NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — They should have known better. The college kids, crammed into the back-right corner of an overflow ballroom here at the Gaylord National Resort, should have recognized that the props being distributed to them were, in fact, miniature Russian flags. But as the president of the United States strode onto the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference, they—and scores of other attendees nearby—whipped them proudly overhead. And why wouldn’t they? After all, the flags carried the ultimate seal of approval, with regal golden letters scrawled across their middle: TRUMP.
It was a prank—a wildly successful one—perpetrated by liberal troublemakers attempting to draw attention to Russia’s odd relationship with President Donald Trump and members of his campaign. Within moments, CPAC officials spotted the flags and deployed staff members to confiscate them from the confused youngsters. “It said ‘Trump’ on it, and it was red, white and blue,” Zachary Jenkins, a member of the College Republicans at Marshall University in West Virginia, told me afterward, a sheepish look on his face. “So I just assumed it was OK.”
It amounted to little more than an embarrassing bit of publicity. And yet the incident highlighted, somewhat hilariously, conservatism’s blind spot in the age of Trump. Jenkins and his friends likely would have realized the flags were foreign, and wouldn’t have waved them, had they not been branded with his name; likewise, conservatives would ordinarily oppose protectionist, cronyist, big-spending, debt-accumulating policies—if they weren’t signature stances of the new Republican president.
To spend three days at this year’s CPAC, the annual right-wing carnival of politics and culture, was to witness an ideology conforming to an individual rather than the other way around. The president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, set the tone Thursday morning when asked to assess Trump’s impact on the conservative movement. “Well, I think by tomorrow this will be TPAC,” she said. The moderator laughed and so did the audience members, but it wasn’t a joke: Anyone searching for a brand of conservatism independent of the new president would have walked away sorely disappointed.
After a three-day celebration of Trumpism, the announcement of the straw poll results on Saturday afternoon told the whole story. A full 86 percent of attendees approved of Trump’s job performance so far, compared with just 12 percent who disapproved. More consequentially, on the question of whether Trump is “realigning the conservative movement,” 80 percent agreed and only 15 percent disagreed. Both statistics were met with cheers inside the main ballroom.
“In many ways, Donald Trump is the conservative movement right now,” Jim McLaughlin, the Republican pollster who conducted the survey, told CPAC attendees. “And the conservative movement is Donald Trump.”
To some extent, everyone expected to see Trump remake the Republican Party in his image; he became its leader upon clinching the presidential nomination last July and solidified that status for at least four years on November 8. But Trump was not supposed to bend conservatism to his will—at least, not this quickly. Certainly, he has thrilled the GOP grassroots with certain decisions, such as signing executive orders aimed at deregulation, beginning a crackdown on illegal immigration and nominating an originalist in Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. But he has also done other things—facilitating a deal with Carrier in Indiana that smacked of crony capitalism; bullying private corporations and individual citizens; declaring reporters the enemy of the American public; asserting a moral equivalence between the U.S. government and Vladimir Putin’s – that would typically put any politician in the crosshairs of the right.
Trump, however, has encountered scant dissent from his party’s ideological base. So he came to CPAC not to pay homage to the traditions of conservatism, but to bask in the supremacy of his own movement, one that he and his allies believe will supplant the outdated orthodoxies peddled for decades by the very people who greeted him like a conquering hero on Friday morning.
In his meandering 48-minute speech, Trump did not once use the words “liberty” or “constitution.” He did not invoke the name of Ronald Reagan, the last Republican president to address CPAC during his first year in office, and to whom he was incessantly compared throughout the week. He made no reference to “government,” in terms of keeping it small, limited or otherwise. And the only time he uttered the word “conservative” was in reference to his triumph at the ballot box. “Our victory was a victory … for conservative values,” Trump declared.
Then, in a stroke of strategic and rhetorical genius, the president conflated those “conservative values” with his own. “The core conviction of our movement,” Trump told his standing-room-only audience, “is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.” The crowd ate it up.
To Trump—and to his chief strategist, Steve Bannon, who appeared on a Thursday panel alongside chief of staff Reince Priebus—this means pursuing an agenda of “economic nationalism” that, among other things, restricts trade, subsidizes certain domestic businesses and borrows and spends large sums of money to spur job growth and wealth creation. None of this is remotely compatible with the modern conservative movement, which has been defined to a large extent by its adherence to the principles of free trade, free markets and fiscal restraint.
It wasn’t just the ubiquitous deification of Trump that was so jarring. It was the degree to which his worldview was accepted, championed and cheered by conservative speakers and attendees with no obvious connection to the new president. Consistently, anti-trade rhetoric drew the loudest ovations, especially when packaged as part of a broader assault on “globalism,” a particular hobbyhorse of Bannon and the Breitbart crew.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, CPAC’s governing body, swore he wasn’t worried about the appearance of Trumpism subjugating the traditional right. “Trump voices that are added to CPAC are wonderful because it will help us win,” he told me. “We have to have more people. We can be a very pristine conservative movement—and be very small and make no difference.”
The push for intellectual and ideological diversity is commendable, save for the inconvenient reality that it was nowhere to be found. Over three days of speeches and panels and seminars, nary a negative word was directed at the president or his policies. And with the exception of a few collegiates handing out “free market” buttons, there was no pushback on a nationalist platform that not long ago wouldn’t have been welcome at this very gathering.
Only a year ago, CPAC attendees—the majority of whom supported either Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio—threatened a mass boycott of Trump’s scheduled speech. He ultimately cancelled his appearance, and conservatives in attendance roared with approval whenever one of the speakers lambasted the man who, to their great dismay, had emerged as the Republican presidential front-runner.
“Last year we were talking about a walkout if Trump showed up, and this year it’s all Trump all the time. It has completely changed,” said Dominic Moore, a University of North Carolina student who attended CPAC for the first time in 2016 and backed Rubio in the GOP primary. “Last year the Make America Great Again hats were few and far between. Now they’re everywhere. Last year the speakers were attacking him and now everyone’s done a full 180. They’re all on the bandwagon. Everything has changed.”
Few seem to think that’s a bad thing. In conversations with dozens of attendees, only a handful expressed qualms at Trump’s takeover of CPAC—and most of those were conservative political consultants who asked not to be quoted for fear of reprisals from Republicans they do business with. I met several first-time attendees, such as Ohio University student Johnny Paszke, who came explicitly to show their support for Trump—and dismissed questions about the president’s ideological mooring. “I think he is a fairly liberal conservative,” Paszke told me with a shrug. “That’s OK.” (When I asked Paszke what it means to be a fairly liberal conservative, he said Trump will never be as far-right as Cruz, who appeared at the conference Thursday.)
And then there was Margaret Howell. When Trump took the stage Friday morning, I glanced over and noticed her, standing several feet away inside the media pen, with tears of joy running down her cheek. “It was overwhelming,” she told me afterward. “He really inspires people.” It turns out Howell works for Right Side Broadcasting, the pro-Trump livestreaming network, and was formerly a reporter for InfoWars and the Kremlin-backed RT television network. She, too, was a first-time attendee. “I was never inspired to come to CPAC prior to Donald Trump,” she confessed. “Why would I be?”
It’s a fair question. For most of its history, CPAC, which debuted in 1973, promoted an intellectually exclusive and ideologically insular worldview known as movement conservatism. Even as it gradually expanded its philosophical tent—allowing pro-LGBT groups; inviting an atheist speaker; absorbing the young, libertarian supporters of Ron and Rand Paul—the gathering still reflected a set of political sensibilities that were broadly within the Republican mainstream. CPAC organizers kept their distance from the likes of Bannon and his Breitbart.com, which attacked Republicans on the center-right and preached a provocative populism that many in the movement considered a threat.
That seemed a distant memory this week. Even before the conference convened, Schlapp was under fire for inviting Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right cage-rattler with no serious claim to conservatism. He was ultimately disinvited after video surfaced of him making approving remarks about pedophilia, but the conference nonetheless had a decidedly unfamiliar feel. Bannon—who made a point of caustically thanking Schlapp for finally inviting him to CPAC—was prominently featured and made headlines by promoting his vision for economic nationalism and the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Breitbart was a sponsor, its logo slapped conspicuously across the main stage. And the upstart news outlet’s brand of conservatism drove the proceedings in dominant fashion, dictating everything from the panel topics to the headline speakers. (Notably, while Trump and his administration allies were given plum slots, there were no speeches from longtime CPAC favorites such as Paul Ryan, Marco Rubio and Rand Paul.)
It all contributed to the distinct and growing impression that conservatism, rather than expanding to make room for Trumpism, is being swallowed up by it altogether.
“Politics is an evolving process. You cannot simply say, ‘I’m a Reagan Republican and I will never move from my positions,’” Luis Fortuno, the former Puerto Rico governor and an ACU board member, said when I asked about Trump’s influence on conservatism. “Conditions are different today than they were 25 years ago. And we must evolve.”
It’s one thing for a movement to organically evolve toward smarter, more advantageous policy positions; it’s quite another to surrender its ideological foundations in the face of political headwinds. This distinction is at the heart of Trump’s relationship with the right, as conservatives navigate the fine line between cooperation and capitulation.
“Overall, I’m keeping an optimistic outlook,” said Matt Batzel, executive director of American Majority, a grassroots group that ran activist training sessions at CPAC. “But we have to be vigilant. Everyone who’s part of the conservative movement has an obligation to speak out so that one person doesn’t fundamentally transform conservatism.”
This idea of keeping conservatism sovereign from Republicanism, to check its excesses from a place of principle, was of paramount importance to CPAC devotees in the aftermath of George W. Bush’s presidency. Schlapp, who served as White House political director—and who saw relatively little resistance on the right as Bush doubled the national debt and dramatically grew the federal government—knows better than anyone the danger of the conservative movement deferring to a Republican president.
“My guess is there will be some rocky moments,” he said of Trump’s alliance with the right. “My job as the head of a conservative organization is not to be his cheerleader. My job as the head of a conservative organization is to stand for our values.”
After CPAC 2017, however, it’s unclear whose values he’s referring to.
When I asked Jenkins, the flag-waving Marshall University student, whether he thought Trump is a conservative, he grinned. “I think Trump is redefining what it means to be a conservative.”