Skip to main content

In the vast Potomac Ballroom of the Gaylord hotel in National Harbor, Maryland, the 40th annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held March 14-16, started as a well-choreographed effort to present a softer, more diverse, conservative movement. Beyond the main hall, however, the carefully crafted façade melted away. In the many conference rooms that the Tea Party dominated, events featured blatant racism, homophobia, sexism, and Islamophobia. Despite the efforts of organizers to sweep it all under the rug, this year’s CPAC showed a conservative movement riddled with white nationalists, and others long a pillar of the farthest edge of the far right.  The conservative sense of white dispossession at the core of this new conservative movement, bore little resemblance to the high and mighty elites of the Reagan and Bush years.


Murmurs in the main hall on day one centered on the battle for the title of Tea Party standard-bearer between Sens. Rand Paul and Marco Rubio, as well the decidedly mixed messages over immigration.

While a heavily criticized largely pro-immigration reform panel was taking place in the main ballroom, just down the hall Tea Party Patriots co-founder Jenny Beth Martin introduced the workshop, “The Making of America: The Substance and Meaning of the Constitution.”

As IREHR reported last week, the workshop was conducted by Tea Party Patriots National Support Team Constitutional Coordinator, Bill Norton. He also serves as a “Master Instructor” for the National Center for Constitutional Studies (NCCS), founded by long-time John Birch Society supporter W. Cleon Skousen. Before his death, Skousen acted as a mentor to Nelson. Skousen’s book, The Making of America, served as the cornerstone of the CPAC workshop. The book includes an essay on slavery that argued that, “abolitionist delay[ed-ed] the emancipation process,” and that the standard of treatment was “humane.” Further, a graphic in the 1986 edition of the book claims, “The economic system of slavery chained the slave owners almost as much as the slaves.”

In the same room later that afternoon, Tea Party Patriots sponsored the workshop, “Sheriffs, America’s Last Hope” by far-right former sheriff Richard Mack. Norton introduced the former Graham County, Arizona sheriff who in the 1990s became popular in white supremacist, militia circles and among Buchananites. “We are the generation that will decide whether or not we’re going to continue as a Constitutional Republic, or whether we’re going to succumb to the temptations and political correctness to make America just another socialistic republic…. Destroy the foundation and the rest of America will follow,” Mack warned. He went on to describe his new organization, the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which he claimed that there are “literally hundreds of sheriffs” prepared to “stand against the gun control proposals of the federal government and Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden.”  

The other big buzz on the first day of CPAC was Republican Senator Rob Portman’s announcement earlier in the day that he’d had a change of heart spurred by his gay son which led him to announce his new-found support for same-sex marriage. The announcement received a frosty reception inside the halls of the Gaylord.

As IREHR also noted last week, earlier the American Conservative Union barred Republican LGBT groups like GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans from participating in the CPAC event again this year. Despite the ban, LGBT conservative groups snuck back into the conference, when the Competitive Enterprise Institute used sponsored workshop for “A Rainbow on the Right: Growing the Coalition, Bringing Tolerance Out of the Closet.” The workshop was standing-room-only, though it appeared nearly as many journalists in the room looking for fireworks as there were CPAC attendees.

Anti-gay bigotry was still on the table. As if to put an exclamation point on their decision to exile gay groups, just three days before the opening of CPAC, the American Conservative Union published work by an author who has advocated the execution of gays and lesbians.

On March 11, the ACU highlighted a new article on the front-page of their website by Gary North, entitled “Rooting for Aristocrats.” It’s one of several of North’s articles they’ve run in the past year. His bio on the ACU site notes that he “writes The Tea Party Economist,” and that he “blogs at Gary North’s Specific Answers.” The bio fails to mention that North is also a co-founder of Christian Reconstructionism, the theocratic movement which proposes the contemporary application of “Biblical Law,” in reconstructing society toward the Kingdom of God on earth.

Reconstructionists, including North, believe that gays and lesbians need to be stoned to death for violating Biblical law. Others who would face execution include: blasphemers, heretics, apostate Christians, females guilty of "unchastity before marriage," "incorrigible" children, adulterers, and more.

North’s co-founder (and father-in-law) R.J. Rushdoony wrote the defining text of Reconstructionism, Institutes of Biblical Law, an 800 page opus on “the heresy of democracy” which argues a reoccurring racial theme at CPAC, that “The move from Africa to America was a vast increase of freedom for the Negro, materially and spiritually.” North wrote the appendix on Biblical economics for Rushdoony’s book.


If issues of bigotry simmered under the surface on Thursday, they erupted on Friday. The carefully crafted CPAC image came crashing down with it.

The morning kicked off with birther bigot Donald Trump on the ballroom stage. He blasted “amnesty” (and the entire attempt to put forth a softened position on immigration). Trump wasn’t opposed to all immigrants, however, in his speech he called for more white immigrants into the country.

As further sign of the Tea Party influence at CPAC, Friday also included a climate denial panel and an afternoon session on the success of union-busting so-called “Right to Work” efforts in the Midwest (Union-busting Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker spoke on Saturday).

It also included a well-received fiery speech by National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, who roared, “Don’t be swayed by the wakes of political insanity. And no matter what the elitists who scorn you say, let them be damned. Fill your heart with pride. Clear your eyes with conviction…Now and for the rest of your life always stand and always fight for our great American freedoms.”

As Rick Santorum was on the ballroom stage, three different racially-charged events took place at high noon. There was a showing of the movie 2016: Obama’s America. Widely criticized for its racism, the 2012 film was an adaptation of Dinesh D’Souza’s book The Roots of Obama’s Rage. It accused the President of sharing the anti-colonialist doctrine of his father and of planning to weaken and impoverish the United States in furtherance of that agenda.

Not far down the hall, American Enterprise Institute fellow best known for co-authoring the academic racist book, The Bell Curve, Charles Murray delivered a talk entitled “Is America Coming Apart?”

And right next door, John Horvat II of the far-right Catholic group, Tradition, Family, Property held a book signing for his new book, Return to Order: From a Frenzied Economy to an Organic Christian Society—Where We’ve Been, How We Got Here, and Where We Need to Go. According to the books website, “The heart of this book lies firmly in a belief in the greatest ideals of the American dream vitalized by a wellspring that hearkens back to the potency and inherent energy of Western European Civilization.”

Following a talk by Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, the main stage on Friday afternoon also featured a multi-racial all-woman panel “The Right View…and The REAL Issues.” Designed to be a counter to the “war on women” critique, the panel was filled with irony. In addition to attempting to redefine feminism as anti-feminism, several of the panelists called for affirmative action on the CPAC stage so more women and minorities could bash on affirmative action. Among the notable panelist remarks, commentator Katie Kieffer told the crowd that Obamacare is sexist because it promotes birth control access. Crystal Wright, publisher of the website added “We were reduced to our vaginas [during the 2012 election]. Democrats reduced women to their vaginas.”

Efforts to repair the damage done with women in 2012 by Tea Party candidates like Todd “legitimate rape” Akin were thwarted again the next morning when Fox News commentator and comedian Steven Crowder cracked a rape joke about possible Democratic Senate candidate Ashley Judd (a three-time rape survivor).

The CPAC problem with racism exploded in the Tea Party Patriots workshop IREHR warned about last week, “Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You’re Not One?”

The panel meant to teach conservatives how to defend themselves from charges that they are racist, quickly devolved when the room shouted down a liberal black woman, and an audience member stood to demand justice for white voters and to argue that the slaves should have been grateful to slave owners for food and shelter.

The session was led by K. Carl Smith, a black conservative who started the workshop by urging attendees to deflect racism charges by calling themselves “Frederick Douglass Republicans.”

Things grew tense in the room when Smith echoed a familiar Tea Party talking point, that the Democrats are still the party of Confederacy. “I don’t care how much the KKK improved,” Smith declared. “I’m not going to join the KKK. The Democratic Party founded the KKK.”

As Benjy Sarlin of Talking Points Memo noted, lines like that drew shouts of praise from some attendees and murmurs of disapproval from one black attendee, Kim Brown, a radio host and producer with Voice of Russia, a broadcasting service of the Russian government.

When the question and answer portion of the workshop began, things got quickly got out of hand. (See video of the confrontation at the bottom of this page).

Scott Terry, a 30 year-old from North Carolina who claimed to be a direct descendent of Confederate President Jefferson Davis,  rose to say that he took offense to the workshops’ position on slavery. “It seems to be that you’re reaching out to voters at the expense of young white Southern males,” Terry said, adding he “came to love my people and culture” who were “being systematically disenfranchised.”

Smith responded that Douglass forgave his slave master.

“For giving him shelter? And food?” Terry said. After the exchange, Terry muttered under his breath, “why can’t we just have segregation?”

Terry was accompanied by Confederate Battle Flag t-shirt-clad Matthew Heimbach, founder of the white nationalist White Students Union at Towson University.

After Terry’s remarks, the workshop devolved into a shouting contest. After workshop organizers tried to come things down, Brown, who took offense at the suggestion modern Democrats were descendants of the KKK, tried to ask a question but was booed and screamed at by audience members. “Let someone else speak!” one attendee in Revolutionary War garb shouted. “You’re not welcome!” a white-haired older woman yelled.

Despite Tea Party Patriots efforts to not have Terry give his name to the press, a media scrum immediately broke out around Terry after the event.

When asked by ThinkProgress if he’d accept a society where African-Americans were permanently subservient to whites, Terry said “I’d be fine with that.” He also claimed that African-Americans “should be allowed to vote in Africa,” and that “all the Tea Parties” were concerned with the same racial problems that he was.

At one point, a woman challenged him on the Republican Party’s roots, to which Terry responded, “I didn’t know the legacy of the Republican Party included women correcting men in public.”

A woman wearing Tea Party Patriots CPAC credentials told Talking Points Memo after the event, “Look, you know there’s no doubt the white males are getting really beat up right now, it’s unfair,” she said. “I agree with that. My husband’s one of them. But I don’t think there’s a clear understanding about what really is going on. He needs to read Frederick Douglass and I think that question should be asked to everyone in this room who is debating.”

Unfortunately, the ideas of expressed by Terry and Heimbach were not outliers at CPAC. Nor did they receive rebuke. Instead, Tea Party Patriots blamed the entire incident on an African-American woman reporter whose remarks the group called “disruptive and coercive.”
In a statement released on Saturday by the Tea Party Patriots, workshop leader K. Carl Smith admitted that some panelists and audience members had made “racially insensitive remarks,” but the onus of the blame, he said, lay squarely with “a woman working for the Voice of Russia.”  In the statement, Smith wrote, “In the middle of my delivery, while discussing the 1848 ‘Women’s Rights Convention,’ I was rudely interrupted by a woman working for the Voice of Russia.  She abruptly asked me: ‘How many black women were there?’ This question was intentionally disruptive and coercive with no way of creating a positive dialogue.”

While much of the media in attendance was busy being engrossed by the politicians schmoozing, the people wandering the corridors dressed as Obama zombies, Grover Norquist playing bartender, and the peculiar Tea Party Patriots Hunger Games costume party (not to mention their Hunger Games rip-off mini-movie), the presentations and workshops betrayed the ugly direction a segment of the movement plans to move in the years to follow. Moreover, CPAC demonstrated very little movement backbone to stop it.


With a speech packed with zingers, including a nod to the birthers, "More background checks? Dandy idea, Mr. President. Shoulda started with yours," and a Super Big Gulp prop, final day of CPAC 2013 was supposed to be all about the return of Sarah Palin to the national stage.

Instead, the day became as much about CPAC spinning out of control. From the nativists on-stage, to the return of the “uninvited” racists and Islamophobes, any semblance of the façade the new-and-improved American Conservative Union crafted had been utterly obliterated.

Thursday’s pro-immigration reform panel became a distant memory.  Congressman Steve King (R-Iowa) used his speech to embrace virtually all of the contentious issues (nativism, anti-abortion, homophobia) from which many are trying to steer conservatives away. "A bunch of people who have been backing away from these challenges don’t realize that I’m still standing," he said. "I didn’t run a campaign on jobs and the economy." He blasted the comprehensive immigration reform plan working its way through Congress, calling it a "deconstruction" of the rule of law.

In addition to cracking jokes about Sandra Fluke’s haircut and calling President Clinton a “forcible rapist,” the ever-acerbic Ann Coulter jumped on the nativist bandwagon. She declared that she is now a single-issue voter on “amnesty.” She told the crowd, “There are many negative consequences to amnesty, but the one that I think ought to concern this crowd is that if amnesty goes through, America becomes California and no Republican will ever win another national election.”

The Tea Party wing of the movement also decided to thumb its nose at the conference host, when CPAC sponsor, the Breitbart News Network hosted an afternoon panel discussion called “The Uninivited: A series of controversial speakers and panels.” It featured a veritable who’s-who American Islamophobes and the staffer for an influential nativist organization.

Three of the Islamophobic speakers — Frank Gaffney, Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer — were earlier barred from officially participating in CPAC because of their attacks on ACU Board Members Grover Norquist (the head of Americans for Tax Reform) and Suhail Khan (a former Bush Administration appointee) as instruments of global jihad.

Gaffney had been banned from CPAC since 2011, after he charged that Khan and Norquist were helping CPAC become infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Gellar and Spencer got banned this year after a nasty altercation with Khan at last year’s CPAC and their criticizing the ACU as “shariah-compliant.”

ACU began backtracking from the ban after Spencer’s Islamophobic blog “Jihad Watch” won the Tea Party News Network’s annual Reader’s Choice Blogger Award.

Rosemary Jenks of the nativist group NumbersUSA also participated on the panel. NumbersUSA was also a listed exhibitor at CPAC this year, but not given a speaking slot until the Breitbart News Network gave them a slot.


On Monday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus released the findings of the RNC’s Growth and Opportunity Project “autopsy” of the 2012 elections which found that most voters see the party as “out of touch” and “scary,” and concluded that Republicans must focus on outreach to minorities.

Priebus couldn’t escape the CPAC racism blow-up at his press conference. “Question about CPAC last week, where a panel on African-American voters dissolved into a shouting match with at least one activist saying that — talking about voters being systematically disenfranchised. How, given that sort of backdrop in the party, do you plan to overcome those challenges in your role at the RNC?” one reporter asked.

Priebus replied, “I mean, that’s just sort of basic, which is why we’re launching this unprecedented effort to bring in — I’m not talking about hiring two or three people down the hallway at the RNC. What we’re talking about is hiring hundreds of paid people across the country this year to make the case in minority communities across America.”

At the end, the conference revealed an angry conservative and Tea Party crowd, unlikely to make an easy piece with those Republican elites hoping to smooth their outreach to people of color.  They are not just hostile to civil and human rights.  They are hostile to everyone and everything that hopes to hold on to some semblance of the democratic-minded status quo. A room full of Tea Partiers shouting down a black woman, suggesting that slaves should be grateful for their slave masters could be just the beginning of a very rough time.  It is certainly not the end.

Devin Burghart

Author Devin Burghart

is vice president of IREHR. He coordinates our Seattle office, directs our research efforts, and manages our online communications. He has researched, written, and organized on virtually all facets of contemporary white nationalism since 1992, and is internationally recognized for this effort. Devin is frequently quoted as an expert by print, broadcast, and online media outlets. In 2007, he was awarded a Petra Foundation fellowship. more...

More posts by Devin Burghart