This year’s annual conservative conference shows how Trump is changing the GOP
Just a year after Donald Trump skipped the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) amid questions about his conservative credentials, the now-president returned to the event for a hero’s welcome. The conservative movement, long focused on fiscal discipline and reigning in government overreach, was remade in his image.
At the annual gathering for conservative activists, organizers, and Republican party figures, red and white “Make America Great Again” hats were almost as prolific as the traditional GOP elephant. Breakout sessions took on a decidedly Trumpian tone and flavor — attendees could sit in on “Fake News and the Lame Stream Media” on Thursday, “Revolt of the Deplorables: Inside Election 2016” on Friday, and “If Heaven Has a Gate, A Wall, and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?” on Saturday.
The list of speakers, typically a who’s who of Republican establishment figures and conservative stars, featured just three 2016 GOP presidential contenders outside of the Trump Administration.
As White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway put it on Thursday, “This will be TPAC when he’s here, no doubt.”
Nowhere was the shift clearer than in this year’s straw poll, where attendees traditionally vote on their picks for president and priorities for the movement. But while the poll this year didn’t include a presidential preference question, it revealed that 86 percent of attendees approve of the job Trump’s doing and 80 percent said Trump is “realigning” the conservative movement. Conservatives still value traditional priorities over Trump’s top policy goals though. They named tax reform as the campaign promise they’d most want Trump to achieve; building the wall came third.
In recent years, CPAC has featured a strong libertarian flavor, with Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul winning the conference’s straw poll for “first choice” for president three years in a row, prior to 2016. Then, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz won, with Florida Sen. Marco Rubio taking second and Trump a distant third. Trump was never a favorite at CPAC in years prior; during his 2015 speech, he was booed by attendees.
But the focus on Trumpism over conservatism at this year’s CPAC — which largely serves as a training ground for younger conservatives — left some attendees alarmed by a movement they said they no longer recognized. That was the case for Anthony Allen, a 25-year-old University of Central Florida student and campus coordinator for the Libertarian group, Students for Liberty.
“A lot of the positions [the Trump administration is] taking are antithetical to the traditional conservative viewpoint,” he said. He pointed to Trump receiving cheers during his CPAC speech for what Allen said were his “protectionist trade policies.”
“I don’t consider myself a conservative, but at least we [libertarians] had allies. Now, I find myself allying more with the left,” Allen added.
The transformation is remarkable for a conference that helped catapult Ronald Reagan to conservative icon status in 1977 with his speech outlining a vision for a “New Republican Party”: a three-legged stool built on social, fiscal, and national security conservatism.
For decades, that vision was reality for the GOP. But Trump’s ascension to the White House last November, after a tumultuous eight years of soul-searching for the Republican Party, seemed to cement a shift away from traditional conservatism to something quite different.
What that something is remained unclear at CPAC, even as Trump’s top advisers took the stage Thursday and laid out what they saw as his accomplishments. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus praised Trump for uniting the GOP and the grassroots movement; White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon told attendees a top Trump priority would be the “deconstruction of the administrative state” and touted the president’s “economic nationalism.”
And many attendees — particularly young conservatives — were happily willing to ignore the dissonance between Trump’s plans and past comments and conservative tradition. Instead, they reveled in, as Ohio State University junior Jacob Newton put it, “the Republican power” Trump’s election won for them.
“We’re actually able to get stuff done in government now,” he said. “We had the power in the House and Senate [before] and weren’t able to actually pass something.”
Nevermind the fact that Trump has stepped back from some of his campaign promises — like appointing a special prosecutor to investigate Hillary Clinton’s use of a private server; botched some, like his Muslim ban; or gotten a slow start to others, like his pledge to repeal and replace Obamacare within the first 100 days of his term.
Newton expressed confidence that Trump and Republicans in Congress would get around to tackling Obamacare and touted, in particular, the president’s business experience as being good for the economy.
“He’s a businessman. He knows how to work a business; I feel like he’ll run the country like a company,” Newton said.
And for others, it’s Trump’s very departure from traditional conservatism that made him an attractive candidate. Joey Mistretta, a 15-year-old high school sophomore from Warrenton, Virginia, praised the president for largely avoiding social issues, which he felt bogged down conservatives in the past.
“Republicans were too set in their old ways. They were very, very conservative in ways I don’t think the American people cared about anymore,” he said, a pin bearing Trump’s face attached to the label of his blue blazer and a MAGA hat atop his gelled hair. “I think they were stuck on issues like abortion and gay marriage that Trump didn’t really focus on.”
Mistretta also appreciated Trump’s economic policy, touting exactly what Allen — the college libertarian — said was anathema to conservatism: “how he proposes tariffs to protect manufacturing.”
The younger generation’s lack of historical context seemed to have helped Trump overcome much of the controversy related to his ties to Russia as well. Young attendees repeatedly said that they didn’t see the trouble with Trump’s attempts to make nice with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the country either posed little threat to the U.S., or improved relations would be good for Americans.
Lara Willis, a college senior from Greenville, South Carolina, said the Russia talk was “extremely overhyped.”
“I don’t know what the issue is with having a good relationship with Russia,” she said. “I don’t know if [Putin’s] trying to play the puppetmaster on the United States, so Trump might get a little caught up in that, but I think it’s good to keep your enemies closer.”