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Is Trump himself a conservative -- and does anyone here care?

Attendees here have struggled at times to define where Trump fits in the conservative firmament

Oxon Hill, Maryland CNN  — 

Never Trump nevermore.

A year after the 2016 edition of the long-running Conservative Political Action Conference was thrown into an uproar by the Republican primary front-runner, President Donald Trump – who snubbed the gathering last March – arrives here in 2017 as the face of a new, if elusive brand of conservatism.

But is Trump himself a conservative – and does anyone care?

“I think he has conservative instincts and I think he is starting to govern as a conservative. But up until he started making those decisions as president, it was hard to know,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which first held this annual event in 1973.

“People say he’s more of a populist,” Schlapp added. “That’s probably fair. He’s somebody who appeals to a wide swath of people on some key issues. I think he’s less philosophically grounded, maybe, than other politicians.”

Trump emerged from a field of 17 candidates in last year’s barnburning GOP primary contest, swatting aside traditional conservatives like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, while eventually outlasting more hardline favorites, like the tea party-backed Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Attendees and organizers here have struggled at times to define where Trump fits in the conservative firmament. The American Conservative Union, formed in 1964 as a gatekeeper and bulwark against extremist groups like the John Birch Society, has struggled at times to define its relationship with the unsavory elements of Trump’s support, like members of the white nationalist and anti-Semitic alt-right.

The identity crisis crystallized last week, when CPAC booked Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopolous to address the gathering. Establishment conservatives revolted, arguing his act strayed well beyond the movement’s increasingly fuzzy boundaries. The invitation was rescinded days later after video clips appearing to show Yiannopolous condoning or rationalizing pedophilia went viral. But his old Breitbart boss, current White House strategist Steve Bannon, spoke alongside Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, on Thursday.

Like Priebus, Matt Batzel is a Wisconsinite. He is also the national executive director of American Majority, a conservative organization that trains grassroots activists.

Asked if he considered Trump a conservative, Batzel said yes, that the President was a “Patriotic Conservative.”

He paused.

“I just made up that term about ‘Patriotic Conservative,’” Batzel said with a smile. “(Trump) wants to help bring about Wisconsin jobs, Michigan jobs. American jobs, first and foremost, which is a different kind of conservative than we’ve had – there are shades of other politicians in the past, but obviously he’s unique.”

Allison Adams, who came to Maryland with her husband, a GOP fundraiser, and three children, from Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, called Trump a conservative, albeit “a little rough around the edges.”

“I would think he’s pretty right wing – like the rest of us, he’s pretty radical,” she said. “He’s firm in what he believes.”

Wesley Dalton, a student at Brigham Young University in Utah, is “pretty happy with where Trump’s at,” pointing, along with many others, at the President’s nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

“I think that Trump is a different type of conservative than, perhaps, the mainstream conservative and I think that’s why he got so far in the primaries,” Dalton said. “So he’s conservative on some things and I also think there’s been a change, that he’s become more conservative since the primary, become more Christian in many ways.”

Even among those who wavered or doubted Trump’s credentials, there was a consensus that his actions over the first month of his presidency signaled a welcome right turn.

Ariel Kohane, a GOP district leader from New York City’s Upper West Side, wore a red yarmulke with “Make America Great Again” written in Hebrew across the bow.

“Now he is (a conservative),” Kohane said of Trump. “He has not been a conservative his whole life but if you look at some of the executive orders that he’s issued and the statements that he’s made and the people who he hired in his Cabinet, and who he is nominating, he definitely is riding the conservative wave and going more in the conservative direction.”

Others were less sure. But the White House has a way of calming – or papering over — internecine grievances. The Democrats, now out of power in Washington, are only coming to grips with ideological fissures masked in large part by two terms of President Barack Obama.

“I don’t think that Donald Trump is a conservative and he said this in his own words during the primary elections,” said Haley Nieves, a student at UCLA.

“But he is an American and he has an ‘America First’ policy, so the more appropriate terms to describe Donald Trump would be populist or nationalist. And a lot of those ideas can coincide with conservative principles.”