NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND – Today, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Donald Trump completed his co-option of the American right. The conservative activist base is his now and it may never be quite the same again.
Scratch all the predictions I made; that this CPAC would be filled with querulous infighting, that a strong anti-Trump contingent might be in attendance. There have been no heated arguments in the bars, no underground resistance meetings looking to subvert the Orange Revolution. Instead, the “Make America Great Again” hat has displaced the Gadsden Flag as CPAC’s most displayed symbol. The significance of that could not be more enormous.
To say that Trump’s speech here was well-received would be to commit an understatement on the order of saying liberals are warming up to this Elizabeth Warren character. The president was totally in his element, emerging to the croons of Lee Greenwood as the crowd applauded raucously and the camera phones were hoisted. The ballroom at the Gaylord Convention Center is pretty big, but Trump made it feel much smaller, cramming it with supporters until the doors bulged, filling it with pandemonium. “I love this place!” Trump bellowed, even though he skipped CPAC last year. The attendees cheered and cheered.
You will not be shocked to learn that Trump spent a few minutes trashing the media, repeating the word “fake” and badmouthing the pollsters at the “Clinton News Network.” Even some in the press section applauded this, an epidemic of Stockholm Syndrome having apparently broken out.
Trump declined to electroshock the journalists for too long, though, and moved on quickly to policy, starting with trade. “I’ve also followed through on my campaign promise and withdrawn America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership,” he bragged, to deafening applause from activists who once considered “big business” to be not at all a pejorative. His insistence that his iconic wall on the American-Mexican border was “way ahead of schedule” was greeted well—illegal immigration is Trump’s door into the conservative house and always has been.
Then, on the Middle East: “If our presidents would have gone to the beach for 15 years, we would be in much better shape than we are now. We could have rebuilt our country three times with that money.” That’s absolutely true but it’s about as radical a departure as I can imagine from my first CPAC in 2006, when George W. Bush was still conferred with (uneasy) hero status and supporting the Iraq war was almost a requirement for admission. But by now, everything in the ballroom was flying up in the air and exploding. Even Bernie Sanders got a polite smattering of applause after Trump hailed his acumen on trade issues.
The most radical Trump line came towards the end: “The GOP will also be, from now on, the party of the American worker.” Forty years ago that would have drawn the shadow of Soviet communism; even 10 years ago, it would have smacked of Marxist class struggle. Today, it expressed the will of the crowd more precisely than anything else Trump said.
This is a new conservatism—some would say there’s nothing conservative about it—premised on reclaiming one’s national identity from cabals of globalists. Nods to the traditional right abounded, especially in Trump’s valiant promise to streamroll the regulatory state, but even that’s more of a radical action than a Burkean one. Anyway the undergirding premise of Trumpism is unquestionably borrowed from the left: an identity-politics preference for the working class over global elites.
In many ways, CPAC was the last beachhead Trump needed to conquer. He canceled on the conference last year, infuriating its young activists and lining them up behind Ted Cruz, who gave the best speech of the conference after narrowly dodging injury from the omnipresent menace of Sean Hannity’s Nerf football. The contrast this year was striking and shows just how obediently principles trail behind vindicated politics. Donald Trump has sat on the conservative leadership throne. His reception at CPAC shows he has no potential usurpers.