CPAC conservatives drink the Trump Kool-Aid, but who will pick up the tab?

A once-fringe presidential candidate has turned his doubters into cheerleaders. But the spiritual and financial cost of Trumpism has yet to be tallied

President Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Maryland.

Outsider no more … Donald Trump delivers remarks to the Conservative Political Action Conference near Washington DC.
Photograph: Pool/Getty Images

The writing is on the wall. “God bless Trump”, “America first”, “Peace through strength!!!”, “Capitalism is beautiful”, “Drain the swamp”, “One nation under God”, “Make America gay again!”, “Adorable deplorable” and “Trump is star!” are among the messages scrawled in the exhibition hall at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) near Washington.

Look close and there is a thread of defiance too: “CPAC abandoned principles to support a big government strongman.”

This week America held its biggest gathering of conservative activists since Donald Trump’s stunning election as president. The festival of political incorrectness was a moment of giddy vindication after eight years in the wilderness.

“This is suddenly a wonderful, wonderful glorious morning in America, isn’t it?” Lou Dobbs, a host on the Fox Business Network, asked the crowd. But at what price? Observers said it also marked the death of the conservative movement of former president Ronald Reagan and a rush to embrace a new authoritarianism.

If Reaganism is to be succeeded by Trumpism, then White House chief strategist Steve Bannon gave the clearest outline yet of what that will look like: sovereignty and security, including the building of walls; economic nationalism to rewrite trade deals and bring jobs home; a radical “deconstruction of the administrative state” to tear down the system of taxes and regulations seen as choking economic growth.

When Trump addresses both houses of Congress on Tuesday, he is likely to put more flesh on those bones. He will seek to bring the Republican party to heel, just as he has the conservative grassroots. It is only a matter of time, however, before he will have to explain how he intends to pay for a populist, protectionist agenda that shreds fiscal conservative orthodoxy.

“I would say this is a moment of existential crisis for the conservative movement because it’s being replaced by Trumpism,” said Charlie Sykes, a conservative author and commentator who stayed away from CPAC this year. “There is a very real capitulation among conservatives. The disturbing process of the last year was seeing conservatives convince themselves that Trump is their new saviour.”

CPAC was established in the 1970s by the nascent conservative movement, in a successful bid to push the Republican party to the right. During Barack Obama’s presidency, it could feel in danger of irrelevance: the further its voices were from power, it seemed, the louder they shouted. Among the speakers in 2011 was a businessman, TV celebrity and former Democrat from New York: Donald Trump.

Many of the themes he hit that day – America needs to win, we don’t have free trade, China is manipulating the currency – were the same as in 2017, but their time had not yet come.

Trump at CPAC: I oppose fake news, not the media

Even a year ago, CPAC appeared peripheral to the national conversation and Trump appeared peripheral to CPAC. With the Republican primary in full swing, Ted Cruz, a hardliner by most measures, seemed a natural choice for this constituency. But Trump beat Cruz and in November he shocked the world by beating Hillary Clinton too. Many in a once sceptical Republican party have since rallied around him, brushing off charges that they are spineless and seduced by power.

CPAC, suddenly thrust from the sidelines to centre stage, likewise surrendered to Trump. In a raucous atmosphere reminiscent of a campaign rally, his speech, full of populist fire and bilious attacks on the media, was clapped and cheered and met with chants of “USA! USA”, “Build the wall” and – in reference to Clinton – “Lock her up”. “Make America great again” baseball caps, scarce a year ago, were worn with pride. Republican establishment figures, including senators, congressmen and governors, were thin on the ground. Leading Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage was treated like a rock star.

Attendee Deborah Aldrich, 60, from Salt Lake City, Utah, said: “Last year Trump didn’t even come and he was booed during a debate on TV. It was a real pro-Cruz group. To see all the conservatives who were booing him last year applauding him this year feels like a real victory.”

‘These are grassroots, these are activists’

At first glance, the exhibition hall at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, a vast complex on the Potomac river, appeared to be a celebration of a movement emboldened and on the march. Organisations included Tea Party Patriots, and, less expectedly, Gays for Guns.

The National Rifle Association was running a “gun giveaway”, a chance to win a free weapon, while the anti-abortion group Save the Storks had set up a van offering free pregnancy tests. Merchandise ranged from Trump and Clinton bobbleheads (the latter wearing prison stripes) to T-shirts with slogans such as “God is great, beer is good & liberals are crazy”, “Girls just want to have guns” and “Free speech is burning”, and even babygrows that said “Capitalist” or carried a gun silhouette.

Richard Spencer talks to the media during CPAC.

Richard Spencer talks to the media during CPAC. Photograph: UPI / Barcroft Images

Among the books on sale were Marriage Done Right: One Man, One Woman, The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion, Sex Scandal: The Drive to Abolish Male and Female, The Problem with Socialism, and The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama (“Contains 200 reasons”). Shoppers could buy USA baseball caps and Trump T-shirts, then pose for a photo against an image of the White House.

Bridgett Wagner, vice-president of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank which had a prominent location in the hall, said Trump was popular here: “These are grassroots, these are activists, not the beltway community. They want change.

‘Our real friends in the world speak English,’ Nigel Farage tells CPAC

“They are ready for somebody to go in and stop the growth of government, stop Obamacare. Washington and the establishment pays attention to [the controversies around Trump] but I honestly think the average American is looking at results.”

Yet beneath the show of unity, there were cracks. Asked for their views on Trump, some organisers manning stalls smiled uneasily and said they could not comment. Attendance was widely said to be down on past years.

Bradley Matthews, editorial manager of the Conservative Book Club, said many had chosen to stay away: “This year seems a lot more low key. There is more of a Trump crowd. A lot of establishment people are not here, a lot of traditional actors are not here. We’ll see if that holds in 2018 but for now it’s Trump, Trump, Trump.”

One man who did return was Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and leading ideologue of the “alt-right”, a far-right group that senses a historic opportunity. He was asked directly by a Dutch TV journalist: “Are you a fascist?” It was the kind of question that many felt belonged to a bygone era but suddenly, in 2017, seems serious and urgent again. Spencer insisted not and denied any contact with the Ku Klux Klan. He also tried to explain away his infamous “Hail Trump!” salute last November as “a moment of exuberance”.

Spencer, 38, did not claim Trump for the “alt-right” but said “his arrow points in our direction”.

“Donald Trump came like a miracle,” he said, “in many ways. No one predicted him, no one predicted that at the very beginning of his campaign he would define himself on the immigration issue, which is fundamentally a racial issue, and so I couldn’t believe it.

“But the fact is when the world changed, you have to change too, and so I do think there are amazing new opportunities now because he’s bringing nationalism to the fore, he’s bringing it into the mainstream, he’s asking these existential questions like: are we a nation? And those questions weren’t being asked by Republicans before him.

“If you ask George W Bush what is America, he would be like, ‘a universalistic, eternal force of democracy and capitalism for all times’. Donald Trump doesn’t think like that. Donald Trump thinks ‘No, we have an organic nation, there is an American people that has a history, they have a particular experience and I’m going to stick up with them.’”

‘Donald Trump is not a fiscal conservative’

The “alt-right” was denounced from the CPAC stage as a “hateful, leftwing fascist group” trying to worm its way into conservative ranks. Spencer was expelled from the event soon after. But some fear it is too late to slam the Pandora’s box shut and that Trump and Bannon have given an electric shock to long-dormant extremists, stirring them to life. CPAC also controversially invited – and then disinvited – rightwing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to give a speech.

Bannon scorns media in rare public appearance at CPAC

The awkward marriage of convenience between factions was vividly displayed on Thursday when Bannon sat on stage alongside Reince Priebus, former chairman of the Republican national committee, now White House chief of staff. Bannon was casual with open-collared shirt, Priebus more staid in suit and tie. At one point Bannon attempted to put his left hand on Priebus’s knee, only for Priebus to curtly brush him off.

The pugnacious Bannon, a former head of the rightwing Bretibart News who has been dubbed “Trump’s Rasputin”, spoke as if on permanent war footing. He said the president was “maniacally focused” on fulfilling his campaign promises and predicted a daily fight against the media, airing grievances against what he called the opposition party. Cancelling trade deals, Bannon argued, was part of a broader push toward “the deconstruction of the administrative state”.

He explained: “Every business leader we’ve had in is saying not just taxes, but it is also the regulation. I think the consistent, if you look at these cabinet appointees, they were selected for a reason and that is the deconstruction. The way the progressive left runs is if they can’t get it passed, they’re just gonna put in some sort of regulation in an agency. That’s all gonna be deconstructed and I think that that’s why this regulatory thing is so important.”

One such Trump appointee is Scott Pruitt as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) despite his ties to the fossil fuel industry and fierce opposition from environmental groups. Pruitt is an opponent of what he regards as federal overreach. It will be little surprise if the White House now begins to dismantle the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which set the first carbon pollution standards for power plants, and other components of Obama’s Climate Action Plan.

But despite the talk of aggressively moving forward, the administration faces a moment of reckoning in Congress. The border wall will cost billions. Trump’s daughter Ivanka seemed poised to launch an expensive childcare programme to help working mothers. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter last November, Bannon vowed to push a trillion-dollar infrastructure plan, boasting: “The conservatives are going to go crazy.” The Trump White House has promised to make wide-ranging tax cuts – yet also slash the national deficit.

Sykes said: “I keep trying to figure out how Trump and Bannon are going to pay for all these things. I remember when conservatives used to care about this stuff. I don’t see how they’re going to square that circle. Donald Trump is not a fiscal conservative. He likes to spend money, borrow money and build things. It should not be a shock he’s not going to be a deficit hawk.”

Trump has no intention of shrinking the federal government, Sykes added, and his praise of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, would have been unthinkable to cold warrior Reagan.

“This CPAC marks a definite end to the Reagan era. If you define conservatism or Reaganism as small government constitutionalism, that does not describe the isolationist, protectionist, authoritarian themes Trump delivered. Conservatism has become less about ideas than a cult of personality: if a leader tells them to reject a principle they have held for 50 years, they are willing to do that.”

More powerful than they have been for a decade, many conservatives are grateful for what Trump is not – Clinton – but remain wary of what he is. Pragmatism is all.

Reagan’s son, Michael, said: “I don’t think Donald Trump is a true conservative at all. I think Donald Trump is a great salesman and he’s sold the conservatives on swallowing their tongues and saying follow me, and conservatives said, ‘Listen, we’re gonna go with this guy, a businessman, because we’re $20tn in debt. We’re gonna go with him because we know what would happen if we in fact elected Hillary Clinton to be president of the United States of America.’”

Reagan, 71, head of the Reagan Legacy Foundation, nonetheless urged conservatives to move with the times and support the new president. “This is the time for Trump; my father had his time in the sun … In the world we live in today, Donald Trump would have beaten Ronald Reagan for the nomination of the Republican party. But Ronald Reagan would have beaten Donald Trump in 1980 for the nomination of the Republican party.”