Politics & Policy

CPAC in the Era of Trump

Trump at CPAC 2014(Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty)
Trump’s rise was foreshadowed by the tone of the Right’s largest conference.

Hey, conservatives, are you ready to gather and celebrate at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference?

The Republican front-runner is a man who celebrates the individual mandate for health insurance, touts ethanol mandates and subsidies, loves eminent domain, wants to see “an expensive investment” in new infrastructure projects, and vehemently opposes entitlement reforms. New York Times columnist and icon of the Left on budgetary matters Paul Krugman salutes him as “right on economics.” Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts applauds his contention that “there ought to be more taxation of the billionaires.”

The previously pro-choice, thrice-married casino and strip-club owner who bragged of his affairs with married women, kissed Rudy Giuliani dressed in drag, defends Planned Parenthood, and says he’s never asked for God’s forgiveness . . . is winning the Evangelical vote in state after state and was endorsed by Jerry Falwell Jr.

The Republican front-runner pledges to demand financial compensation from U.S. allies for their protection by American military forces. He speaks warmly of Vladimir Putin and praised the Chinese crackdown in Tiananmen Square as showing “the power of strength.” He has promised to give the U.S. military at least two unlawful orders that they would likely refuse to obey (kill the families of terrorists and do a “hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding). He periodically calls for seizing Middle Eastern oil fields, wants to ban all Muslim visitors to the United States, and pledges to remain “neutral” between Israel and Palestine.

Who’s ready to party?

Despite his glaring opposition to a plethora of traditional conservative positions, Donald Trump is likely to get a warm welcome from a large portion of the 10,000 or so conservatives under one roof of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. He first spoke to CPAC in 2011; the then-director of the conference, Lisa DePasquale, said it was “the largest crowd we have ever had” in anticipation of the billionaire. “We have overflow rooms filled! This ballroom filled!” Trump was warmly received by organizers and the audience in 2014 and 2015 as well.

For those who stare in disbelief at the Trump-enamored party and at conservative stalwarts gushing with admiration for “Mr. Trump,” who wonder how things could come to this, look to CPAC as a leading indicator.

#share#The conference was and is always a cacophonous mix of the serious and the sublimely silly: think-tank policy experts and lawmakers rubbing shoulders with gadflies and niche celebrities such as Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, Kirk Cameron, Stephen Baldwin, the Duggars, and “Hercules” Kevin Sorbo. The biggest issues facing the country and the world were debated on stage, while outside, convention-goers posed for pictures with Marvel superheroes in full costume, a Revolutionary-garb tea-party guy, and Uncle Sam on stilts.

Former John McCain strategist and MSNBC contributor Steve Schmidt once called CPAC “the Star Wars bar scene of the conservative movement.” That seemed like a hyperbolic, sneering assessment . . . until the 2014 conference featured Imperial stormtroopers, Boba Fett, and other Star Wars characters walking around.

Star Wars costumes at CPAC 2014 (Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Self-identified conservatives, as much as any other Americans, like watching the circus coming to town, the unpredictable, the funny, the surprising, the shock value. If politics is increasingly indistinguishable from pop culture and in particular pop-culture entertainment, CPAC merely reflects this broader societal change.

Even Trump’s periodic racial controversies have been foreshadowed by the display of good, bad, and ugly modern conservatism at CPAC. One of the predictable mainstream-media stories at the conference each year is spotlighting an offensive or racist tchotchke from a vendor. All it takes is one bumper sticker and that becomes the photo sent out over the wires; MSNBC usually get a month’s worth of programming out of it.

The celebrities, one-liners, and outrageous personalities at CPAC indicate a shrinking interest in ideas and policies.

What Donald Trump served up this cycle just reflects the growing portions of the menu at CPAC: celebrity, red meat, bold promises with few details, sneering derision of critics, jokes, a vague whiff of racial provocation. The celebrities, one-liners, and outrageous personalities made CPAC bigger than, say, the Heritage Foundation’s Resource Bank, which features only policy wonks from state-level activism and research groups. But they also indicate a shrinking interest in ideas and policies. A slew of Republican governors who enacted conservative reforms put themselves before the primary electorate this past year, and the electorate took a pass at Rick Perry’s economic miracle in Texas, Bobby Jindal’s turnaround of hurricane-devastated Louisiana, Scott Walker’s overhaul of state government and labor laws. That’s boring, man. Give us somebody mimicking Ben Carson stabbing a guy.

Ultimately, a significant plurality of Republicans don’t care that much about the details. They just want somebody who will promise them the world — a border wall financed by Mexico! Apple will make iPads in the United States! A secret “foolproof” plan to defeat ISIS! — and ask nothing of them but their votes.

— Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review Online. He was CPAC’s Journalist of the Year in 2015, which doesn’t make this the least bit awkward at all. No, sir.

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