NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A panel about how conservatives can fight back when liberals call them racists descended into shouting when an actual segregationist joined a CPAC event titled "Trump the Race Card: Are You Sick and Tired of Being Called a Racist and You Know You're Not One?" We're not making any of this up. Led by K. C. Smith and KCarl Smith, two brothers from Birmingham who are black and who call themselves "Frederick Douglass Republicans," the discussion began with their argument that the Republican Party can reach out to blacks, women, Latinos, when it starts talking about the constitutional principles Douglass espoused when he campaigned for Abe Lincoln. It was southern Democrats, after all, who fought for slavery and created Jim Crow laws. The first jeers began when a black woman, who initially did not give her name, said the idea that liberals are the true racists is ridiculous because so many Southern Democrats defected to the Republican Party. But the madness started when Scott Terry, one of the 23 members of the White Students Union at Towson University in Maryland attending CPAC, raised his hand and suggested the GOP might do better as "Booker T. Washington Republicans" — "united like the hand, but separate like the fingers." ThinkProgress has some video of the exchange.
When the crowd realized what Terry was suggesting, there were wide-eyed looks around the room, including from me. I was sitting two seats down from him, next to Matthew Heimbach, president of the Towson White Students Union. Heimbach, at right, was wearing a rebel flag shirt, a George Wallace button, and beat-up black boots. I was sitting next to Heimbach, because when I got to "Trump the Race Card," there were no seats left. Heimbach was saving two, as his friends were in the bathroom, but another man gruffly said saving seats was not allowed, and pushed the chair toward me. I am very grateful to this man.
"Trump the Race Card" was one of the very few CPAC panels to directly take on the Republican Party's core problem from the 2012 election: it is very white. KCarl Smith's message was partially about spin, but included some substance (he wants more subsidies for poor kids to get private educations). He told the story of Douglass as a man who escaped slavery and became the wealthy intellectual we celebrate through conservative principles. Speaking to one of the more diverse audiences at CPAC, Smith said that right now, "If you call yourself a black Republican, a black conservative... you might as well call yourself a black racist." Conservative, Republican, Tea Party — all these words have been tarnished by the left's propaganda. "People will think you're a Bull Connor Conservative, not a Frederick Douglass Republican." The GOP must embrace Douglass as an icon. He was smart, rich, a hard worker, super into the Constitution and Founding Fathers — plus, "You cannot out-victimize Douglass. Nobody can out-victimize Douglass." Republicans had the true history of promoting racial justice, Smith said. He'd been raised a Democrat, so "I thought George Wallace was a Republican." Then he had an awakening — even the KKK had been Democrats. "I don't care how much they improve, I'm not joining the KKK!" Big laughs.
Then Terry stood to talk. "It seems to me that you're reaching out to voters at the expense of young white southern males like myself." The audience was open, like maybe he would go in a positive direction. He went in a segregationist direction. There was crosstalk, commotion. Smith regained control of the room, talking about Douglass forgiving his slavemaster. The Terry went full troll: "Did he thank him for giving him shelter?" Whoaaaaaaa. "Slavery was not a 'benefit' to black people!" Brown said. More commotion. Smith said "Racism does not have a political face" -- both liberals and conservatives are capable of it. To make a difference, you have to talk to people. "Dr. King interacted and impacted..." Heimbach broke in: "We don't need Marxists in the Republican Party!" "We don't need Marxists anywhere," Smith said. Brown said King was not a Maxist. "Yes he was!" Heimbach said. "Two of his advisors!" Terry joined in.
Smith retook control of the room, and tried to get Brown to ask her question so he could move on. "I am not a conservative," Brown said. "I hope that's not too obvious." Begrudging chuckle from the crowd. "These gentlemen are being disingenuous," she said. The crowd did not like that. A sampling of the cacophony:
Smith: We have a method that works...
Heimbach: Well I have never seen it work!
Smith: ... See how they're trying to vilify us!
Crowd: Huge applause.
Lady in crowd: [To Brown] We didn't come here for you!
Heimbach: [Quietly] I just want to talk about Barry Goldwater and The National Review...
Finally another man got up to speak. He spoke slowly, and the crowd was tense -- was he another liberal or segregationist? Douglass's pulling himself out of poverty "speaks volumes about what capitalism can do for the poor," the questioner said. Huge applause, and huger relief. But the Smith-Brown-Heimbach trio fell into debate again. Finally Smith got control of the room, and said we should always remember to put Jesus above party.
Afterward, I talked to Heimbach, who was very cheery and clearly enjoying being a troll. In a sense, he and Brown agreed on something: what happened to the Republican Party in the 1960s. (They just have very different takes on whether it was a good thing.) Back then, when writing for The National Review, none other than conservative intellectual icon William F. Buckley said white southerners have a right to be separate, Heimbach said. But today's Republicans are being forced to take an "oath of diversity" that runs counter to that history of supporting states' rights. "I don't believe in slavery or anything like that," Heimbach said. But he became a member of the "white dissident right" because "I came to realize over time by reading Republicans of the 60s and 70s that the right-wing is lying to itself." As for Smith's talk, "Republicans did switch their policies in the 60s and 70s.... Dixiecrats did switch parties." To say they didn't "doesn't jibe with history." He doesn't want to be called racist, though. That term was invented by the Bolsheviks.
Afterward, I turned to Chapman, who really wanted to speak with Heimbach. Chapman decided to call himself a Frederick Douglass Republican. He was unsettled by the shouting. "When people disagree, they go off the deep end," he said. And what about the way in which the liberal and the segregationist seemed to agree? "Weird."
Note: This post has been updated to reflect that the liberal woman questioner's name is Kim Brown.
Stay tuned to complete coverage from on the ground at CPAC all weekend long...