Trump's popularity at CPAC, which he once shunned, shows he's conquered conservatives

Donald Trump skipped the nation’s preeminent conference of conservatives last year, underscoring the friction between the populist candidate and many of the warring factions in his party during a heated presidential primary season.

This year, his dominance at the forum, the Conservative Political Action Conference, is hard to miss.

It’s not just the red “Make America Great Again” caps, the throngs of college Republicans surrounding his aides and allies, the giant Trump-decorated pickup truck at the convention center entrance or the excitement about Trump’s Friday speech, the first by a president in his first year in office since Ronald Reagan. 

It’s also a triumph, though not yet a full conquest, for his ideas.

Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News, joked as he sat down for a Thursday’s main event, a panel featuring him and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, that he used to hold a competing event called “Uninvited” for conservatives whose philosophies were considered too radical for the conference.

Now Bannon is a marquee draw at CPAC. The conference organizer interviewed him in front of thousands of people as he spoke about defending his notion of American culture and lashed out against the “corporatist, globalist media” standing in the way of President Trump’s “economic nationalist agenda.”

Bannon also praised Priebus, the former GOP chairman, another indication of how the mainstream of the party has come into Trump’s fold. But both men made clear that Bannon was the one pushing Trump’s vision.

The most sustained applause came when Bannon boasted of killing U.S. participation in a Pacific trade deal among 12 countries that make up 40% of the global economy, a position sharply at odds with traditional conservatives who have long championed such agreements. Trump called the withdrawal “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.”

Bannon did not discuss foreign policy, but he and Trump advocate pulling back from the global stage, another issue that separates them from many traditional Republicans who favor a prominent international role for America.

“We’re at the top of the first inning of this,” Bannon said near the end of his remarks. “We want you to have our back.” 

Conference organizers seemed to have gotten the message.

Breitbart News owns the first booth by the entrance of the convention hall, hawking “Border Wall Construction Company” T-shirts.

One of Bannon’s former editors at Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent voice for the so-called alt-right, a loosely connected network of white nationalists, misogynists and anti-Semites, had been invited to speak until a recording emerged in which he made comments many perceived as endorsing pedophilia. Bannon had called Breitbart under his leadership a platform for the alt-right.

Even those who do not agree with all of Trump’s ideas seemed pleased with the excitement in the halls of the waterfront convention center outside Washington. And they believed he was winning over the conservative movement, even if Trump has historically low popularity ratings with the wider public. Those here who disagree with Trump on trade, a border wall or other populist policies were generally pleased with his Cabinet choices and extremely happy with his nominee for the Supreme Court, federal Judge Neil M. Gorsuch.

“A year ago, a lot of them were for Cruz,” said Ron Fodor, the mayor of Slippery Rock, Pa., referring to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another event speaker who was competing with Trump in 2016 for the Republican presidential nomination.

Now, Fodor said, “it’s kind of like a victory party.”

For most of the last two decades, CPAC has served as a cattle call for aspiring presidential candidates. Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also ran in the 2016 GOP primary, showed up this year. But with Trump’s victory, the party will not be seeking a new standard-bearer for some time.

In recent years, Cruz and libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul have won straw polls at the conference, owing to its libertarian streak. But before Trump snubbed last year’s event, he had been a fairly popular draw, mostly because of his willingness to attack liberals in blunt terms.

Many who attend the conference are college students, still sorting out their ideologies but eager to engage in politics.

Dakota Workman, a 22-year-old college senior at West Virginia University, had been a big Cruz backer a year ago. Thursday, he was holding a new “Make America Great Again” hat.

“He’s kept all his promises,” Workman said, pointing to Trump’s orders deregulating coal, his nomination of Gorsuch and his immigration actions.

Workman said he does not agree with Trump on trade and some other policies. He’ll stick with him when he can. But he still sees Trump as a different breed of Republican.

“He has his own brand,” Workman said.

Trump is in a honeymoon phase with conservatives who once held him at arm’s length, even if he is not getting the same benefit from the public at large, said Henry Olsen, a conservative political analyst and author of a forthcoming book on working-class Republicans. But Olsen said he expects more tension  once Trump has to weigh in with specific policy on healthcare and issues that affect the budget, where his priorities clash with some in the GOP.

“Trump is very popular among the conservative base right now in part because he has all the right enemies,” Olsen said. “Are his policies becoming more popular, those that disagree with mainstream conservatism? Yeah, there’s some evidence of that, but I don’t think it’s a done deal that the Republican Party is the party of protectionism.”

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Twitter: @noahbierman

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