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CPAC In The Trump Era


It's going to be an interesting moment for the Republican Party tomorrow when President Donald Trump takes the stage at the conservative gathering CPAC. Trump was booed at the political conference in 2015. And after outcry from mainstream Republicans, Trump just ditched the whole event during his presidential campaign last year. This year, he is returning as the man who won the White House back for Republicans despite lackluster support from groups like CPAC.

So is Donald Trump the new ideological leader of the conservative movement? We're going to ask our next guest. His name is Matt Schlapp. He is the chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts CPAC. And he's on the line from the Gaylord Convention Center in Maryland, where CPAC is taking place. Thanks so much for being with us.

MATT SCHLAPP: Great to be with you, Rachel.

MARTIN: As I just noted, CPAC hasn't had the warmest of relationships with Donald Trump in the past. You were pressured to disinvite him last year. He ended up canceling before that could happen. Does CPAC really reflect the Republican Party as it is today, or do you find yourself playing catch up to Trump's brand of conservatism?

SCHLAPP: Yeah. Let me try to just correct the record a little bit there. Donald Trump was actually gotten a pretty good reception here for five years. And last year, it's true, with the spawning of the never Trump movement which happened right around CPAC, there was a pressure campaign to disinvite Donald Trump. We decided that we - that that would be the wrong thing to do, that we wanted him to come, that we wanted our attendees to hear from all the presidential candidates they possibly could. And that we did insist that each candidate answer questions. And we did have a disagreement on that with his campaign.

But we never disinvited him. And we're very happy he's coming this year because think about it, Rachel. The last time a president came to CPAC in his first year in office, it was Ronald Reagan in 1981. It's been a long time since we've had this moment. It's a very special one.

MARTIN: There has been though, as you acknowledge, a real ideological tension between the more mainstream conservatives in the GOP and the movement that Donald Trump has inspired. I'll ask you the big question I posed in the intro. Is Donald Trump the ideological leader of the Republican Party right now?

SCHLAPP: It's a great question. He's definitely the political leader. He leads the party. We are - I don't think there's that much of a ideological conversation going on the party, Rachel. But I do think there is a lot of conflict in tumult because I think that there are a lot of people who are trying to upset the order of things and change the group of people who will be able to decide how we run our party and how we run our movement. And, you know, D.C. is a little bit under attack from the rest of the country. And that's playing itself out into politics. So I will agree with you there's conflict in those areas.

MARTIN: So speaking of conflict, I do want to ask you about Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor. You canceled his appearance over these comments he made about pedophilia. This is someone who would have been considered on the radical fringe of the conservative movement before, outside the moral center of mainstream conservatism. Why was he invited in the first place?

SCHLAPP: Well, I listen - you know, I get up every morning and listen to your radio show. And you guys always have interesting and provocative guests. We're actually OK with conflict at CPAC. Unlike what the reputation might be for conservatives, we take what people watch on television, hear on the radio, read in newspapers, and we put it on our stage. We put it within a conservative context.

And we think what's happening with shutting down speech on campus is un-American. And I think the voices from the right should be here on campus. I think the boundary for us was we're OK with controversy, but we're not OK with criminal. And when his comments veered into seeming to be OK with the criminal, we then disinvited him. And I think it was the right thing to do.

MARTIN: So inflammatory statements he's made, racially-charged remarks, veering into anti-Semitism, those things were not a red line for you?

SCHLAPP: They are red lines in the sense that they're offensive. And we don't agree with him. And we certainly don't agree with the alt-right. And we don't think racism has a role in the conservative movement. That doesn't mean that through the first amendment that our attendees shouldn't get the ability to hear a vigorous debate that's raging across the country. And we want to put that before them.

Look. We believe that it is better when we air our political differences, left to right. And even within the conservative movement, give our attendees a chance to hear it. We think that helps us find the truth. I think that's actually something we have in common with NPR.

MARTIN: Steve Bannon is speaking at CPAC today. He's the president's top adviser who ran Breitbart News, which he proclaimed to be a platform for the so-called alt-right. Meanwhile, Vice President Mike Pence went to a Jewish cemetery in Missouri this week to signal his support after that cemetery was vandalized. And then pens went on to say there's no place in America for hatred or acts of prejudice or violence or anti-Semitism. Is this the party of Mike Pence or Steve Bannon?

SCHLAPP: It's the party of both. And I know Steve Bannon well. And I think Steve Bannon and Mike Pence, you couldn't find a difference in how they approach these topics. The fact is, is that oftentimes...

MARTIN: You're saying Steve Bannon and Mike Pence approach the issues of prejudice, discrimination, anti-Semitism the same?

SCHLAPP: Look. You can try to put Steve Bannon in a box where you think he's a hater. And that's one of the reasons why debate gets shut down in this country. I think that's a mistake. He's going to be on our stage today. Listen to what he has to say. He's going to be on with Reince Priebus. I have the honor of facilitating that conversation. Listen to what he has to say.

I think the difference what's going on on the conservative side of things is that they're tired of being hushed and quieted and said that you can't say certain things. They want to address all the tensions in society. That does not mean that we are racist or hateful or that we approve of these horrendous deeds that are happening, these anti-Semitic deeds, what's happening in cemeteries. I saw those videos the other day again and the pictures. And it's appalling. It's un-American. It's terrible. I think we should stand united against these things. These are not ideological differences in this country. We have to...

MARTIN: We'll have you back to talk more about this. Matt Schlapp is the chairman of the American Conservative Union organizing CPAC. Thanks so much for your time.

SCHLAPP: Thanks for having me on, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ALBUM LEAF'S "LOST IN THE FOG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.