Five takeaways from CPAC

Greg Nash

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Six years ago, Donald Trump launched his political career with a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). This year, he returned as president.

The annual gathering of conservative activists and leaders near Washington, D.C. showed that the party’s base is willing to embrace Trump and his ideas, which are often at odds with the traditional conservatism usually featured at CPAC. 

From White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon’s rare public appearance to the tug-of-war over the alt-right, here are five takeaways from CPAC 2017:

This is Trump’s party now

The day before Trump’s speech, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway made a prediction: “By tomorrow, this will be TPAC this year.”

Conway’s prediction was fulfilled when Trump walked onto the stage the next day and was greeted by a standing ovation and an overflow crowd in the back of the Grand Ballroom.

{mosads}During his nearly hour-long speech Friday, Trump vowed to stand by his campaign promises, including the construction of a border wall and an ObamaCare repeal. Trump said his movement is the future of the GOP. And he echoed much of his stump speech, filled with media bashing and jabs at Hillary Clinton.

Trump addressed his absence at 2016’s CPAC during this year’s speech, saying he “worried” his views on issues like immigration would be seen as “controversial.” Trump pulled out of his planned speech that year amid reports of protests and decided to campaign instead.

But conservatives’ wariness of Trump appeared to be in the rearview mirror, with CPAC attendees sporting his signature red “Make America Great Again” hats and applauding the president’s top aides at a separate panel. 

“I love this place, love you people,” Trump said. “I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends, these are my friends. And we’ll see you again next year and the year after that.” 

Conservatives love to hate the media 

As Republicans search for their next political opponent, conservatives have set their sights on a new enemy: the media. 

Trump’s combative relationship with the press has remained strained after he took office, with the theme of media-bashing prevalent throughout the conservative confab.

During his Friday speech, Trump lashed out at the media, promising to fight “fake news” and ripping reporters for using anonymous sources, particularly in stories about his administration. 

“I called the fake news the enemy of the people,” Trump said. “They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.” 

And during a Thursday discussion, White House chief strategist Bannon continued to label the media as “the opposition party.”

“If you look at the opposition party, how they portrayed the campaign, how they portrayed the transition, how they portray the administration, it’s always wrong,” he said. “The corporatist, globalist media is adamantly opposed to economic nationalist agenda like Donald Trump has.” 

GOP struggles with the alt-right 

Conservatives grappled with how to handle the rise of the alt-right amid high-profile controversies surrounding the amorphous movement. The so-called alt-right has ties to the white nationalist movement and has been accused of bigotry.

CPAC came under fire for giving a speaking slot to alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. After videos showing Yiannopoulos appearing to defend pedophilia, CPAC revoked the invitation, while American Conservative Union (ACU) chairman Matt Schlapp called the comments “disturbing.” 

Following the incident, ACU executive director Dan Schneider gave a fiery rebuke of the alt-right at a Thursday discussion entitled  “The Alt Right Ain’t Right at All.” He argued that the term “alt-right” has been “hijacked” by a “hate-filled, left-ring fascist group.”

“We must not let them to be normalized,” Schneider said. “They are not part of us.”

White nationalist Richard Spencer paid for a ticket to the conference and lambasted Schneider’s remarks, calling him “pathetic” and chastising him for not doing his research on the movement.

“Dan Schneider has a small and closed mind,” Spencer told reporters after the speech. “He didn’t even do basic research on what the alt-right is and he denounced it.” 

But as he spoke with reporters, security guards removed Spencer from the event. A CPAC spokesman reportedly called him “repugnant.”

Bannon becomes the mainstream

In the past, then-Breitbart News chief Bannon clashed regularly with CPAC brass, even hosting controversial counter-programming outside of the conference dubbed “The Uninvited.”

This year, Bannon was one of CPAC’s featured speakers.

“I’d like to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC,” Bannon jokingly told Schlapp at a joint event with White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.

“Here’s what we decided to do at CPAC with ‘The Uninvited’ at CPAC,” Schlapp said. “We decided to say that everybody is part of our conservative family.”

“Steve, you are a really likable guy. We should do this more often,” Schlapp added later.

Bannon’s rare public appearance, which saw him expound on the tenets of “economic nationalism” advocated in the White House and popularized on Breitbart, showed how much the traditional CPAC constituency has embraced what was once a fringe element of the party.

“[Bannon’s] a very personally, charismatic guy and I think he ought to get out more,” one of CPAC’s directors told The Hill. “I don’t agree with everything Steve Bannon says. But I think that having him here, building a relationship is only going to have a positive effect ultimately.”

Impatience with Congress amid low lawmaker attendance

Unlike previous years, the agenda was light on current House members and senators. Only nine congressional lawmakers were scheduled to appear during the three-day conference.

By comparison, in 2016, one of numerous panels had more than a dozen congressional politicians scheduled to participate. House and Senate GOP leaders typically speak before CPAC, but no one from either chamber’s leadership hierarchy appeared this year.

This week’s congressional recess was the main reason used to explain lawmakers’ absences. Many members of Congress chose to stay in their districts instead of returning early to D.C.

Additionally, with a Republican president starting his first term, CPAC this year didn’t offer a chance for potential presidential contenders to connect with activists and build buzz.

Even so, members of Congress aren’t as popular as Trump among the conservative grassroots right now.

GOP leaders have offered assurances in recent days that they are right on schedule and that major overhauls of the healthcare system and tax code will take time. But conservatives are starting to get frustrated with what they see as legislators’ glacial pace.

“I’m frustrated with the pace,” Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback told reporters. At the same, he acknowledged the lack of a bipartisan honeymoon from Democrats: “You haven’t seen an opposition party act this way for the first 100 days.”

–This report was updated on Feb. 26 at 11:50 a.m.

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