Donald Trump arrives at America’s biggest conservative conference on Friday with the event that only last year showed deep skepticism about his insurgent candidacy now almost totally willing to embrace his takeover of their political movement.
“I think by tomorrow this’ll be TPAC!” joked senior White House aide Kellyanne Conway at CPAC on Thursday. It didn’t appear to be far from the truth.
This conference has long been a mecca of traditional American conservatism, for those attracted to the so-called “three-legged stool” of fiscal conservatism, social conservatism and a hawkish foreign policy.
But this year attendees bounded down the hallways donning Trump’s signature red “Make America Great Again” hats, flitting between discussions often framed around what they dubbed a campaign by the “dishonest media” to discredit Trump and his administration.
Richard Barrett, a 21-year-old student who identified himself as an early Trump supporter, said he felt vindicated by the pro-Trump tone that dominated CPAC’s first full day.
“I was here last year, and this convention was pretty anti-Trump,” Barrett said. “It was really funny, because everybody here was ‘Never Trump’; [they said] he’s never going to win the primary, it’s going to be Ted Cruz all the way.’
“And, well, here we are.”
Pete Logsden of suburban Washington echoed this praise. “If I was going to think of any other president to compare him with it would be Reagan, and honestly, he’s more conservative in a lot of ways.”
George Longobardi of Marlboro, New Jersey, said he thought Trump was doing “a pretty good job so far”.
He said “the spirit is different” this year at CPAC, “the energy is different. People feel the country is back on the right track.”
Not everyone agreed. Emily Larsen, from Boise, Idaho, said that although she thought Trump “has been doing a really good job of keeping his promises that he campaigned on”, she had yet to reach a conclusion on whether or not that was a good thing.
She had supported Senator Marco Rubio in the Republican primary and described herself as a “very moderate kind of Republican”. “I’m still coming to terms with the decision to have Trump as president … It’s kind of getting past that shock.”
Among her concerns was Trump’s lack of consultation with Congress before implementing a travel ban last month on seven Muslim-majority countries.
“I think it kind of showed a lack of communication between the executive and legislative branches with that,” she said.
There was nonetheless a broad consensus that the media – which Trump referred to last week as “the enemy of the American people” – was trying to take him down.
Joseph Enders, a 22-year-old originally from Chicago who wore a T-shirt that read “socialism sucks”, echoed senior White House strategist Steve Bannon’s description of the media as “the opposition party”.
“They are going to do everything they can to delegitimize his presidency so they can turn around and say, ‘We told you about this guy.’”
He added: “I stand with Bannon, because I stand for honest reporting. Where are all the Walter Cronkites?”
Nevertheless, not everyone was as concerned as Trump about critical coverage he has been quick to label “fake news”.
Daniela Urizka, a 25-year-old nurse from Seattle, said while the media was “being unfair and skewing, if not making up, stories in a desperate attempt to paint [Trump] as negative … the vast majority of Americans don’t use them as their main source of news”.
“I think there’s areas of the media that are dishonest, but I’d be remiss if I said I don’t trust any news whatsoever,” said Ryan Errotabere.
There was little evidence, however, of serious inroads among the crowd by the so-called “alt-right”, the fringe white nationalist movement that had been fostered by elements of the right in recent years.
Richard Spencer, a self-proclaimed leader of that group, was ejected from the conference at the prodding of an editor at Breitbart; Milo Yiannapolos was invited and disinvited from CPAC, and subsequently pushed to resign from his position as an editor at Breitbart after comments seeming to condone pedophilia; and at least some attendees were skeptical about concerns raised by the far right movement.
Deborah Aldrich, a conservative activist from Salt Lake City, viewed the entire far right in contempt.
“We are a party of inclusivity,” the 60-year-old said.
“We don’t want to discriminate against people. The alt-right doesn’t really have a platform here.”
David Burgess, 62, said he thought the role of the far right in conservatism was “overblown”.
“There’s a lot of political jockeying back and forth. Liberals like to label the right extremists and conservatives like to label the left extremists. Some of the ideas of the Trump people like Bannon may not be traditional, but I think the antisemitism charges are over the top. It’s political posturing; it’s the game they play.”
Enders said of the far right: “It’s growing but I don’t think the race wing of it is growing. Nationalism is part of the alt-right but doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.”
Brandon, a high school student from Bethesda, Maryland, who didn’t want to divulge his last name because he was skipping class, wanted to make clear that while the alt-right was “evil”, it shouldn’t be taken to encompass Yiannopoulos or Infowars, the conspiracy mongering website run by Alex Jones.
But he added: “Aside from those recent comments, I mostly agree with Milo.”