard to believe that they could continue their loser’s streak, but they have. They continue to screw up year after year, and manage to outdo themselves every time.
You’d have to be living under a rock to have missed the latest brouhaha concerning CPAC. Milo Yiannopoulos, gay gadfly, British writer, public speaker, and senior editor for Breitbart News, was banned from CPAC in the wake of some truly awful remarks of his that came out after the announcement that he would keynote CPAC. No surprise that it was a Never Trump group behind the attack that quashed Milo’s CPAC gig (and his Simon and Schuster book deal, too). But that is typical of the right — eating our own.
Before I get to CPAC, let me get some things out of the way. First, pedophilia is monstrous, and Milo’s offhand remarks were disgusting. Milo is a victim of his own outrageous self-promotion — he thinks of himself perhaps as a bit of Oscar Wilde, and so he provocatively prattles on and on with the obvious intent to shock others, which, of course, he does. What he said was indefensible and horrible. I don’t know how much of what he says is even true or just sort of street theater, but this time he jumped the shark.
It bears noting that as flippant as he was in his graphic descriptions, Milo was the victim of the episodes he describes with gay priests and gay adults. That does not excuse what he said. But he was the victim. Yes, he might very well suffer from some kind of PTSD or Stockholm Syndrome, but that is out of my wheelhouse. I’m not a shrink. In everything he described, he is the preyed upon. Do I think he is damaged? Yes, very. Do I think his remarks were a stunning indictment of what can only be described as a predatory gay community? I do.
But I am not here to bury Milo, or to save him. It’s CPAC that needs burying. My battles with CPAC are well known and long fought. I have been unable to speak or hold an event at CPAC for going on seven years now. Every year I ask, every year I am denied. This year was no different. I asked Matt Schlapp whether or not the ban on AFDI at CPAC is still in place, or whether we can reserve a room this year. I told him we wanted to hold an event entitled “Europe’s Present, America’s Future: Why We Need Trump’s Immigration Ban for a Global Freedom Initiative.” We were planning on inviting Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, and Kent Ekeroth of the Sweden Democratic Party, as well as other supporters of the immigration ban including Anders Gravers and Lars Hedegaard. Schlapp hemmed and hawed and never got back to me. As a matter of fact, Shlapp invited Milo right after I requested the space.
The CPAC/Geller saga has been running on for years now, but I thought with the election of President Trump, we might have somehow broken the barrier and would be able to move forward from this. I was wrong. CPAC is still CPAC.
- 2013: CPAC Turns Away Pamela Geller
- The real reason why Pam Geller was not invited to CPAC – The Right …
- 2016: CPAC Turns Me Away…Yet Again – American Thinker
- Grover Norquist’s Jihad – American Thinker
Yes, CPAC invited Milo. Schlapp wanted to prove to me and everyone else that the ACU were down with cool kids, standing up for free speech — like, they totally get it — can you dig it? CPAC wanted to show it was brave and cutting edge. Geller is more toxic but look how open-minded we are! But like all false bravado, it crumbled when challenged. I am sure they did not listen to his speeches, or view his YouTube videos, or have a clue as to what Milo said or did. And that would be OK if they were true to their premise for inviting him. Matt Schlapp told NBC News, “the fact there are voices on American campuses that are just shut down. We think those voices are usually voices that stem from the center-right, and we talk about that every year at CPAC, and we think that’s an appropriate thing to talk about.” But of course, Schlapp doesn’t mean it; otherwise, why would I be banned from speaking or holding an event there?
The thing is, Milo is barely a conservative. When he appeared on HBO’s Bill Maher Show last week, Yiannopoulos said that he wasn’t even sure he would call himself conservative. So clearly it wasn’t Milo’s conservative bonafides that got him the keynote spot.
CPAC has twisted itself into some terrible knot — they invited Milo because he was not permitted to speak on college campuses due to his controversial statements, and now they have uninvited him, banned him from speaking there, because of these new controversial statements.
Their years-long ban on me is unconscionable. What is my crime? Standing for the First Amendment? Holding a free speech event in Texas in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo jihad slaughter? Holding an art exhibit that depicted Muhammad? Is CPAC a Muslim convention that adheres to the sharia?
They are shocked at Milo’s comments, but they still have a known Muslim Brotherhood-linked operative on their board: Grover Norquist. Despite all the controversy surrounding Grover for years, they never wavered — is he slipping them a lot of jihad money?
I will repeat what I have said for years: CPAC needs new leadership.
SCHLAPP: We totally reject that. We actually spend a lot of time going through a whole process determining what topics will be discussed. Any CPAC watcher over the last three years can see there is a much more substantive discussion on stage, not just conservative stump speeches one after the other. We believe it is an important responsibility we have to make sure the activists that come from around the country get better educated on these issues.
Does he believe the manure he shoveling?
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Conference, had a clear message when he announced on Saturday that right-wing agitator Milo Yiannopoulos would be highlighting this year’s event. “We think free speech includes hearing Milo’s important perspective,” he tweeted. Yiannopoulos was an unexpected invitee. The central figure in a number of campus controversies, he traffics in shock then spins it as free-speech advocacy. Schlapp had clearly gobbled up the spin.
But not everyone was buying it. The announcement drew immediate protests from prominent conservatives. Peter Wehner, a conservative writer and senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, called the invite “more evidence of the moral decay of conservatism.” Jonah Goldberg of National Review, who greeted the news as “sad and disappointing,” added, “This new big tent is gonna have some wild parties, but leave me off the invite list.”
It’s not hard to see why conservatives might object to Yiannopoulos. Emerging from the alt-right swamps of GamerGate and Breitbart (he calls himself a “fellow-traveller” of the alt-right, a white nationalist, misogynist movement), Yiannopoulos’s reputation hangs on his willingness to make all sorts of anti-woman, anti-Semitic, anti-gay (even though he is gay himself), anti-Islam, anti-everyone comments. His profanity and explicit sexual talk makes him anathema to the Christian right, and he’s never had a word to say about the economic policies that make the supply-side right tick. And this was before folks began to pay attention to his comments criticizing sexual consent and promoting sex with underage teens—comments that ended up getting him disinvited from the conservative conference on Monday.
So, why was he even invited to CPAC in the first place?
The answer has to do with an organization and a movement that have lost their way. CPAC, once the place where American conservatism defined itself, is in disarray because conservatives are in disarray. Having just traded much of their belief system to win an election, they’re finding it hard to reset their ideological compasses. Yiannopoulos is just a symptom. And withdrawing his invitation is not the cure.
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There was a historical irony in CPAC’s decision to embrace an offensive, fringe figure like Yiannopoulos. Back in 1964 the American Conservative Union, the organization that runs CPAC, was founded to clean up conservatism’s image, to make it responsible and respectable.
The ACU emerged in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s disastrous 1964 presidential bid. Throughout the campaign, Democrats successfully tied Goldwater to the racists in the Ku Klux Klan and the conspiracists in the John Birch Society. For the conservative writers and activists who gathered in Washington D.C. after the election, the extremism charge was an existential problem. If conservatism could be dismissed as a fringe collection of kooks and Klansmen, it could not be an effective force in American politics. So they erected the ACU as a guardian of “responsible conservatism.” The first prohibition: No one could join the board of directors who had ties to the Birch Society.
The ACU was part of a broader effort to police the lines of conservatism, to toss out any groups that might tarnish the right’s image. In the late 1950s,for instance, National Review purged writers with connections to the anti-Semitic rag American Mercury. As William F. Buckley Jr., National Review’s founder, later observed, “Conservatism must be wiped clean of the parasitic cant that defaces it, and repels so many of those who approach it inquiringly.” The ACU, and through it, the CPAC speaker roster, was a place where that parasitic cant could be regularly scrubbed away.
So long as the core of the conservative project held, CPAC operated as a standard annual meeting. Every year, conservatives flocked to D.C. to rub elbows with the politicians and activists who formulated, popularized and enacted the ideas and policies that defined the American right. But as conservatism began to fracture in the mid-2000s, CPAC became a more tumultuous event. The invite list became a battle not just over who spoke when, but how conservatism would be defined—what controversial figures and celebrities it would include, what values and identities it would embrace. Entertainment value began to matter in a way that it hadn’t before, which is how someone like Donald Trump, hardly a conservative leader, came to speak at the 2011 meeting. And there were some Yiannopoulos-esque exclusions:Anti-Islam activist Pamela Geller, who had been a CPAC regular since 2009, was barred in 2013 as conservative activists sought to moderate their image after the 2012 election. She hasn’t been allowed back since. And Chris Christie was left out in the cold in 2013 after hugging Barack Obama during Hurricane Sandy.
CPAC also reflected deeper splits in the conservative coalition. In the late 2000s, as the influence of the religious right waned and libertarians grew more powerful, there were open battles over whether to include gay conservatives and atheists, as these groups became lightning rods for a growing power struggle within the movement. When GOProud, a group of gay conservatives, was allowed to serve as a sponsor in 2010 and 2011, speakers at the event denounced the decision. That opposition led to GOProud’s exclusion in 2012, an exile that lasted until the organization was dissolved in mid-2014. The Log Cabin Republicans had a protracted fight with the organization over sponsorship, which they finally won in 2016. American Atheists likewise were disinvited in 2014, only to be welcomed the next year.
CPAC has spent much of the 2010s extending and revoking invitations, seemingly unsure who, exactly, counts as a conservative. Such was the fate of Yiannopoulos: His invitation was trumpeted as a coup for free speech; his disinvitation as a coup for conservative values. That was hardly the message CPAC had hoped to deliver—that one had to choose between free speech and conservatism—but the organization’s ham-fisted handling of the whole affair ultimately drove them to that choice.
Yet CPAC does not bear all the blame here. If organizers were confused about how someone like Yiannopoulos fits into the conservative movement, they are by no means alone. The rise of Trumpism has scuttled old conservative alliances and values. The right has largely abandoned free trade and open markets. In 2015, CPAC presented a united front against Vladimir Putin; his popularity among Republicans has since surged. Trump himself—profane, scandal-ridden and uninterested in conservative ideas—has become the leader of the Republican Party and a wildly popular figure in conservative circles. The conservative resistance to Trump is vocal but small. Most of the rest of the movement set aside their values to embrace Trump, smashing their ideological compasses in the process.
How were CPAC organizers supposed to know conservatives would be put off by Yiannopoulos? After all, it was largely a small anti-Trump conservative faction that opposed the invitation at first, before the remarks about pedophilia (remarks that Yiannopoulos responded to first with defiance, then contrition, stressing that he had not meant to suggest sexual contact with underage children and teens was acceptable). For Trump supporters—and the vast majority of conservatives support Trump—the distance between the president and Yiannopoulus was not significant. He has said deeply offensive things about women and Muslims. So has Trump. He writes for Breitbart, “the platform of the alt-right.” The site’s former chairman, Steve Bannon, is Trump’s senior counselor and chief strategist. He has criticized sexual consent and celebrates sex with underage teens. Trump starred in an Access Hollywood tape that made clear he wasn’t a huge fan of sexual consent himself, and that he had no qualms with forcing himself on women. Trump and Yiannopoulos are brothers-in-arms in the fight against “political correctness,” drawing heated criticism from liberals and select members of the conservative establishment. Even now it’s not clear that the majority of conservatives were put off by Yiannopoulos’s comments, just that the firestorm had gotten a little too uncomfortable. Looking at it this way, the shocking thing isn’t that Yiannopoulos was invited. It’s that CPAC felt pressured to drop him.
With Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of Congress, conservatives have more political power today than they have had in a decade. Still, conservatism as a political movement is disintegrating, held together not by a shared commitment to ideas like democratic governance, stability or a distinct moral vision, but rather a desire for power. That makes for a movement whose boundaries are blurred beyond recognition and whose standards are impossible to detect. And that is a problem that no disinvitation can fix.
UPDATE: Milos apologizes – his presser:
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Geller Report.