Trump’s popularity at CPAC gathering, which he shunned a year ago, shows how he’s conquered conservatives

President Trump's chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, left, and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus prepare to speak Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md.
(Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA)

A year ago, Donald Trump skipped the nation’s preeminent conference of conservatives, underscoring the friction between the populist candidate and many of the warring factions in his party during a heated presidential primary season.

Friday, Trump returned to the Conservative Political Action Conference with the blunt force of a conqueror, planting his brand of nationalist, anti-globalist populism like a flag.

His speech, with rhetoric that even Trump said would have been too controversial at the event even a year ago, marked his takeover of the conservative movement, one of several signs of his dominance throughout the conference, which also featured a rare and well-received speech from his chief intellectual influence and advisor, Stephen K. Bannon.


“There is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag,” Trump said to great applause from thousands of conservatives. “I’m not representing the globe. I’m representing your country.”

He echoed ideas he has espoused in the past — denouncing trade deals as the antithesis of “economic freedom,” warning that Paris and other great cities of Europe have been ruined by mass immigration, criticizing Democratic and Republican presidents for their interventions in the Middle East.

Although many of the words were familiar, the venue and the passion made Friday’s speech remarkable.

Trump spoke directly of his ambition to turn the GOP into “the party of the American worker.”

“I’m here today to tell you what this movement means for the future of the Republican Party and for the future of America,” Trump said. “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that [must] put and will put its own citizens first.”

While Trump tried to unite conservatives, the speech made little effort to bridge the country’s larger political divide. For example, Trump dismissed people who have shown up at town halls around the country to protest reversal of Obamacare.

“They’re not you. They’re largely — many of them are the side that lost,” he said.

The visuals around the waterfront conference outside Washington were just as striking: the red “Make America Great Again” caps, the throngs of college Republicans surrounding Trump’s aides and allies, the giant Trump-decorated pickup truck at the convention center entrance.

As he has repeatedly done in the last couple of weeks, Trump attacked the media for what he sees as unfair coverage. He also showed how much he remembers the details of how his campaign was described in the press, at one point praising The Times for its election tracking poll that consistently showed him leading.

“I must say Los Angeles Times did a great job — shocking,” he said. “A couple polls got it right.”

In reality, the USC Dornsife/L.A. Times “Daybreak” tracking poll overstated Trump’s support, although it did correctly pick up the backing he was getting from disaffected white voters, many of whom had sat out the 2012 election.

Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist and the former executive chairman of Breitbart News, an outlet that has presented itself as a voice of the white nationalist alt-right movement, joked a day earlier as he sat down for a marquee event about how far he had come.

He used to hold a competing event called “Uninvited” for conservatives whose philosophies were considered too radical for the conference, Bannon said at a panel featuring him and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus.

Bannon reveled in his newfound influence as the conference organizer interviewed him in front of thousands of people.

He praised Priebus, the former GOP chairman, another indication of how the mainstream of the party has come into Trump’s fold. But both men made clear that Bannon was the dominant force in shaping Trump’s vision.

Bannon spoke about defending his notion of American culture and lashed out against the “corporatist, globalist media” standing in the way of Trump’s “economic nationalist agenda.”

“If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight,” he said. “You are sadly mistaken.”

“We’re at the top of the first inning of this,” Bannon said near the end of his remarks. “We want you to have our back.”

Conference organizers seemed to have gotten the message.

Breitbart News owns the first booth by the entrance of the convention hall, hawking “Border Wall Construction Company” T-shirts.

One of Bannon’s former editors at Breitbart, Milo Yiannopoulos, a prominent voice for the so-called alt-right, a loosely connected network of white nationalists, misogynists and anti-Semites, had been invited to speak until a recording emerged in which he made comments many perceived as endorsing pedophilia.

Even those who do not agree with all of Trump’s ideas seemed pleased with the excitement in the halls of the waterfront convention center. And they believed he was winning over the conservative movement, even if Trump has historically low popularity ratings with the wider public.

Those here who disagree with Trump on trade, a border wall or other populist policies were generally pleased with his Cabinet choices and extremely happy with his nominee for the Supreme Court, federal Judge Neil M. Gorsuch.

“A year ago, a lot of them were for Cruz,” said Ron Fodor, the mayor of Slippery Rock, Pa., referring to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, another event speaker who was competing with Trump in 2016 for the Republican presidential nomination.

Now, Fodor said, “it’s kind of like a victory party.”

For most of the last two decades, CPAC has served as a cattle call for aspiring presidential candidates. Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who also ran in the 2016 GOP primary, showed up this year. But with Trump’s victory, the party will not be seeking a new standard-bearer for some time.

In recent years, Cruz and libertarian Republican Sen. Rand Paul have won straw polls at the conference, owing to its libertarian streak. But before Trump snubbed last year’s event, he had been a fairly popular draw, mostly because of his willingness to attack liberals in blunt terms.

Many who attend the conference are college students, still sorting out their ideologies but eager to engage in politics.

Dakota Workman, a 22-year-old college senior at West Virginia University, had been a big Cruz backer a year ago. Thursday, he was holding a new “Make America Great Again” hat.

“He’s kept all his promises,” Workman said, pointing to Trump’s orders deregulating coal, his nomination of Gorsuch and his immigration actions.

Workman said he does not agree with Trump on trade and some other policies. He’ll stick with him when he can. But he still sees Trump as a different breed of Republican.

“He has his own brand,” Workman said.

Trump is in a honeymoon phase with conservatives who once held him at arm’s length, even if he is not getting the same benefit from the public at large, said Henry Olsen, a conservative political analyst and author of a forthcoming book on working-class Republicans.

But Olsen said he expects more tension once Trump has to weigh in with specific policy on healthcare and issues that affect the budget, where his priorities clash with some in the GOP.

“Trump is very popular among the conservative base right now in part because he has all the right enemies,” Olsen said.

“Are his policies becoming more popular, those that disagree with mainstream conservatism? Yeah, there’s some evidence of that, but I don’t think it’s a done deal that the Republican Party is the party of protectionism.”

Twitter: @noahbierman


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1:30 p.m.: This article was updated with details from President Trump’s speech.

The article was originally published at 3 a.m.