'Short, sad little men'

At fractious CPAC: 'National Conservatism' on stage, National Socialists in the audience

Last week, I wrote about the ironically international (global-ist?) brand of authoritarianism on display at the Conservative Political Action Conference, long one of the most influential annual national events on the American right. It’s also worth noting a story that is passing under the radar right now: the actual Nazis who were in attendance.

The presence of self-identified National Socialists, “groypers,” and other white supremacists has been an embarrassment to the conference’s organizer, Matt Schlapp, who is already reeling from reports that general attendance at the conservative super-event was lower than in the past. It’s been less of a political cost to the conference’s headliner, Donald Trump — thanks to a combination of learned obsequience and studied incuriosity on the part of the national press.

But we don’t have to play that game here. Having self-identified Nazis in attendance at a major campaign event of a former and would-be next president—an event at which he promised a “Judgment Day” for his political enemies, defended his attempted coup, and threatened, once again, to carry out “the largest deportation in the history of our country”—should be a much bigger story than it is.

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It’s also a new story, even given CPAC’s long history with Trumpism and Trump (the former president’s ascendance in the movement can be dated in many respects to a CPAC speech he gave in 2011). Five years ago, at the 2017 CPAC, organizer Dan Schneider took the stage to denounce the fascists whom he said were trying to infiltrate his movement. Just weeks had passed since Trump took the oath of office; Schneider, like many conservatives, had been shocked and embarrassed when video emerged of white supremacist Richard Spencer addressing a packed crowd at the Ronald Reagan Building in the wake of Trump’s win, which Spencer declared that America belonged to white people, railed against the “Lügenpresse,” and most infamously ended his speech with shouts of “Hail Trump!” and "Hail Victory!” (Sieg Heil in the original German). Many in that crowd responded with Nazi salutes.

At CPAC, Schenider excoriated the alt-right, as they were calling themselves back then, saying: “They are antisemites. They are racist. They are sexist … They hate the Constitution. They hate free markets. They hate pluralism. They hate everything and despite everything we believe in.” He even slapped them with the biggest insult a conservative can muster: accusing the “alt-right” of being secret leftists. He also made sure to yank the speaking invitation issued to Milo Yiannopoulos, then a popular alt-right troll who had publicly defended pedophilia.

Even as recently as last year, now-CPAC organizer Matt Schlapp made headlines across the right (and enemies among the overt Nazi set) when Groyper daddy Nick Fuentes got kicked out of the National Harbor, Maryland, hotel where the annual conference is held, before hightailing it to what his group described as an rally featuring an “all-black-and-white aesthetic coupled with Christian and apocalyptic imagery” across the street.

Now Fuentes’ buddies and some more senior fascists were all over the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center. Journalist Amanda Moore recognized several immediately, thanks to the months she had spent undercover at the intersection of MAGA and farther-right extremism. That crew included Ryan Sanchez, a member of the defunct neo-Nazi group Identity Evropa, who was kicked out of the Marine Corps for his involvement with white supremacists; Colton “Cinnacolt” Buss; and Greg Conte, best known for his role as Richard Spencer’s bodyguard at the Charlottesville rally and founder of the neo-Nazi National Justice party (whose affiliated “White-Papers Policy Institute,” not for nothing, has a bestseller badge on Substack).

Sanchez was filmed trying to pose for a photo with Moore, flashing a Hitler salute over her head as she covered her face. Moore says she got kicked out of the conference shortly after; she was told she had been put on a “red-flag list.” Sanchez and his crew were allowed to stay.

Nazis at CPAC (from left to right): Colton Buss, Ryan Sanchez, former child actor turned white supremacist Ken Curey, as-yet-unidentified guy in bad need of a tailor

Some older members of the movement were at CPAC too, Moore wrote, among them Jared Taylor, the founder of the hate group American Renaissance. As was Bryan Betancur (a.k.a. Bryan Clooney, a.k.a. Maximo Clooney): a self-professed white supremacist who pleaded guilty for his participation in the January 6 coup attempt. (Betancur entered the Capitol while wearing a Proud Boys T-shirt and a GPS-enabled monitoring device, which he’d been ordered to wear under the terms of an existing probation. According to the plea agreement, he told his probation officer he was going to Washington, D.C., “in order to distribute Bibles.”)

Betancur’s attendance bookended the pro-January 6th messaging from the official stage: Geri Perna, the aunt of Capitol rioter Matthew Perna, who killed himself while awaiting sentencing, appeared on a panel with Jeffrey Clark, Trump’s insurrectionist ally in the Department of Justice who has been indicted in Georgia for his efforts to steal the 2020 election. Trump himself referenced the rioters in his rambling speech, calling those who were imprisoned for their role in his failed coup attempt “hostages,” and saying that “there’s never been in the history of our country a group of people treated the way they’ve been treated.”

These kinds of political alliances are never straightforward, especially on the fractious right. Schlapp was desperately hoping to trade in on many conservatives’ fervent support for Israel in its war on Gaza; hoping to paint supporters of Palestinian rights on the left as the antisemitic extremists. Nonetheless, news of the Nazis’ presence at his event made it to Israeli right-wing media. Organizers preferred weird, trolly racism (actual title of Rep. Jim Jordan’s panel: “What You Talkin Bout Fani Willis”) to emphatically racist memers showing off their cell-phone swastika backgrounds in the lobby.

NBC’s Ben Goggin posted video taken by the white nationalist Kyle Ferrera, in which the groyper harasses Schlapp demanding to know why Fuentes hadn’t been allowed to attend. Ferrara also tried to film former Trump Deputy Assistant to the President and representative of the Hungarian Order of Vitéz, Sebastian Gorka. Gorka, who clearly recognized Ferrara on sight, told him to “tell Nick Fuentes he’s a short, little sad man,” to which Ferrara responded by calling Gorka a homophobic slur. It seems Gorka’s security then pushed Ferrera around a bit; a good time had by all.

But one shouldn’t take this hallway jostling as a sign of ideological rejection. It’s par for the course among extremists, whose overinflated egos, niche commitments, and allergy to empathy can make them hate each other as much or more than they hate nonwhites, Jews, immigrants, people with queer identities, and so on. What is really happening here are two things that are really one thing: interest in the conservative movement is declining, as the share and influences of extremists within the movement rises. Overt Hitler-lovers like Sanchez and Fuentes may still be somewhat distasteful for older Republicans like Schlapp and Gorka. But they increasingly need them both to make up for declining numbers and enthusiasm and—as Trump and Steve Bannon well know—as footsoldiers on the ground. Especially if it turns out on Election Day, once again, that Trump doesn’t have the votes to take the election through more peaceful means.

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