Longtime Republican pollster Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News operation, were named on Aug. 17 as, respectively, the Trump campaign’s manager and its chief executive officer. The appointment of Bannon was by far the more controversial choice, given his role at a “news” outlet known for bashing immigrants, Muslims, women and others.
The CNP is an intensely secretive and shadowy group of what The New York Times once described as “the most powerful conservatives in the country.” It is so tight-lipped that it tells people not to admit their membership or even name the group. Revealing when or where the group meets, or what it discusses, is also forbidden. The organization, which can only be joined by invitation and at a cost of thousands of dollars, strives mightily to keep its membership rolls secret.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), which publishes Hatewatch, obtained a copy this spring of the CNP’s 2014 membership directory, a closely held document. It shows that Conway was a member of the CNP’s executive committee that year, and that Bannon was a regular member. It is not known if they remain.
The CNP is not controversial so much for the conservatives who dominate it — activists of the religious right and the so-called “culture wars,” along with a smattering of wealthy financiers, Congressional operatives, right-wing consultants and Tea Party operatives — as for the many real extremists who are included.
They include people like Michael Peroutka, a neo-Confederate who for years was on the board of the white supremacist League of the South; Jerome Corsi, a strident Obama “birther” and the propagandist hit man responsible for the “Swift boating” of John Kerry; Joseph Farah, who runs the wildly conspiracist “news” operation known as WorldNetDaily; Mat Staver, the Liberty Counsel leader who has worked to re-criminalize gay sex; Philip Zodhaites, another anti-gay activist who is charged with helping a self-described former lesbian who kidnapped her daughter from her former partner and fled the country; and a large number of other similar characters.
As the SPLC noted when it published the 2014 directory in May of this year, the CNP has every right to keep its membership secret. But, as the SPLC wrote then, “it also provides an important venue in which relatively mainstream conservatives meet and very possibly are influenced by real extremists, people who regularly defame LGBT people with utter falsehoods, describe Latino immigrants as a dangerous group of rapists and disease-carriers, engage in the kind of wild-eyed conspiracy theorizing for which the John Birch Society is famous, and even suggest that certain people should be stoned to death in line with Old Testament law.”
The revelation of Conway and Bannon’s CNP memberships comes at a time when the Trump campaign has suffered a number of reverses and internal problems. In June, Trump fired then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, who reportedly had conflicts with Trump’s children and others in the campaign. Lewandowski had also been briefly charged with manhandling a reporter, though the charge was dropped.
Paul Manafort, who became Trump’s campaign manager after Lewandowski’s departure, was allowed to resign earlier this month, after Conway and Bannon were brought in. Manafort had been the subject of a New York Times article just days before that suggested he might have received close to $13 million in unreported payments from the pro-Russian Party of Regions in the Ukraine. Manafort also had a history of working for dictators including Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines.
Bannon is in some ways even more controversial. His Breitbart news operation has specialized in extreme-right propaganda that is summed up in some of the headlines it ran while under his stewardship: “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews,” “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy,” “Lesbian Bridezillas Bully Bridal Shop Owner Over Religious Beliefs” and so on. Breitbart also recently published a defense of the “Alternative Right” that included defending well-known white supremacist ideologues Jared Taylor and Richard Spencer.
It’s not known how their contacts within the CNP may have affected Conway and Bannon. But as the SPLC concluded in its May report on the CNP: “At a time of extreme political polarization in our society, in the middle of an ugly presidential contest which has featured an almost unsurpassed record of ethnic, racial and sexual insults and lies, Americans deserve to know who their ostensible leaders are mixing with as we collectively decide our country’s future.”
That is as true of campaign leaders as it is of political candidates.