Every year, the Conservative Political Action Conference brings together like-minded conservatives from all over America for several days of strategizing, socializing and vetting of potential party leaders.
Donald Trump was never their favorite. Until now.
The 2017 CPAC conference was so Trump-friendly that Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor and adviser, joked it should be renamed “TPAC” – the Trump Political Action Conference.
Sure enough, attendees looked past their onetime ideological differences with Trump, instead training their collective energies on lashing the media. Also commanding their attention to issues on which there is broad consensus, at least among the activist class: Building a U.S.-Mexico border wall, repealing Obamacare and fully embracing the new Trump administration.
CPAC is an imperfect measure of the state of the movement: it’s a student-heavy conference, and older activists in attendance tend to come from the Washington D.C. area, hardly a critical battleground region.
But CPAC also offers the first major glimpse of the state of the movement, one month into the Trump administration. Here are five takeaways from the gathering:
1. Conservatives, cheered on by Trump, are unified in their distrust of the press.
Multiple panels focused on so-called fake news (one panel was titled, “fake news and the lame stream media”), and many of the marquee speakers, including the president, devoted significant swathes of their speeches to falsely positing that much of the media’s Trump coverage is “fake.”
The president began his Friday speech with a lengthy critique of the media, defending his description of mainstream outlets as “the enemy of the American people” and insisting that much of what is written is “fake” and “phony.”
Stephen Bannon, his chief strategist, repeatedly referred to the media as the “opposition party.” The distaste for the media was equally embraced by attendees, who as audience members and in conversations with reporters repeatedly threw out the term “fake news.”
2. Trump has gone from gadfly and oddity to superstar with this crowd.
When Trump first spoke at CPAC in 2011, he was an afterthought, overshadowed by former Rep. Ron Paul of Texas at a time when the conference was dominated by libertarians. Even last year, Trump came in a very distant third in the conference’s annual straw poll, lagging far behind Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
This year, attendees said in interviews, they are fully on board with Trump and his agenda, from his hardline immigration travel ban to his more conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia.
The schedule was packed with administration officials and friendly Breitbart writers, attendees donned red “Make America Great Again” hats and eyed Trump cufflinks, and with congressional recess underway, there was a dearth of U.S. senators who typically mill around the gathering.
3. Trump is not a traditional conservative but activists are claiming him anyway.
Many in attendance took pains to cast Trump as a conservative, despite his sharp breaks with conservative orthodoxy on issues such as trade and to some extent, foreign policy, which have bothered other conservative writers and operatives who did not attend CPAC.
“The core principles of President Trump are very similar to those of Ronald Reagan,” said White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus during a panel on Thursday, pointing to Trump’s promise to strengthen the military.
CPAC is organized by the American Conservative Union, and ACU Chairman Matt Schlapp said in an interview that the changes Trump was bringing to the movement were more tactical than ideological.
“I don’t think conservatives are changing their underlying philosophy,” he told McClatchy. “I do think activists from around the country want a much more aggressive approach, want to see Republicans in office be as aggressive as a very progressive Obama was in office.”
4. Conservatives want to expand the GOP tent, just not in the way party officials once planned…
After losing the 2012 election, Republican Party officials starting with Priebus were insistent that the GOP needed to expand its appeal, in particular to minority communities, in order to be successful. That was hardly a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, which was marked by incendiary rhetoric about a number of constituencies, including Latinos--and he won anyway.
So at this year’s CPAC, the focus was not on improving the party’s standing with, say, the Hispanic or Asian-American communities, though there were certainly some attendees who supported that approach. Instead, speakers zeroed in on Trump’s successes with working-class voters, the demographic that put him over the top in Rust Belt states with significant white, blue collar populations that in the past had trended Democratic.
“The GOP will be, from now on, the party also of the American worker,” Trump said in his Friday appearance.
And Bannon called Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement—a selling point in many of those working-class communities—“one of the most pivotal moments in modern American history.”
5. …And there are limits to the size of that tent.
There were also debates swirling around CPAC regarding constituencies the conservative movement should not include.
Before the conference even kicked off, it was engulfed in controversy over a decision to invite Milo Yiannopoulos. He is a right-wing provocateur with a long record of bigoted comments, including, at times, remarks indicating sympathy for the alt-right, which embraces a white nationalist ideology.
He was ultimately disinvited amid an uproar from many conservatives, including some on the ACU board, and ACU executive director Dan Schneider delivered a speech on Thursday asserting that members of the alt-right are “nothing but garden variety left-wing fascists.”
None of that stopped Richard Spencer, a prominent alt-right leader, from showing up — evidence that the issue isn’t fully over, though Spencer was ultimately kicked out — but some prominent attendees were hopeful that the ACU’s public condemnation was a good start.
“The conservative movement is very broad, sometimes it’s hard to say, how big is the tent ,” said Ned Ryun, an ACU board member who was highly critical of the Yiannopoulos invite.