A little more than eight months before he won the White House in 2016, candidate Donald Trump, faced with the threat of a walkout by skeptical Republicans, abruptly canceled his scheduled speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
The American Conservative Union, which organizes the annual gathering, said it was “disappointed” that Trump “decided at the last minute to drop out of CPAC,” and that his absence would send “a clear message to grassroots conservatives.”
In 2017, Trump returned – with a new job title – and offered an olive branch. “I love this place. I love you people,” he said. “I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends.”
On Friday morning, a little less than two years since his infamous no-show, Trump arrived as promised. But the organization and movement he first encountered here in Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, years ago, has changed.
It’s still a circus, but Trump is now the unquestioned ringmaster.
From the paying attendees to the headliners on stage, CPAC’s embrace of Trump – both the man and his politics – is complete. His enemies – the “crooked media” and, still, Hillary Clinton – are their own.
“Remember when I first started running?” he asked the audience on Friday morning. “Because I wasn’t a politician, fortunately. But you remember? I started running, and people say, ‘Are you sure he’s a conservative?’ I think, now, we’ve proved that I’m a conservative, right?”
Through 13 months in office, Trump has delivered for that conservative base. Last year’s tax cuts and his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court typically lead the laundry list of his accomplishments. In return, CPAC attendees have committed to forgetting their outstanding concerns. Is Trump actually conservative? It’s no longer a question here – not because it’s been answered, but because, well, there’s no point in asking.
From well before Trump arrived on Friday morning, the main ballroom was his, and one only needed to glance at the roster of speakers on tap to confirm it. His Cabinet secretaries shuffled on and offstage, but the buzz belonged to a new crop of invitees, like the heiress to the French National Front’s far right-wing political dynasty, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, who warned on Thursday that her country “is in the process of passing from the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church to the little niece of Islam.”
The line was met with a chorus of boos, but not for Maréchal-Le Pen, who was rewarded with cheers throughout a brief speech meant to cast herself in common cause with Trump’s nationalist politics.
“I am not offended when I hear President Donald Trump say, ‘America First,’” she said. “In fact, I want ‘America First’ for the American people, I want ‘Britain First’ for the British people, and I want ‘France First’ for the French people.”
By the time Maréchal-Le Pen was gone, Sebastian Gorka, the former White House official with no clear role apart from defending Trump on television, had already kicked off what would be a dayslong bid to capitalize on the minor celebrity the administration had gifted him.
“He was the rank outsider and he owes nothing to the swamp,” Gorka said of the President, whom he routinely paints as a world historical figure, during a panel discussion. “They’re starting to understand that he won despite the right-wing establishment, not because of it.”
Before and after, for hours on end, Gorka cycled sternly through the wide hallways outside the main ballroom, greeting fans, being noticed and, at one point, appearing to shove a reporter. Other old Trump allies made the scene, or came within a shout, including longtime confidante and adviser Roger Stone, who could be seen ducking into a restaurant across the street from the host hotel and convention center at around 5 p.m. on Thursday.
Perhaps more telling than the paeans sung by Trump’s allies, were the words of some of his old nemeses. The conservative writer and podcast host Ben Shapiro, who resigned from Breitbart during the 2016 campaign, gave a 30-minute speech that – apart from a briefly scolding Trump for his handling of Charlottesville and a few other high-profile missteps – praised and, in his way, seemed to emulate the President.
After cheering Trump for delivering what he described as “some of the most conservative governance of my lifetime,” Shapiro then leveled a shot at a familiar foe.
“Most of all, President Trump brought us one really fantastic thing,” he said. “Hillary Clinton is not and will never be President of the United States.”
With that, a “lock her up” chant – a staple of the campaign trail – began to roll through the audience.
“Why bother?” Shapiro sneered, after allowing the rumbling to run its course. “She’s already in a jail of her own making somewhere in the woods of upstate New York.”
The chorus would spring up again, less than 24 hours later, when Trump took his turn on the same stage.
Floors down from the headliners, at the foot of a slow escalator not yet painted gold, Samantha Correia, the 21-year-old programs director for the Atlas Society and former California field director for Turning Point USA, a college conservative group, talked about her own evolution.
“I started out as a huge fan of Marco Rubio, liked Scott Walker as well, and love-love-loved Ted Cruz,” she said.
Now, though, she was all in on Trump – and channeling in her own words his unique blend of grievance and nostalgia for some notion of lost American “greatness.”
“What it comes down to,” she explained, “is conservatives are tired of being stepped on. Let’s be honest here, we’re in the United States of America. This is the greatest country that ever has existed and is the greatest country that exists, in my opinion. What established this country as so great, and why we’re returning to an original greatness, is because of these ideals.”
That any CPAC gathering would attract strident partisans and ideological activists, even those who might not have known the event existed a year ago, is the norm. But in 2018, those “outsiders” aren’t simply being welcomed, they’re quickly taking over, placing its destiny firmly in their command. In the days before the conference kicked off, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp fended off outside conservatives’ worry (and anger) over Maréchal-Le Pen’s appearance. But the fight never escalated beyond Twitter.
Schlapp, despite the group’s early Trump skepticism, shifted his allegiances when the time was right – well before his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, left her work as a conservative commentator last year to become, as her husband put it on Friday morning, “a valued member of the President’s White House team.”
For all the headline-grabbing churn and turnover in the administration, the pro-Trump business remains an appealing one to Republican political hands.
Erin Montgomery, now the communications director for America First Policies, left her post with Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a blue state Republican, to join the industry.
“It’s exciting to hear more and more people praising him and talking like him,” she said. “You have Rick Saccone, who’s running in this Pennsylvania special election and he said, ‘I was Trump before Trump was Trump.’ It’s an effective line! People like that.”
The taste for hyped-up rhetoric, crossed with trollish baiting of often unseen, yet fiercely maligned, political opponents, has also super-charged the rise of Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk.
Kirk and Turning Point USA’s members are fierce culture warriors. Their stunts, and organization, offer a glimpse into the next generation of Trumpism, a politics with many of the same hang-ups but residing beneath a more composed exterior.
Still, every now and then, the mask can slip. Kirk, during a panel discussion titled, “Kim Jong Un-iversity: How College Campuses are Turning into Reeducation Camps,” took aim at “neomarxists” and “the Left.”
“These are unhappy people,” Kirk said, his voice speeding up. “These are people that are not upwardly aspirational, they hate this country, they don’t want to defend what made it great.”