In front of thousands of rapturous fans, Donald Trump promises a military build-up, accuses the media of fabricating stories about him and brags about all the “criminal aliens” he is “throwing the hell out of the country.”
“America is coming about and it’s coming back and it’s roaring and you can hear it,” he declares to a capacity crowd, whose members shout “I love you!” and drown him out with thunderous applause.
If this scene – repeated at rally after rally during Mr. Trump’s run to the presidency last year – is familiar, the venue certainly is not.
This is the main address to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), at which Mr. Trump was promised such a hostile reception last year that he cancelled his speech.
Unfolding over four days at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Centre in the DC suburbs, the conference organized by the American Conservative Union (ACU) is the top event for true believers on the U.S. right. And everyone from evangelical social conservatives to Ayn Rand-toting libertarians were, this time last year, in fits of apoplexy about Mr. Trump.
To some, he was a false prophet who jettisoned his support for universal health care and abortion to bolster his campaign. To others, he was a proto-fascist whose talk of banning Muslims from the country and rounding up illegal immigrants would roll back efforts to pitch a big Republican tent. Attendees planned to stage a walk-out if he spoke in 2016; and Mr. Trump pulled out.
Now, just five weeks into a tumultuous presidency – and on a day he castigated the FBI and declared war on critical media outlets by banning them from a press briefing – Mr. Trump is not only CPAC’s top draw, but also the leader of the movement.
It was a scenario few expected – including the party activists, organizers and earnest university students gathered here hoping to drive a conservative revolution. And the Gaylord – a sprawling waterfront facility built around a surreal ersatz village main street enclosed in a glass atrium – is a showcase for the deep divides in the U.S. right.
“When he speaks, he speaks directly to you,” says Alexandra Rachelle, a 30-year-old health-care industry worker from Florida who is enthusiastic about Mr. Trump’s promise to restore a lost America of good jobs and global strength. “He doesn’t speak above you, he’s not scripted. You feel like he’s your best friend.”
Trey Stoner is less convinced. To the 18-year-old college student, Mr. Trump’s vague promises of massive government spending on infrastructure and new tariff walls are not exactly compatible with the small-government, free-market approach of modern conservatism. Mr. Stoner felt so strongly, he said, that he backed independent candidate Evan McMullin last November.
“I didn’t think Donald Trump met my minimum standards for what a president should be. I don’t like that he’s now the leader of the Republican Party,” he says.
CPAC and the ACU seem, at times, determined to reconcile the Ms. Rachelles and the Mr. Stoners.
One panel at the conference highlights the co-habitation between GOP establishment and hard-right insurgents in the White House, as Mr. Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, sits down with the President’s strategist, Steve Bannon.
Mr. Priebus, a career GOP apparatchik, is in a pinstriped power suit and tie; Mr. Bannon, the investment banker turned Breitbart chair, looks every bit the new-right policy guru with his open-collared shirt, shaggy grey hair and beard.
At other times, CPAC seems resigned simply to allowing both sides of the party to fight it out.
Some events are designed purely to reach out to Mr. Trump’s fans: “If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?” asks one panel.
Others take a cudgel to the hard-right undercurrents in the party. In a blistering speech on Thursday morning, ACU executive director Dan Schneider lays into the white nationalist “alt-right.”
“CPAC, we have been slapped in the face. There is a sinister organization that is trying to worm its way into our ranks,” he says.
Shortly afterwards, Richard Spencer, the white nationalist who coined the term “alternative right,” is escorted out of the conference as he claims victory to reporters: “Donald Trump is stumbling towards a kind of nationalist ideology.”
Mr. Trump’s supporters draw a distinction between the racism of Mr. Spencer and his followers and the President’s policies.
Nick Grandenetti, a 59-year-old restaurant operations director from Pittsburgh, insists Mr. Trump’s immigration ban and border wall are designed only to enforce the law and safeguard national security and have no racial motivation.
“We’re a country of immigrants. I don’t see what he’s doing as racist or Islamophobic; he’s just trying to protect America,” he says.
Many attendees say they have changed their minds about Mr. Trump. Or that his electoral success means they must pin their hopes on him.
Others straddle the gulf between conservatives’ doubts a year ago and their hopes for today.
John Spake, 65, owner of a restaurant equipment company in Quincy, Ill., has never been convinced Mr. Trump is a conservative, given his past stand on health care. But he concedes Mr. Trump has gone some way toward proving his right-wing bona fides – putting conservative stalwarts such as Jeff Sessions and Betsy DeVos in his cabinet, for instance, and implementing the immigration ban.
“I voted for him,” Mr. Spake says. “But the jury’s still out in my opinion.”