There are few demographic groups in America more willing to forgive and even applaud Donald Trump for his alleged affairs with a playmate and a porn star than the crowd that sifted through the halls of CPAC.
The yearly gathering, after all, brings together the activist base of the Republican Party and, to put it bluntly, young male college students.
But as they mingled about the Gaylord National Resort over this past week, CPAC attendees were neither amused by nor particularly forgiving of Trump’s past conduct. Many found it regrettable.
“I do support his policies and everything, but on the personal level, I don’t think it’s a good thing,” Salisbury University college Republican Collin O’Mealy said. “If you’re going to say you’re a Christian man, you need to stay with those values.”
Trump’s alleged affair with Stormy Daniels was most definitely not a major topic of conversation at the Conservative Political Action Conference this year. It was not mentioned by most speakers. It wasn’t the focus of a panel. But when asked about it, attendees almost all echoed O’Mealy’s sentiment: that this was a blemish—an embarrassment, even—for an administration they otherwise were happy with. “As a person, I think that’s morally wrong. On the other hand, you can’t argue with the results,” said Kirk Boyd, who came with his grandfather. “It’s a tough area, because it’s results versus who he is.”
And that, in turn reflected the mood of the crowd more generally. One year into the Trump presidency, the conservative base is pleased with the results but tired of the drama.
“It’s kind of been exhausting and you have to kind of take yourself out of it and not pay attention, which isn’t good,” Eric Wagner, a first time CPAC attendee, said of Trump’s first year in office.
Trump has had a mixed relationship with CPAC. The conference helped launched his career in politics in 2011. But he drew a small-ish crowd when he appeared a few years later. Attendees tend to be committed conservatives and, to a certain degree, active members of the Republican Party. And, prior to his election, Trump was neither of those.
But the 2017 gathering was a triumph for the newly-elected president. And the expectation was that, one year later, CPAC would be a victory lap of sorts. Instead, the gathering was viewed by many there as anti-climatic, even dull.
“Last year definitely seemed a lot bigger,” said Jacob, a college Republican who attended the conference in 2017.
The thrill of such a bombastic president has worn off. Trump himself seemed to acknowledge as much in his speech. Over the course of a meandering 75 minutes, Trump played all his hits: pledging to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico; criticizing Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) for voting against Obamacare repeal; calling on people to stand for the National Anthem; berating the media; praising the Second Amendment. But within that hefty serving of rhetorical red meat, Trump also acknowledged that the movement that propelled him to the White House risked falling victim to complacency.
“You just won,” Trump said, describing the upcoming midterm elections. “So nobody has that same drive that they had. So you end up not doing that well, because the other side is going — they’re crazed.”
During the overcast days of CPAC, the limpness and malaise Trump warned about was on full display. Few other high profile Republican politicians currently in office even showed up. And even fewer speakers used the occasion to challenge the president or spark a debate about the policy paths he’s taken, save a contentious showing by Mona Charen, a longtime conservative commentator, who excoriated Trump for, among other thing, the Stormy Daniels matter.
There are people "sitting in the White House who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women, and because he happens to have an 'R' by his name, we look the other way," she exclaimed.
For her heresy, Charen was booed and escorted out by security escort for her own safety.
Others simply stuck to script. Attendees milled in the hallways to gawk at A-list talent like Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, or Fox News host Sean Hannity and were instead treated to B and C-list Trump allies in conservative media like Dr. Sebastian Gorka, a fired former White House aide, and David Clarke, an inflammatory former sheriff-turned-cable news pundit. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), one of the few candidates running for office this year who bothered to show up, spent much of his appearance praising the president’s accomplishments during his first year.
“What we’ve seen in 2017 is on substance, the record of delivery has been remarkable,” Cruz said.
Many journalists grumbled about the lack of notable talent roaming the halls.
“You know you have a hot CPAC when you can't move in the hallway and there are these mobile scrums and mobs following luminaries around,” said Washington Post media writer Erik Wemple, who covers the event annuals and noted that CPAC was very accommodating to the media. “I didn't see any of that this year.”
Well-connected attendees lamented the general lack of high-profile hot-ticket parties, and college kids said the events weren’t as out of control as previous years. Breitbart News, which blew out its budget in 2017 by renting out a boat, decided to keep a low profile, keeping most of its talent off of panels and not publicly sponsoring the event.
“Last year it was wild, people were throwing champagne bottles on the ground,” Patrick Wool recalled on Saturday night.
Even among some of the president’s biggest boosters on the far right, this year’s CPAC seemed like a stale rerun of 2017.
Last year, neo-Nazi Richard Spencer held court for reporters and a few fans in the conference hall before being dramatically removed by security from the event. He showed up again on Friday, hoping to stir up trouble by debating attendees.
But instead of storming the event, he holed up in his hotel room without drawing any public attention.
At a party attended by The Daily Beast, guests witnessed Spencer briefly appear on his balcony, only to disappear back into the room without incident.