President Donald Trump, addressing the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, reminisced about the “very exciting” moment several years ago when he had his coming out as a conservative.
I was there when Trump spoke at that 2011 CPAC gathering, at its former site in the Marriott ballroom in Washington’s Woodley Park neighborhood. Then, as now, Trump was angry. But he didn’t utter a peep that day about immigration or the border wall, terrorism, or Iran or Iraq – the issues that motivate him now.
What made him mad then was gas prices. He had just seen gas selling for $4.54 a gallon. “It’s going to go much higher,” he said, predicting prices of $7 to $9 a gallon. “Believe me, in a year or two from now you’re going to be paying that, as sure as you’re sitting there.”
A year and two later, average gas prices were, respectively, $3.55 and $3.65, on the way down to $1.70 in 2016 – and Trump dropped that crusade.
Rewatching the 2011 CPAC video was instructive. Trump already had fragments of what would become campaign lines: The United States is “the laughingstock of the world.” Other countries “are screwing us.” “Our country will be great again.” But other than issues such as China, he was animated by different subjects (Somali pirates!). Trump had little interest in conservative ideology then or now, instead exploiting the public passion of the moment.
What’s changed is not Trump but the conservative movement. When he spoke at CPAC in 2011, conservatism was an ideology. By this year’s conference, conservatism had become a collection of grievances. It had become Trumpism.
In 2011, the Reagan principles still held sway: free trade, limited government, U.S. leadership overseas, and plans to reform entitlement programs at home to balance the government’s finances. Now, to judge from the adulation for Trump and his agenda at CPAC this week, conservatism is about: ripping up trade deals, expanding executive police powers, retreating from foreign engagement, and declaring Medicare and Social Security inviolate.
How did this happen?
At CPAC this week, Trump employed his usual knack for alternative facts when he said he “had very little notes” at his 2011 speech, yet “everybody was thrilled.” In fact, he read closely from his speech. And, though most did swoon for the reality-TV star, he was booed lustily by the Ron Paul supporters, while many laughed at his now-characteristic boasts (“I graduated from … the best business school”) while some social conservatives were wary. He was invited by a gay Republican group, and he had previously favored abortion rights and universal health care.
When he returned to the conference in 2013, he positioned himself against conservatives. “The Republican Party is in serious trouble,” he told them, and the going “is going to be a little bit tougher, and especially as you get more and more conservative. They get nasty. They don’t like to hear what we have to say. … We have to get the momentum back.”
By then, he had discovered immigration as an issue, but not because he was worried about Mexican rapists and killers. If illegal immigrants were made citizens, he said, “every one of those 11 million people will be voting Democratic.”
As recently as last year, the CPAC crowd was still resisting Trump, who canceled his appearance.
Some movement conservatives remain never-Trump, but as this week’s gathering shows, they are no longer a visible part of the conservative movement. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway correctly told the crowd CPAC was becoming “TPAC.”
CPAC even winked at the unsavory element of conservatism that rose with Trump. Although it officially denounces the racist alt-right and evicted a prominent white-nationalist from the conference, the group gave a prominent speaking role to Trump senior strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who had boasted that the company he ran, Breitbart News, was “the platform for the alt-right.” Breitbart in years past held a counter-conference outside of CPAC called “The Uninvited” for those CPAC shunned because of their views.
“I want to thank you for finally inviting me to CPAC,” Bannon said onstage, noting there were “many alumni” of The Uninvited in the house.
They were. And they applauded Trump’s denunciation of the “fake news” media as “the enemy of the people,” his condemnation of free-trade deals and his talk about deporting “bad dudes” and building a wall.
The Uninvited are now on the dais at CPAC and in Trump’s America.
May conservatism rest in peace.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.