The annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is open to pretty much anyone willing to call themselves conservative. That category included everyone from Christian fundamentalists to suit-and-tie-wearing think tankers to college kids sporting "Make America Great Again" hats. It included Jordan Evans, a conservative trans woman from Massachusetts who was disappointed with the Trump administration for reversing a policy on transgender bathroom use in public schools. It included Steve Bannon, who once upon a time organized "The Uninvited," an alternative conference for speakers deemed too controversial by CPAC, and now occupies one of the most powerful positions in the White House. This reversal wasn't lost on Bannon, dressed in black and sitting next to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on stage Thursday.
"I'd like to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC," Bannon said to Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union (ACU), the organization that hosts the conference.
Schlapp was days removed from famously uninviting Milo Yiannopoulos—a young gay conservative who got famous for being blunter and cruder than others in the movement—after a video of him praising pedophilia resurfaced. Schlapp insisted onstage that CPAC was more open than ever before: "Here's what we decided to do at CPAC with 'The Uninvited': We decided to say that everybody is part of our conservative family."
But those warm feelings evidently don't extend to those sympathetic to the alt-right, that frothy mix of nationalistic and sometimes plain racist beliefs. Though people broadly aligned with the alt-right now occupy positions of power close to Donald Trump—Bannon, for one—this past week CPAC showed that traditional conservatives were still feeling out how to relate to the more populist views of the president and his supporters. The clearest indicator of this was that Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who is one of the most public faces of the alt-right, was kicked out of CPAC after buying a general admission pass and speaking to reporters.
"This is really kind of a battle that's tearing apart the heart and soul of the conservative movement right now, especially in the age of President Trump," said Casey Given, executive director of Young Voices, a group of millennial libertarians, who was at CPAC.
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One of the more telling moments came on Thursday, when Dan Schneider, executive director for ACU, lashed out against Spencer and the alt-right in his talk, "The Alt-Right Ain't Right at All," the only CPAC session to directly address the faction. The six-minute address, was much more sparsely attended than the preceding speech by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. The remaining audience was supportive, but not exactly ecstatic as Schneider tore into a group he viewed as not a part of conservatism at all.
"CPAC, we have been slapped in the face," said Schneider, arguing that the alt-right, a "hateful, left-wing fascist group," has taken ownership of name that used to reflect a respected portion of the conservatism movement. "This specific group that has hijacked a once-decent term, they are not us."
Schneider told me the talk was necessary to help clear any confusion from attendees and the media in understanding the evolution of the term alt-right. He also emphasized that a much-publicized conference organized by the far-right National Policy Institute in November showed the fringe group's nonexistent influence among conservatives.
"How many met in that basement in Washington, D.C., a couple months ago? Maybe 200 people? That's puny," said Schneider. "Now, I'm not discounting the fact that 200 people who have hate in their heart can have no impact. That's why I had to give the speech—to help people understand who they are, what they believe and that they have nothing to do with us and that our attendees should have nothing to do with them." He added: "There is to be no confusion about this one entity and the people who lead it—that they are fascists and are never to be associated with the conservative movement."
Even if some in attendance remained skeptical about Trump—who did not really campaign as a traditional conservative—there was a genuine optimism among attendees about what a Republican-controlled government could accomplish. But there were some who were concerned that some of the figures with the highest media profile could damage the conservative cause.
"[Yiannopoulos] was seen as representing an area that most conservatives were uncomfortable with," Chris Wilson, a strategist for Texas Senator Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, told me. "That's going to be a situation where it's very similar to those who classify themselves as communists on the left, and they don't generally get a main speaking position at a Democrat meeting. I think that's quite right and Republicans need to be careful of that."
But even if some conservatives are leery of the alt-right, Breitbart, the media company formerly run by Bannon that he himself once described as the "platform of the alt-right," has risen to obvious prominence. Once largely shunned by establishment conservatives at the conference, the outlet is now a top sponsor and constant presence. Not including former executives and editors like Bannon and Sebastian Gorka, a Breitbart national security editor-turned-White House counterterrorism adviser, seven Breitbart personalities and staff members spoke on or moderated panels, including editor-in-chief Alex Marlow. On radio row, Breitbart had one of the plum spots next to the main ballroom. There was even a prominently-placed Breitbart shop where you could buy shirts, mugs, and everything else that could get stamped with the site's orange B logo.
More traditional conservatives are still trying to process all this. Amanda Owens, the founder of Future Female Leaders, a group for conservative women, says that conservatism at its core is very welcoming, which has made the Republican Party's future with Trump at the helm a little unclear.
"We're having a hard time as a party figuring out which way we go from here," Owens said. "We're polarized in the world right now in terms of the left and the right, but we're also polarized in the conservative movement between more traditional conservatives and the more populist, alt-right type."
The irony, for any conservative cautious about embracing the ideology of Trump and Bannon, is that it's thanks to Trump's populist rhetoric that the Republican Party came to dominate the federal government. If Trumpism continues to be attractive to voters, it may become harder and harder for conservatives to look at the alt-right and say, as Schneider did, that "they are not us."
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