WASHINGTON, D.C. — For five years, Susan Blake has driven 14 hours from her home in South Florida to Washington, D.C. for the Values Voters Summit. The annual trip allows the 59-year-old small business owner to meet other Christians and to hear Republican lawmakers talk about their faith and their efforts to push legislation that aligns with her religious beliefs.
And for the first time this year, Blake said she was excited to hear the president address the event. “It feels good. It feels like we have taken our power back,” Blake told ThinkProgress. “I love President Trump. He’s really evolved… He has a biblical worldview now as opposed to just a billionaire’s worldview.”
Trump has a complicated relationship with Christian nationalists, who have looked past his questionable personal history, including his multiple marriages and many allegations of sexual abuse, and helped propel him to the White House. As he spoke on Friday, religious voters gave him multiple standing ovations and said they’re also willing to look past his indiscretions.
Trump’s presidency has also brought a slew of nontraditional Republicans in the White House, including many from Breitbart News. The self-described “platform for the alt-right,” Breitbart has published stories that claim birth control makes women unattractive and crazy, that gay rights make us dumber, and that fat-shaming “works,” among myriad other fringe claims.
This week, it was revealed in an investigation by BuzzFeed News that Breitbart Executive Chairman Steve Bannon helped direct white supremacist and Nazi beliefs into the mainstream. As an adviser to Trump, Bannon capitalized on simmering resentment, hate, and racism, elevating white supremacist voices and feeding their beliefs into the White House.
Bannon will speak to the the summit on Saturday, along with Sebastian Gorka, a man who aired his Islamophobic beliefs in Breitbart before serving as a White House national security adviser until August.
Christian voters attending the summit told ThinkProgress Friday they’re excited to hear from both men, who they don’t see as propagating hate speech. Just one of the attendees ThinkProgress spoke with was aware of Bannon’s connection to racist groups.
“I don’t think that Steve Bannon or anybody at Breitbart is hateful,” Blake said. “I don’t know where people come up with this.”
Summit attendees also dismissed evidence that Bannon and others at Breitbart worked with the billionaire Mercer family both to get Trump elected and to mainstream white nationalist ideology.
“Maybe I’m just naive,” Blake continued. “From what I know of Steve Bannon and listening to Breitbart News, I don’t see them as white nationalists.”
“I do not support the white nationalist, alt-right, KKK, whatever you want to call them,” said Martha Boneta, the executive vice president for Citizens for the Republic, a group founded by former President Ronald Reagan. “They are not a part of my belief systems or my values and I unequivocally condemn them. Anybody that has anything to do with those groups I want nothing to do with.”
Boneta said she had no knowledge of Bannon and other Breitbart staff members’ connection to the people she says she condemns.
“I absolutely don’t believe that they’re affiliated with them,” she said. “I’ve never heard them speak about any of these groups in favor of them. I’ve never heard them encourage hateful actions. I don’t attribute them to these hate groups.”
Mandeville, Louisiana-resident Denise Hopkins called it “absolute nonsense” that Bannon gave a platform to white nationalists.
“You know what’s emboldened neo-Nazis?” she countered. “Eight years of the previous regime saying ‘all white people are terrible and you have to pay back for what someone did 200 years ago’ and stir up racial stuff.”
But some attendees took note of Bannon’s presence on the schedule and his connection to hate groups. Nathaniel Lance said he frequently doesn’t support the things that Bannon and Gorka say.
“Obviously they have a right to speak. I have no issue with that,” he said. “As long as the group is not endorsing their comments. Now I understand that having them here speaking is kind of a tacit endorsement, and so that makes me a little uncomfortable.”
If he were the one to make the decision, Lance said, he would cut Bannon from the summit’s agenda.
Long before he invited Bannon and Gorka to speak at the event, Family Research Council (FRC) President Tony Perkins has been accused of having connections to the KKK. In 2005, it was reported that he paid former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke $82,500 for his mailing list.
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has designated FRC, the event’s host organization, a hate group for its denigration of the LGBTQ community. The FRC has fought that label, attacking the civil rights organization and claiming it is the SPLC inciting conflict.
Update: This post has been changed to remove the name of Nathaniel Lance’s employer at Lance’s request.