Politics & Policy

At CPAC, Many Attendees Were Spooked by He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named

Trump appears on a monitor amid CPAC attendees, March 5, 2016. (Mark Wilson/Getty)

National Harbor, Md. — “Our time is NOW,” read the giant banner hanging over the main stage in the Potomac Ballroom of the Gaylord Hotel in National Harbor, Md. But at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week, it often felt as if the conservative movement had become an anachronism.

Though Trump continues to win primary after Republican primary, it was difficult to find any open Trump supporters at the annual gathering, a testament to how unprepared many were for his rise, and how divorced from the conservative movement he and his supporters remain. Even in his absence, Trump’s shadow loomed large over the three-day conference. Gone was the pennant-waving CPAC of last year, where Republicans celebrated their strong candidate field and the damage they would do to the Democratic establishment.  

This year, organizers and attendees alike spoke shakily of a bright conservative tomorrow while simultaneously wringing their hands over the future of the movement. Speakers tiptoed around Trump’s name, warning vaguely about the danger of “disunity.”

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Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, epitomized the movement’s Trump-induced schizophrenia. “Now it’s time to talk about the future, and I can see the lights on the top of the hill,” he said during his remarks on Friday. “The conservative movement is growing stronger, we’re adding new voices.”

Unfortunately, one of those new voices is threatening to do away with the movement itself, and six minutes later, Schlapp acknowledged as much, saying: “All of us are worried that . . . we’re hopelessly fractured, that our movement will never be the same, that our divisions will result in even more losses, that our conservative movement is damaged beyond repair.”

‘Donald Trump loves himself first, last, and everywhere in between.’

— Jenny Beth Martin

Though he was clearly referring to the Trump phenomenon, Schlapp never actually mentioned the GOP front-runner by name. It was a theme in nearly every CPAC speech: a dark warning about an internal threat to conservatism without a clear definition of the threat itself – because many are still struggling to understand and define it. In any other year, Hillary Clinton would’ve been a virtual piñata for speakers and attendees alike, but this weekend, people mentioned her mostly as an afterthought. The most thunderous cheers during Marco Rubio’s and Ted Cruz’s speeches were reserved for broadsides against the Republican front-runner, not the Democratic one.

Jenny Beth Martin, the national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, was the only speaker to launch a sustained five-minute bombardment against Donald Trump from the convention stage, calling out his business scandals and assaulting his character. “Donald Trump loves himself first, last, and everywhere in between,” she said, as a surprised audience cheered loudly. “He loves himself more than our country, he loves himself more than our Constitution. He doesn’t love you or me, and he doesn’t love the Tea Party!” 

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Though Martin is clear-eyed about Trump himself, she is unwilling to explain whether his gains are a loss for American conservatism. “No, I don’t think that the movement is losing ground,” she says. “Donald Trump is winning because he’s talking about our values.”

Values such as promoting universal health care and “opening up” the libel laws? Martin says those are not the issue, pointing instead to Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and his calls to secure the border. “Conservative messaging still works,” she says. “Donald Trump right now has figured out a way to co-opt that message for himself.”

#share#Other conservative leaders admit that their power, at least in Washington, might well diminish as Trump barrels forward. “If you want to seek advice, if I was the Republican party, I’d be looking more to the states, because I think that’s where their true bench of champions is being built for the future,” says Luke Hilgemann, CEO of the free-market activist group Americans for Prosperity. He stressed that it’s a long-term fight.  

But many in the conservative rank-and-file are focused on this election cycle, and a few of them — particularly older voters — are willing to overlook Trump’s foibles, even if they’d prefer someone else. “I feel angst and anxiety over Clinton,” says Paul Towhey, a CPAC attendee. “I don’t feel any angst or anxiety over Trump.”

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But Towhey was in the distinct minority at CPAC, with most attendees admitting they’re increasingly despondent over Trump’s success and their leadership’s response to it. “It doesn’t help that people like [RNC chairman] Reince Priebus come over and say, ‘Well, we’re going to back whoever gets the nomination,’” says Felicia Graham, a student and CPAC veteran who acknowledges this conference’s somber mood. “That makes people like me — who see Trump as what Rubio would call a con artist — that doesn’t make us feel good. That makes us feel like we’re going to end up with a Democrat in the end.”

It was fitting that Trump, by canceling his scheduled appearance, frustrated even an organized attempt to boycott his remark. Supposedly, his campaign schedule in Kansas prevented him from attending CPAC. Even the would-be protesters seemed deflated when he skipped the conference. How could they stop a candidate who had decided he didn’t even need to acknowledge their opposition?

The Trump boycotters had gone to great lengths to orchestrate a dramatic scene, complete with a prayer they planned to read aloud:

Dear God, maker of heaven and Earth, we pray to you to protect the conservative movement, American right-of-center politics, the Republican party, the United States of America, our fundamental freedoms and economic system, and your children around the world. We pray to you to allow Donald Trump to sincerely see the error of his ways and the flaws in his belief system.

They never got the chance to deliver it at CPAC, but the conservative movement will certainly need their prayers. Trump’s rise may not have persuaded movement conservatives that all hope is lost. But there’s increasingly a sense that this is not their time.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter at National Review Online. 

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