Nationalism — and heckling — take spotlight at conservative conference

The year’s largest gathering of conservative activists transformed into something else over a long weekend outside of Washington: A celebration of nationalism, American sovereignty and new limits on immigration.

Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, the youngest member of France’s far-right political dynasty, told the Conservative Political Action Conference that “mass immigration” had created a Muslim “counter-society” in her country. Right-wing British politician Nigel Farage warned that George Soros and other wealthy elites “want us to live in a world with open borders.”

And in a freewheeling 80-minute speech, President Trump described the visa lottery system — inaccurately — as a way that other countries send their most dangerous immigrants to the United States.

“We’re letting people in, and it’s going to be a lot of trouble,” said Trump. “It’s only getting worse.”

Issues of immigration and identity politics, once hotly debated at CPAC and in the conservative movement, have largely been settled by Trump’s 2016 upset victory. At this year’s conference, in place of discussions of how to reach out to nonwhite voters, speakers, including Trump, spoke about keeping immigrants out.

President Trump’s address to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Feb. 23 covered many topics, including school safety, the 2018 elections and some of Trump’s past grievances. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Just as telling were the speakers whom conference-goers refused to tolerate.

Rick Ungar, co-host of a Sirius XM show, was heckled by a Friday afternoon audience when he said that many Latino immigrants could, if given citizenship, become Republican voters.

“As somebody who lived in Mexico for seven years of my life, Mexicans who are coming across this border have so much more in common with conservatives,” said Ungar.

Many Republicans have made similar points at previous CPACs and drawn heckling — but also a vigorous debate. In 2016, California-based Republican consultant Mike Madrid gave a presentation about the Latino vote, warning that the GOP was “viewed as a hostile party” and that “people do not come to this country to get on welfare.”

Watching from California this week, Madrid wondered whether the argument inside the party was over.

“It’s horrifying, but not surprising,” said Madrid. “The Republican Party is devolving into the home of white identity politics.”

An attendee wearing an American flag shirt stands for the Pledge of Allegiance at the Conservative Political Action Conference in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The nationalist sentiment even stung former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele. Ian Walters, a longtime CPAC spokesman, reflected on the panic that had gripped Republicans after the victory of Barack Obama.

“In a little bit of cynicism, what did we do?” asked Walters. “This is a terrible thing — we elected Mike Steele to be the RNC chair, because he was a black guy.”

Walters quickly apologized to Steele, who did not accept the apology. Walters, who is not white, had seemingly argued that the first black chairman of the RNC had gotten the job through identity politics, not his credentials. (Steele had previously led Maryland’s Republican Party and the conservative GOPAC.)

“For a party that runs around and talks about merit, for him to say, ‘We elected you because you’re black,’ it undermines my work and dedication to the party,” said Steele. “It’s a reflection of an attitude that has become more pervasive in the party.”

Trump, who for years had been skeptically received at CPAC, had urged Republicans to give up on immigration reform and concentrate on winning the votes of American citizens. At the 2013 conference, held during the last major immigration debate in Congress, Trump warned that “every one of those 11 million people will be voting Democratic; that’s just the way it works.”

The next year, after the Senate had passed a reform bill, Trump repeated himself: “Of those 11 million potential voters, which will go to 30 million in the not too distant future, you will not get any of those votes.”

In interviews around the conference, CPAC attendees frequently agreed that immigration to the United States should be limited. Angie Ross, a sophomore at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, said immigration policy should reflect that America is “not a charity” but a sovereign country.

“I’m a second-generation American, and my family came here based on merit,” said Ross, as she waited in a throng of people trying to meet Nigel Farage. “We’ve had family members who were sent back — they came to Ellis Island, and they didn’t qualify to be here. That’s how it goes. I think we should hold up on immigration for now, because there are so many Americans in poverty.”

Activists aligned with the alt-right or “new right,” who have argued that the Republican Party is better off focusing on nationalism rather than conservatism, were also happy with the bent of this year’s conference.

In 2017, the conference had denied credentials to some alt-right figures, and denounced the movement from the main stage. This year, pro-Trump “identitarian” figures including Richard Spencer and Peter Brimelow walked around the outskirts of CPAC.

Mike Cernovich, a pro-Trump media figure who has argued that Trump “rejected the concept of white guilt” on his way to victory, also made the rounds at CPAC, in advance of a party he had organized for Saturday night.

“White guilt won’t win any votes,” said Cernovich. “Guilt is a defensive emotion, based around a need to apologize. Once you start apologizing for something, people will dig up 100 more issues for you to apologize for. Then you’ll never move forward in life.”

By Saturday afternoon, as the conference began to thin out, so had the protests. Mona Charen, a conservative columnist, used a panel on the place of conservative women in the #MeToo movement to urge conservatives to be critical of Trump and nationalism.

“You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that,” said Charen of Trump’s extramarital relationships, speaking over a small number of hecklers. She went on to criticize the presence of European nationalists at the conference: “The Le Pen name is a disgrace. The fact that CPAC invited her is a disgrace.”

The room was mostly empty, and none of Charen’s co-panelists picked up the thread. When the panel was over, Charen was escorted outside by security guards, to protect her from any potential hecklers.

Alex Horton contributed to this report.