Up there with the surprise of seven new planets is one that awaits you at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, once composed primarily of the religious right of the Republican Party. Gone is the pretense of principle. They have come to celebrate the ascendance of Donald Trump, who couldn’t have risen without their abandoning their belief system in favor of joining the winning team. Without them, the thrice-married, four-time bankrupt casino and real-estate mogul, who previously embodied everything they were once against, could not have been elected.
In earlier times, CPAC awarded its straw poll victories to the Pauls, father and son, and family values crusader Gary Bauer. There was a county fair-without-the-prize-bull feel in the exhibit hall, with homages to Phyllis Schlafly and William Buckley, large screens devoted to a history of debt, and a target range where if you got close to the bull’s eye, you could win a pocket copy of the Constitution.
This year CPAC is all about a victory lap for the nationalist populist Breitbarians who admire Putin, despise immigrants, and want to roll back regulations to the days of smog alerts and rivers catching fire from all the chemicals dumped in them. The former head of Breitbart, (which now has a front-row seat at White House press conferences), Steve Bannon, National Security Council member and co-chief of staff, was a marquee attraction Thursday, along with his so-called counterpart Reince Priebus, who is trying to prove he is more than a potted palm, just as Mike Pence will have to labor to show he isn’t a puppet.
In their first joint appearance, Bannon and Priebus tried to make common cause, with some awkwardness. Bannon threw punches at the globalist, corporatist media and warned the audience “if you think you’re going to get you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken.” He commended Trump for resisting all the people urging him to moderate.
Silence followed as Priebus mulled the fact that he is widely known as one of those doing the urging. Failing to get much more than “we’re sticking together as a team,” moderator Matt Schlapp, who chairs the American Conservative Union, which is CPAC’s main sponsor, announced he would channel Barbara Walters in search of a personal moment. All Priebus could come up with was that “he liked all the collars he [Bannon] wears,” pointing at the mufti dress Bannon still prefers despite adopting suits and a close shave at the White House after the boss criticized his style. For his part Bannon admitted he could “run a little hot,” while Priebus “is very cool,” and he does a great job at making the Oval Office run.
Enough said. No one in the audience wanted to find out that it’s not a big happy family Instagramming each other over the weekend.
Kellyanne Conway who spoke Thursday morning in an inside voice about not being “a feminist in the classic sense” which reminded me of her trailblazing days as the female founder of a polling company researching feminist, classic or not, issues. She’s at pains to make no news since being counseled on her Nordstrom’s gaffe, although it is news when a Republican decries the “presumptive negativity” toward women in power. You go, girl.
The main event will be Trump’s appearance Friday morning. For years, he was a novelty act on the CPAC program complaining about inferior Chinese drywall and emanating self-infatuation. Sarah Palin smoothed his way, a star of CPACs past, who made everything about her—her hockey-mom self, her raucous, trash-talking family, her dressing a moose, and her sticking it to the system. She kept coming long after she lost the 2008 race for John McCain as the celebrity she had become. Trump is a richer, blonder version of Mama Grizzly invited last year as a candidate for his party’s nomination. Way back then, conservatives still had a grip on what they stood for. Sen. Ted Cruz who looked like a winner won the straw poll.
This year, Trump is president and Cruz is not and to the victor belongs the spoils. Breitbart is so In that Bannon’s former colleague and shock writer Milo Yiannpoulos was invited to speak. Conservatives seemed like they were going to stick with the Bannon acolyte and Trumpian star after learning of his endorsement of pedophilia as a way for a boy to become a man, just as conservatives stuck with Trump after the Access Hollywood tapes came out. But ACU’s Schlapp said he didn’t know who Yiannapolous was when he invited him, proving that he used to be a real conservative. Eventually, Yiannopoulos was disinvited.
That doesn’t mean the event isn’t going to demonstrate the takeover of conservatives by right-wing populism and sass. Hear the panel names: Armed and Fabulous: The New Normal; Facts, Not Feelings: Snowflakes, Safe Spaces and Trigger Warnings. The most religious session may be one on Saturday: If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?
When Trump returns to the CPAC stage, it will be as a conquering hero who will have them at hello. But he’s not taking them for granted. Sadly for those who took Trump neither seriously nor literally, he is dancing with the folks that brung him. To keep them in step, with a push from arch-conservative Attorney General Jeff Sessions (and objections from Education Secretary Betsy DeVos who has departed from her family on gender issues), Trump reversed an Obama ruling that allowed students to use the restroom of their choice. Earlier, Trump agreed, saying it hadn’t caused any problems and to boot, he didn’t care where Caitlyn Jenner did her business.
As of yesterday, he cares, enough to make a high school sophomore who looks, dresses, and acts like a teenage girl use the boy’s restroom where someone will presumably be on hand to check birth certificates at the door. And where inside, s/he will be mercilessly bullied.
Conservatives aren’t likely to return to their Goldwater roots anytime soon. This week, conservatives have chosen not to be at town halls rubbing placards with moderates and, possibly Democrats, worried over Obamacare or Russia. Instead they’ve come to the belly of Trump-Bannon land at a suburban Washington hotel hard by a flashy new MGM casino.
A recent poll showed how Trump’s voters aren’t alarmed by him. They buy that it’s the dishonest media blowing up his missteps. They are sticking as long as he’s upending the system that cast them aside even if it means undoing regulations on the big banks they blame for their woes or pouring coal mine runoff into their streams.
Concerned that he’s cost the treasury $11 million in a month on vacations to Mar a Lago that make Obama look like a patron of Airbnb? Troubled by alternative facts about the size of his victory and inaugural crowd (he can’t stop himself. At the African American Museum on Monday, Trump paused at a photo of Obama taking the oath to comment that he had the same size audience)? What about an inability to focus, an insatiable appetite for cameras, TV viewing, tweeting, and a reflex that leads him to pander to GE president Jeff Immelt at a meeting of elite manufacturing CEOs in the Roosevelt Room but a stinging “Sit down!” to a Jewish reporter with an inoffensive question at a press conference in the East Room?
Not conservatives. Not at CPAC. Not yet.