Politics / Editorial / February 27, 2024

I Was Banned From CPAC, but the Extremists Weren’t

From the lobby, I watched neo-Nazis and other far-right figures waltz unimpeded into the Conservative Political Action Conference.

Amanda Moore

A person wears a hat supporting those arrested for participating in the January 6 US Capitol attack during the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., on February 22, 2024.

(Brendan Smialowski / AFP via Getty Images))

National Harbor, Md.—On February 23, the third day of the Conservative Political Action Conference, Ryan Sanchez, who had been kicked out of the US Marine Corps for his involvement with white nationalists, sidled up to me at the Gaylord National Resort Hotel and Convention Center. After I’d been barred from CPAC the day prior, I had turned a table in the lobby into my temporary office. He had recognized me for my reporting—some of it undercover—of the far-right movement. Sanchez had slicked-back hair and wore a black leather jacket over a black mock turtleneck. His friends buzzed around us while he talked at me; eventually, he suggested getting a photo. I didn’t want to cede ground, but neither did I want to be photographed with them. I put my head down, covered my face with my arms, and extended my middle finger in a gesture of resistance. Leaning into me, Sanchez laid his left arm across my shoulders, made a duck face and a hang-loose gesture. Once a photo had been captured, he threw his arm up in a Sieg Heil! to his guffawing friends.

Still, this had been less harrowing than last year when Sanchez and his friends had circled me in a hallway, calling me a slut and making Holocaust jokes for six minutes on a livestream.

I was here to write about the decline of CPAC. In the past, it was an event that required overflow rooms and had multiple breakout sessions. It was a place for the Republican elite to hobnob and network. Now, despite this being an election year, videos showed half the seats empty, and breakout sessions were scarce and timed to not conflict with speeches. The main stage—the only stage—featured panels on whether Michelle Obama is secretly gearing up to be president and talks on “Stopping Georgey Soros,” bizarrely ascribing a cutesy nickname to the GOP’s favorite boogeyman.

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CPAC organizers granted me press credentials, but before the conference started, I received an e-mail saying they had been revoked. Matt Schlapp, CPAC’s head organizer, had announced that some members of the liberal media would have their press credentials rescinded, but they would be able to buy tickets to attend. So I bought a ticket.

But within hours of arriving at CPAC on Thursday, a security guard took my badge off my neck and escorted me out of the conference. I was on a red-flag list, he explained, and, unlike the other journalists who had purchased tickets, I should never have been allowed inside. So instead of covering the content of the conference, I sat outside and kept watch for the neo-Nazis and other extremists in attendance.

I, of course, saw Sanchez and his crew parade by. Sanchez, a former member of the racist fight club Rise Above Movement and the white-nationalist organization Identity Evropa, fancies himself a charmer, masking his attempts to intimidate with a superficial kindness. He offered his condolences over my situation, saying he thought CPAC was too boring to be worth coming back to next year. He told me that if he got kicked out, we could form a horseshoe theory anti-CPAC alliance. But he waltzed right into the conference.

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Bryan Betancur, convicted for participating in January 6 and who has an active restraining order against him for stalking a woman, was also welcome to attend. Betancur wore an ankle monitor as he stormed the US Capitol, making it easy for the FBI to find him. And during the investigation, the Department of Justice discovered that he spoke about becoming a lone-wolf murderer. After his time in prison for January 6, he discussed carrying out a school shooting in a Twitter Space during his probation, earning him restricted Internet access and an ankle monitor (again). Betancur, who posts Nazi imagery, has tweeted threats against my life in the last several weeks, because he views me as a fake journalist who attends events to stalk people.

At CPAC, Betancur participated in a “Humanitarian Hitler” Twitter Space, where he interviewed other attendees. He asked people what they thought about the Jewish question, meaning if they believed that Jewish people are responsible for all the problems in society. He wondered if Hamas had really attacked Israel and asked interviewees who they believed really did 9/11. “I don’t want Jews or Muslims in my country,” Betancur said during one interview.

Shortly before I was kicked out, I snapped a photo of Jared Taylor, the founder of American Renaissance, a pro-eugenics think tank and SPLC-designated hate group. Taylor was surrounded by a small group of groypers, the name given to fans of Nick Fuentes, the white nationalist and Hitler supporter who briefly formed a political alliance with the rapper Kanye West. Kyle Ferrera, who posts videos of himself harassing people at TPUSA and CPAC under the moniker Valley Zoomer, saw me take the photo and walked up with his camera pointed at me. Ferrera asked if I was an “antifa journo” and explained that I looked like a “stupid fucking bitch” for posting photos. “Keep taking pictures of people. That’s very nice, very classy.”

But Ferrera didn’t just confront me. At CPAC, he quizzed prominent right-wingers on video. He shared clips of himself calling Sebastian Gorka a “fucking f*ggot” and asking Schlapp why Fuentes wasn’t allowed at CPAC.

Ferrera had his most viral video in December, when he ambushed Rob Smith, a Black gay conservative man at a party outside of Turning Point USA’s America Fest. Ferrera helped whip up a crowd that surrounded Smith, chanting “f*ggot” and “America First,” Fuentes’s slogan. Ferrera’s social-media accounts are littered with videos of him showing support for Hitler. Ferrera did not appear to be removed from CPAC. (I reached out to Schlapp asking for comment, but he did not respond in time for publication.)

The evening that Sanchez Sieg Heil–ed over my head, he was walking around with a band of assorted neo-Nazis. One member of his group was Colton Buss, a credentialed CPAC attendee. Buss is currently under investigation for his behavior toward an interracial couple in the Washington State Young Republicans and, separately, for his treatment of a Jewish man who is affiliated with the organization. “Say the 14 words,” Buss demanded of me, referring to the neo-Nazi slogan that expresses the idea that the white race is under threat. He then showed me a series of backgrounds he had recently used on his phone, which primarily consisted of Nazi imagery, including several swastikas. “I’m not a groyper, by the way,” Buss assured me, suggesting that his beliefs were even more extreme than that of a typical Fuentes acolyte.

Greg Conte was also with them. A founding member of the neo-Nazi National Justice Party, Conte was once a member of Richard Spencer’s inner circle and acted as Spencer’s bodyguard at the 2017 Unite the Right rally. While Conte did not have a ticket to CPAC, he was allowed to attend a “young conservatives happy hour” with Sanchez and Buss, where he networked with Young Republicans who were attending the conference.

Several members of the New York Young Republican Club were at CPAC, many of them unhappy to see me. Shortly before I was kicked out, NYYRC Executive Secretary Vish Burra had spotted me walking around and yelled nonsensically something about a “small dick” at me. The evening after I was removed from CPAC, Burra decided to up the ante in one of the hotel’s bars. Surrounded by people with a grudge against my writing, Burra locked eyes with me, grinned, and shouted, “Amanda Moore just called me the n-word.” Obviously, I had not—which Burra as much as admitted on social media later—but cameras came out, and a video of Burra yelling this several times was posted onto a Fuentes fan account on Twitter, with the videographer repeating the accusation in the caption.

Burra’s attempt to discredit me through his ridiculous accusation might have fallen flat, but he appears to have had me banned from the Steve Bannon party on the last night of CPAC. A former employee of Bannon’s, Burra remains close to Trump’s former adviser; some right-wing media even labeled the CPAC party as being hosted by both Burra and Bannon, though Burra was not on the official event invitation. Several people familiar with Burra and Bannon said it was likely that my name was on a red-flag list for CPAC because of Bannon’s influence with Schlapp.

Over the course of two hours on the last day of CPAC, Nazis once again helped themselves to a seat at my lobby desk. A few members of Young Republican clubs, angry that I have drawn connections between their particular chapters and extreme-right beliefs, also stopped to heckle me. Other members of the fringe far right who embrace their status cheerfully greeted me while walking by. This happened so many times that a pair of CPAC attendees from Spain seated nearby asked who I was, and why so many “very odd people” were engaging with me.

The security guard who escorted me out gave me an e-mail address to contact, and said that CPAC would provide a reason for my removal and a refund. (I have neither heard nor gotten my money back.) Other than myself, Schlapp seemed to have made good on his promise to allow “left-wing propagandists” to purchase tickets and cover the event.

Representatives for CPAC did not respond to requests for comment, but they have tweeted statements regarding the reporting of Nazis’ attending their event. They called the idea that Nazis were present “FAKE NEWS.” And, never ones to miss a chance to upset the libs, they insisted that “reprehensible neo-Nazis are not welcome at CPAC. It is the Democrat Party that shamefully embraces and welcomes pro-Hamas antisemites and openly displays its increasing hostility towards Israel.”

With CPAC denying the presence of neo-Nazis, I guess it makes sense that it would ban me, a journalist who specializes in recognizing the fringe—and not-so-fringe—extremists and neo-Nazis that I watched walk unimpeded into the conference.

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Amanda Moore

Amanda Moore is a writer and researcher who focuses on far-right extremism.

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