The conservative movement is learning to love President Donald Trump. But he’s no Ronald Reagan … yet.
Thirty-six years ago, the newly inaugurated President Reagan showed up at the Conservative Political Action Conference, CPAC, to a jubilant reception.
“Our time is now. Our moment has arrived. We stand together shoulder-to-shoulder in the thickest of the fight,” Reagan announced.
Friday, Trump hopes to engineer a pivotal political moment that will echo Reagan’s.
“I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC,” predicted the president’s counselor Kellyanne Conway, launching an intense White House charm offensive at the conservative extravaganza on Thursday, priming the crowd for Trump’s speech.
The President’s appearance will mark a milestone in his transformation of a Republican Party that finds its traditional social, economic and national security constituencies infused with his power base of blue-collar supporters who were electrified by his populist rhetoric.
Trump was a harder sell for the conservative grassroots than Reagan, whose political spirit still resonates at every CPAC, after he hoisted the conservative movement from the depths of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 election debacle to the White House 16 years later.
In many ways, Trump is in the opposite position, after ravaging the hopes of conservative rising stars like Sens. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz in capturing the Republican nomination last year.
For much of the presidential campaign, many conservatives doubted that Trump was really among their number at all, given his flamboyant thrice-married lifestyle and decades spent as the tabloid king of liberal Manhattan and his late conversions to non-negotiable conservative positions on issues like abortion.
His brand of non-ideological populism and “America First” economic nationalism still seems an odd fit for the spending hawks, evangelicals and libertarians that have traditionally made up the broad CPAC coalition.
But to paraphrase former GOP defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, you go to war with the President you have, not the one you might want, and conservatives are becoming more and more comfortable with their new champion in the White House.
How Trump fits in with the conservative movement
At times, Thursday’s roster of speakers at CPAC felt like aseminar devoted to refashioning Trump as a conservative befitting the movement’s core principles.
Speakers exhorted activists, who include many students who represent the movement’s future, to remember that Trump was as good as his word in nominating an authentic conservative, Neil Gorsuch, for the Supreme Court.
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a movement heroine fresh off a tough confirmation fight, also rallied the crowd, painting Trump as the epitome of anti-establishment views on school choice and liberal college professors that have long percolated among conservatives.
And Vice President Mike Pence, an ambassador between Trump and social conservatives, vouched for his boss at CPAC on Thursday night, rolling off crowd-favorites such the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, restoring the Mexico City Policy on abortion funding and promises to repeal Obama-era regulations and executive actions.
“I believe President Trump has given voice to aspirations and frustrations to Americans like no leader since Reagan,” Pence said.
Conway, a fixture at CPAC for years, made the case that though Trump hardly fit the traditional profile of conservatism, he is an appropriate leader for the movement in the White House.
“Every great movement, which the conservative movement is of course … ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time, and I think they need an infusion of energy,” Conway said, arguing that the insurgent President is a kindred spirit to conservatives who feel their views brand them as outsiders.
“He’s sort of the first candidate of his type — that non-politician, true outsider (who) was coming to shake up the system,” she said.
CPAC also called upon a professor, Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College, to chart an ideological path for conservatives to reach Trump.
Arnn defined conservatism as the preservation of founding US principles, a restrained government unrecognizable from an “ugly” and unconstitutional federal state he said had been bequeathed by progressives.
“If you see that, then you see somebody running for president, and even if he talks about himself too much, if he is fearless in saying that he is going to cut back that vast hedge that has come and overcome so much of our country, if he does that fearlessly and is not afraid of that political correctness, I think that guy is a conservative,” Arnn said.
What a difference a year makes
The embrace of Trump was a far cry from last year, when the businessman skipped the annual conservative extravaganza, and speakers and his then primary rivals mocked his no-show.
American Conservative Union Chairman Matt Schlapp remarked on the change of atmosphere this year and posed the question underlying three days of festivities which traditionally serve as a pageant of inspiration for young conservatives as they return to their communities.
“Trump brought a lot of new people. There’s probably people in this crowd that wouldn’t have been in this crowd before,” he said.
“So there’s a lot of diversity here … Can this Trump movement be combined with what’s (been) happening at CPAC and other conservative movements for 50 years? Can this be brought together?”
In case anyone had missed the point, the White House rolled out the heavyweight duo of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Trump’s political guru Steve Bannon for a rare joint appearance meant to scotch reports that they are feuding.
“President Trump brought together the party and the conservative movement. If the party and the conservative movement are together like Steve and I, it can’t be stopped,” said Priebus, a creature of the establishment, who in temperament and ideology could hardly be less like his fiery colleague from the movement’s nationalist fringe.
Once, as Priebus was talking, a chant of “Trump, Trump, Trump,” erupted from the conference floor.
Bannon, often seen as the hidden Machiavelli of the West Wing and the guardian of Trump’s unique political philosophy, showed how the billionaire has changed the ideological tilt of the GOP.
Spelling out a creed of strong national defense, economic nationalism and the destruction of the regulatory state, he lauded Trump’s decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a move at odds with the Republican Party’s globalist pro-trade heritage — as “one of the pivotal moments in modern American history.”
Bannon also fired up delegates with a vow to battle the “opposition party,” as he calls the media.
“As economic conditions get better, as more jobs get better, they’re going to continue to fight,” Bannon said. “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day, it is going to be a fight.”
Changing face of CPAC?
But the newly nationalist face of conservatism embraced by Trump and his acolytes has some traditional adherents of the movement nervous.
Conservative commentator David Frum said on Twitter that Bannon had been “impressively candid” about Trump’s agenda of launching a “series of trade wars” across the world.
“Reince says Trump administration is about taxes & regulation. Bannon says it’s about overturning the global order. Nuances,” Frum wrote.
Ahead of the conference, CPAC retracted a speaking invitation to nationalist polemicist Milo Yiannopoulos after comments in which he appeared to endorse sex between “younger boys and older men.”
Yiannopoulos also resigned from Breitbart News, the conservative news site formerly run by Bannon.
As they embrace the populist, nationalist brand of conservatism espoused by Trump, CPAC organizers are also taking steps to shield their brand from more extreme elements — including the alt-right movement that has in some cases backed the new President or used his rise to gain more notoriety for itself.
Some alt-right activists are accused of harboring extreme, racist and anti-Semitic views, and the ACU’s Executive Director Dan Schneider warned delegates that its “sinister” influence is trying to “worm its way” into their ranks.
“They are racists, they are sexists, they hate the Constitution, they hate free markets, they hate pluralism,” Schneider said.
“They despise everything we believe in. They are not an extension of conservatism. They are nothing but garden variety left-wing fascists.”