“This will be TPAC when he’s here, no doubt,” Conway quipped.
It was a throwaway line, not a statement of deep philosophical intent. But it spoke volumes about the way the Republican Party has been altered by the rise of Trump, and it sparked alarm even among attendees at the conference.
“I think that’s dangerous,” said Sarah Markley, a student at Grove City College near Pittsburgh. “I think that we should first stick to our principles and look for somebody who embodies those.”
Conservative radio talk show host Mark Levin, strolling through a crowd of admirers asking him for photos, bristled when told of Conway’s remark.
“It’s Conservative Political Action Conference. That’s what it is. It’ll be that 10 years from now,” Levin said. “When I worked for [President Ronald] Reagan, we didn’t call it RPAC. So I would remind them about that.”
Ben Shapiro, a former Breitbart News writer who has been a vocal Trump critic, wrote that “the Trump cult of personality is well underway.”
“It’s not wrong for CPAC to celebrate Trump,” Shapiro wrote. “He’s a Republican president with a Republican Congress, and he will undoubtedly push some conservative policies and already has (which I have thoroughly celebrated). But to substitute Trump worship for adherence to conservatism is a recipe for disaster.”
Conway was not the only high-ranking White House official to be a cheerleader for Trump at the conference. Trump’s top adviser, Steve Bannon, appeared with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and the two spent their time on stage alternating between hyperbolic praise for Trump and complaining of how unfair press coverage has been.
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, right, hugs White House strategist Steve Bannon as they are introduced to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)
Slideshow: Scenes from CPAC 2017 >>>
Priebus said Trump will be “one of the greatest presidents that ever served this country” and that he has already “put in the best Cabinet in the history of Cabinets.”
Bannon, the former Breitbart News editor in chief who was considered so unpalatable to conservatives that he was not welcome at CPAC in previous years, said Trump is “probably the greatest public speaker in those large arenas since William Jennings Bryan” and that “one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history was [Trump’s] immediate withdrawal from [the Trans-Pacific Partnership].”
Priebus even led the audience in chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
Yet most CPAC attendees who spoke with Yahoo News did not believe Trump is a conservative. “He’s more of a populist,” said Kathleen Smero, a sales representative who had come down from Baltimore to attend the conference.
Trump campaigned during the election against trade deals and in favor of protectionist policies at odds with conservative belief in free markets, against reducing the national debt, against much in the way of restraints on the presidency, and in favor of big government. And in perhaps the biggest departure from conservatism, Trump supporters backed him because he represented radical change and disruption.
But since taking office, he has satisfied the right on several counts, most notably his nomination of a respected federal judge, Neil Gorsuch, to be considered for confirmation by the Senate to the Supreme Court.
“I do admit that I had sort of a doomsday scenario when he was elected, but compared to my very low expectations he definitely has exceeded them. I do like some of the people in his Cabinet,” said Jorge Villarreal, a community college student from Houston who voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson for president.
And Smero, who voted for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in the presidential primary and for Trump in the general election last fall, said she was willing to give Trump a chance.
“I don’t necessarily think he’s a conservative. But I think he has popular ideas that resonate with a lot of middle class Americans,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of hysteria right now. We need to just kick back, let him work a little bit. Let’s see what happens.”
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo: Susan Walsh/AP)
The right’s identity crisis was evident in Conway’s comment and in a speech given soon after that by Dan Schneider, the executive director of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC.
Schneider delivered a blistering rebuke to the movement known as the “alt-right,” which includes white supremacist and Nazi elements.
“They hate the Constitution. They hate free markets. They hate pluralism. They hate everything and despise everything we believe in,” Schneider said.
Schneider said that the alt-right “is trying to worm its way into our ranks. We must not be duped. We must not be deceived.”
Behind Schneider, the logos of CPAC sponsors were emblazoned on the stage. One of the logos was that of Breitbart, which has given alt-right views a platform. A year ago, Breitbart ran a piece describing alt-right thought in sympathetic terms.
“They are mostly white, mostly male middle-American radicals, who are unapologetically embracing a new identity politics that prioritises the interests of their own demographic,” wrote then-senior editor Milo Yiannopoulos and a co-author. “The alt-right’s intellectuals would also argue that culture is inseparable from race. The alt-right believe that some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved.”
Alt-right thinkers “truly believe that multiethnic democracies cannot succeed,” Shapiro, a former Breitbart columnist, said last fall.
Schneider’s comments were even more noteworthy considering that until two days earlier, Yiannopoulos — who has identified himself as part of the alt-right — had been on the schedule to speak at the conference. It was only after a video surfaced showing Yiannopoulos defending men having sex with underage boys that ACU chairman Matt Schlapp disinvited the provocateur.
As if all this were not surreal enough, after Schneider spoke, Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader who led followers in chants of “Hail Trump” and Nazi salutes after Trump’s election last fall, appeared in the hall outside the CPAC meeting and was surrounded by a crowd of reporters. He explained that his views are “about caring about your people.”
“My people are Europeans,” he said.
Spencer declared that the alt-right “was always about a right wing that was against the conservative movement” and said that Trump “has a connection with the alt-right.”
Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader, speaks to reporters before he was thrown out of the CPAC meeting. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
“He has a deeper connection with us than he does with conservatives, who believe in sovereign individuality and free market capitalism and so on. He has a deeper connection with us because we are about the nation too,” Spencer said.
Spencer was thrown out by CPAC organizers after his comments to reporters, but some of his comments were echoed by Bannon from the stage a few hours later.
“The center core of what we believe, that we’re a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being. I think that’s what unites us,” Bannon said.
Bannon has said in the past that he is worried about the future of the “Judeo-Christian West.” That’s not exactly the same thing as Spencer’s more explicit references to ethnic heritage. But it is similar in that Bannon’s focus is on preserving a certain culture rather than a set of ideals.
That’s what makes Bannon such a controversial figure, and why many traditional conservatives want to keep him at arm’s length. The question is, how much of this will shape how Trump governs and his relationship with what’s left of the right?
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