Conservatives are 'hopeful but wary' going into annual gathering near D.C.

Thousands of conservatives are converging outside of Washington this week for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters/File
Books by President Trump and former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin are displayed at the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Maryland, on March 4, 2016.

After a somewhat rocky start, conservative leaders say they are cautiously optimistic going into the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week. 

The conference, which kicks off Wednesday just outside Washington, D.C., inadvertently found itself at the center of a scandal this weekend when a 2016 podcast interview with slated speaker Milo Yiannopoulos, in which the controversial former senior editor at Breitbart News appeared to endorse sexual relations between grown men and boys as young as 13, spread across social media. Backlash to the interview led the American Conservative Union (ACU) to disinvite Mr. Yiannopoulos from speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

The incident, which prompted nationwide debate over balancing free speech and the value of civility, also highlighted some of the questions conservative leaders have been forced to grapple with this year as a result of the campaign and election of President Trump, who has brought strains of an anti-establishment nationalist conservatism – previously relegated to the fringes of the Republican Party – to the forefront. As American conservatism struggles to define itself in a time of uncertainty, this week's conference may offer hints for the future. 

"I think the conservative movement is hopeful, but wary," Tim Phillips, president of Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity, told the Associated Press. 

The annual four-day gathering, described by NPR's Don Gonyea as "equal parts political rally, conservative boot camp, recruiting tool, trade show and merchandise mart, Beltway celebrity watch party, and this year – with GOP control in the White House and Congress – a celebration," will acknowledge the "realignment going on politically in the country," said ACU chairman Matt Schlapp, as reported by The Washington Post. 

Scheduled panels include discussions on how the left does "not support law enforcement," why the United States can’t have the same security standards as heaven with "a gate, a wall and extreme vetting," and a conversation about "fair trade" featuring Breitbart editor-at-large Joel Pollak and progressive anchor Ed Schultz, host of a program on Russian-owned RT. 

While the conference will reflect the "America first" ideology touted by Mr. Trump and his team, organizers have made a concerted effort to distance themselves from Trump's white nationalist and "alt-right" supporters. 

"There is nothing about their views or their ideology that is consistent with conservatism," said Dan Schneider, executive director of the ACU, as reported by AP, adding that he sees white nationalists as "nothing more than garden variety" fascists. Earlier this week, Mr. Schlapp denounced the alt-right movement on MSNBC, declaring: "[W]e won’t endorse it and we won’t rationalize it." 

But many questioned whether the initial speaking invitation extended to Yiannopoulos, whom The Christian Science Monitor's Amanda Paulson describes as "a lightning rod for his inflammatory statements and articles targeting feminists, the Black Lives Matter movement, transsexuals, and Muslims, among others," indicated endorsement of controversial stances held by Yiannopoulos, which include the assertion that "feminism is cancer" and his arguments that "male privilege" and "white privilege" don't exist. 

CPAC's organizers denied that the decision to invite Yiannopoulos to speak implied agreement with all of his "offensive and inappropriate views," explaining to the AP that they saw him as an important defender of free speech on college campuses. 

The controversy over Yiannopoulos and his now-rescinded invitation reflects the difficult road ahead in uniting the Trump faction of the Republican Party with the more traditionally conservative wing, party leaders say. 

"When Milo admitted on Bill Maher’s HBO show the other night that he wasn’t a traditional conservative, he sounded like a lot of the young people that come to CPAC. They’re libertarian, mostly, and deconstructionist in how they see politics. They’re open to working with the LGBT side," said former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele to the Post. "So on a political level, you see why he’d be invited."

"But," he added, "can everyone coexist?"

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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