Trump tells CPAC he's the conservative they've been waiting for

By Ed Morrissey

Editor’s note: Ed Morrissey is senior editor at, a columnist for The Week and The Fiscal Times, and author of “Going Red: The Two Million Voters Who Will Elect the Next President — and How Conservatives Can Win Them.” The views expressed are his own.

(CNN) — Donald Trump and CPAC may have had a fractious history, but his speech Friday to the Conservative Political Action Conference proved that winning at least obscures divisions for a while, even if it don’t entirely erase them.

It was a disciplined message he delivered in Maryland, though in his usual extemporaneous style — and that message was all about commonality of purpose.

To the left and those inside the media, it may have seemed like business as usual — a reinforcement of traditional conservative talking points and promises. But that would be to misunderstand what the appearance meant for the Trump of 2017 — in a different position now from the Trump who snubbed the proceedings in 2016, causing conservatives and populists at the annual conference to take sides.

On Friday, he arrived at CPAC having proven that he could motivate enough support outside of those policy and media circles to gain the power to deliver on those conservative promises.

And he has connected not just with the gathered activists and policy wonks, but with voters in Middle America that felt left out and left behind. Indeed, he continues to demonstrate that his message and his agenda can energize and motivate conservatives and other voters, including those who just a year earlier in this same venue viewed his candidacy with considerable skepticism. Now they are excited about him.

“It’s great to be back at CPAC … I love this place,” he declared. The reception from the capacity crowd made it clear that the feeling is mutual, at least for now in the flush of victory, with the 2016 tensions replaced by a remarkable sense of optimism and enthusiasm.

That enthusiasm came in part because of Trump’s address, which shrewdly framed his agenda in the context of familiar conservative flashpoint issues. He targeted the media, long a bête noire for the right, calling out “fake news” and the use of anonymous sources on stories. “Let their names be put out there,” Trump said about critical stories based on leaks. “Let them say it to my face.”

He continued his attack on “fake news,” but said he respected the media and reporters who work hard to get stories right. Trump insisted that he will defend the First Amendment — “who uses it more than me?” he quipped, getting a laugh — but that it also allows him to criticize the media, just as it allows the media to criticize him.

On policy, Trump also stuck mainly to the common ground between populists and conservatives. Border security and immigration enforcement got the loudest cheers, as well as his pledge to represent the United States rather than the globe.

He repeatedly praised the NRA and pledged, “We will protect the Second Amendment,” another hot-button issue with conservatives. He pledged that tax reform and deregulation, longtime projects at CPAC, would be high on his list of priorities, too.

All of those issues command common between populists and conservatives. The one area in which Trump appeared to seek a middle ground was on national security policy in the Middle East. He criticized the interventionist foreign policies of both Barack Obama and George Bush, saying “if our presidents had gone to the beach for the last 15 years, we’d be in much better shape.”

However, Trump also got loud cheers for his pledge to “obliterate ISIS” and conduct “one of the great military buildups in American history.” The two positions are not necessarily contradictory, but they do highlight one political tightrope he must walk between the two factions responsible for the Republican Party triumph in 2016.

The populists who carried Trump to victory, especially those of the Ron and Rand Paul factions, want an end to foreign entanglements altogether. Movement conservatives and the neocons mainly favor a forward strategy on terrorism, and hope to advance Western interests in former Soviet republics, which populists blame for bad relations with Russia. Balancing all this will be especially tricky in the months ahead.

Factions may end up at odds again before next year’s CPAC on other potential fracture points, such as the tension between conservatives and populists on the deficits and on entitlement reform — the latter especially acute on the issue of Obamacare repeal.

For the moment, though, the focus remains on the potential for significant advances for the right — and Trump’s speech reminded conservatives at CPAC of those tantalizing possibilities.

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