NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND—Richard Spencer’s attempt to troll the annual Conservative Political Action Conference outside of Washington, D.C. did not last long.
Not invited by CPAC organizers, the white nationalist and self-identified leader of the alt-right purchased a ticket and showed up anyway. Spencer sat in the audience wearing a brown three-piece suit and a smirk as one of the conference’s organizers gave a speech titled “The Alt Right Ain’t Right At All.”
Less than an hour later, Spencer was escorted out of the hotel by security.
“He is not welcome here,” CPAC Communications Director Ian Walters told TPM. “His views are repugnant and have absolutely nothing to do with what goes on here.”
Before leaving the hotel, Spencer told TPM why he decided to attend and why he believes conservatives are moving in his direction.
This is not the first time Spencer—a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump who openly advocates for a country without Jews or racial minorities—has attended the conservative gathering. But his profile has risen dramatically with the rise of Trump, as has scrutiny of his white supremacist beliefs. And this is exactly the kind of forum, welcome or not, that Spencer has traditionally used to gain wider attention.
“The racket he is running is, ‘Let’s go where the cameras are,'” noted Walters. “He’s trying to put himself on the spectrum of respectability.”
Spencer told TPM he decided to show up when he learned one of the conference’s organizers would be giving a speech declaring that the alt right is not welcome in the conservative tent.
In that speech Thursday morning, CPAC organizer Dan Schneider called the alt-right “a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” and warned the thousands of attendees: “They are anti-Semites. They are racists. They are not an extension of conservatism. They are nothing but garden-variety, left-wing fascists.”
“We must not allow them to be normalized,” Schneider concluded to tepid applause. “They are not part of us.”
Walters echoed this sentiment, telling TPM: “For as long as this organization has been around, we have had a moral quarantine on the kind of vile crap that comes out of his mouth.”
Spencer scoffed at these critiques, saying CPAC and the Republican establishment would rather insult him than seriously engage with him and his followers.
“What the alt right is doing is clearly resonating with people. It’s clearly resonating with young people,” he said. “You can call it names or you can actually ask, why is it resonating? Why does a young white person feel alienated in the modern world?”
As Spencer spoke, a gaggle of teenagers wearing Make America Great Again hats spotted him and began jumping up and down and pointing. Spencer beamed at them and waved, and they burst into excited giggles. Several students asked him to take selfies with them.
Paraphrasing a famous quote, Spencer said to TPM about the conservative establishment, “First they ignored us, then they laughed at us, now they’re fighting us.”
Yet despite CPAC’s attempt to distance itself from the racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic values espoused by members of the alt right, the conference’s ties to the movement extended far beyond Spencer’s attendance.
Breitbart, the right-wing news site that proudly declared itself a “platform for the alt right,” is a lead sponsor, its orange logo plastered on surfaces throughout the hotel. The news site gained notoriety for creating an entire vertical dedicated to highlighting “black crime,” labeling one critic a “renegade Jew,” and whipping up fear and loathing of immigrants and refugees. A former staffer said in 2016 that the site had become “a cesspool for white supremacist mememakers.”
Schneider himself sung Breitbart’s praises from CPAC’s main stage earlier in the day. “I’d like to thank Breitbart,” he said, giving an additional shoutout to Trump advisor Steve Bannon. “And now the former head of Breitbart is sitting in the White House!”
Bannon, who was scheduled to address CPAC later on Thursday, has been accused of pushing a white nationalist, anti-Muslim, and anti-Semitic worldview.
The conference is also hosting Frank Gaffney, who just a few years ago was banned from the event for being too far on the anti-Muslim fringe.
Asked about these contradictions, Spencer says he sees CPAC in a “transitionary period” but moving in a populist and nationalist direction.
“In five years, I might be on a panel. I don’t know.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.