Conservative forces clash in Trump’s early days

Steve Peoples
Associated Press

New York — Milo Yiannopoulos represented the conservative movement’s struggle with powerful and conflicting forces in the early days of Donald Trump’s presidency, even before he lost his job and speaking slot in this week’s Conservative Political Action Conference.

The 33-year-old British professional provocateur is among the new players in Trump’s Republican Party, which is increasingly defined by a say-anything populism and a loose affiliation with white nationalists. Yiannopoulos, both loved and hated for his divisive comments about women, minorities and Muslims, offered a pointed message to political leaders on Tuesday even as he apologized for making explosive statements about sexual relationships between boys and men.

“America is crying out for somebody who will say the unsayable,” he declared. He added, “The populist, nationalist revolution that is happening, the anti-political correctness pro-free speech revolution that is happening all over the Western world, is not going anywhere.”

Indeed, the conservative movement is in flux as thousands of adherents prepare to gather in suburban Washington for its largest annual gathering.

Not long ago, the conference showcased the far-right fringe and the Republican Party’s rigid devotion to conservative ideology. Yet in the age of unfiltered Trump, CPAC may be outflanked by the likes of Yiannopoulos and the president’s chief counselor, Steve Bannon, whose confrontational brand of Republican politics ignores decades of conservative orthodoxy on key issues.

Conservative leaders interviewed by The Associated Press this week described a clash between their sincere optimism over the Republican Party’s extraordinary success last fall and pangs of anxiety over its uncertain direction.

“I think the conservative movement is hopeful, but wary,” said Tim Phillips, president of Koch-brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity.

Conference organizers have coordinated a program specifically designed to distance the conservative movement from the racists and bigots who joined the GOP in recent years, all the while cheering Trump’s vows to build a wall and expel millions of immigrants living in the country illegally.

“There is nothing about their views or their ideology that is consistent with conservatism,” said Dan Schneider, executive director of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. He dismissed the white nationalists as “nothing more than garden variety” fascists.

At the same time, American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp said Yiannopoulos was “playing an important role in pushing back against what’s happening on college campuses.”

“There’s plenty of things he’s said I find offensive and inappropriate,” Schlapp added. “Quite honestly, like a lot of people, I was hoping to learn a lot more about him by his appearance at CPAC. We just believe that when the new information came to light, that the CPAC stage was not the appropriate place for him to defend his reputation on those comments.”

Yiannopoulos was removed from the conference speaking program earlier in the week following new scrutiny of video clips in which he appeared to defend sexual relationships between men and boys as young as 13. He also left his job as an editor on the far-right, pro-Trump website, Breitbart News, and lost a book deal with Simon & Schuster.

In one of the videos, Yiannopoulos, who is gay, said relationships between boys and men could “help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents.”

“I understand that my usual blend of British sarcasm, provocation and gallows humor might have come across as flippancy, a lack of care for other victims or, worse, advocacy. I am horrified by that impression,” he said.

Despite this week’s focus on Yiannopoulos, the debate over the future of the conservative movement extends well beyond one troubled activist. Trump himself is hardly regarded as a traditional conservative.

“When Donald Trump walks out on stage at CPAC this week, he will be addressing a crowd that largely supported someone else in the Republican primaries,” said longtime evangelical leader Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, suggesting that both sides need each other going forward.

Yet some worry that Trump has abandoned long-held conservative bedrock issues, such as free trade and small government. The president and Republicans in Congress have also been slow to repeal the federal health care law as promised.

“It’s time to get moving,” Phillips said.

On social issues, however, Trump appears to be tacking right. White House spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters Tuesday that the Justice Department would soon issue new directives on the use of school bathrooms for transgender students. The announcement alarmed LGBT groups that urged Trump to safeguard Obama-era guidelines allowing students to use school restrooms that match their gender identity, not their birth gender. Conservative leaders cheered the news.

Yiannopoulos, meanwhile, described himself as “the most interesting thing happening in American conservativism.”

“I have an opportunity now through what has happened to reach an even larger audience, and I intend to do so,” he said.