Editor’s Note: Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, and author, with Kevin Kruse, of the new book “Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
President Trump was clearly having a blast during his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). He soaked up his time in front of the television cameras to offer fans some crowd-pleasers in what was surely a preview of his upcoming presidential campaign. The speech, clocking in at over two hours, was his longest as President.
Going after the Green New Deal, the “sleaze on top” of the FBI and descriptions of the crowd size at his inauguration in 2017, Trump waxed philosophical the way that he does. When he insisted that he was being sarcastic about asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails, the crowd started chanting their usual refrain of, “Lock her up!”
The conference itself was as interesting and relevant as the speaker. For many decades, CPAC was a meeting place where the right tried to promote its most exciting ideas.
CPAC was created in 1974 by conservatives who believed that they had to do a better job selling their vision to the public after Senator Barry Goldwater’s devastating landslide defeat to Lyndon Johnson in 1964. Conservatives were also distraught at what was happening in Richard Nixon’s administration and hoped to boost morale given the accelerating investigations into the president’s wrongdoing and Vice President Spiro Agnew’s disgraceful resignation.
The American Conservative Union, the Young Americans for Freedom and Human Events brought together fellow conservatives in an effort to transform the Republican Party The featured speaker was California Governor Ronald Reagan who invoked Puritan settler John Winthrop when he spoke about the United States and envisioned it as a “city upon a hill.”
During the early decades, CPAC was a key stop on the conservative talking circuit. The goal of organizers like Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie was to make space for the most interesting voices to shop their ideas about deregulation, tax cuts, reproductive rights, hawkish policies toward the Soviet Union, cultural values and more in an era when their movement was at the cutting edge of American politics. At a moment when liberals were still reeling from the fallout over Vietnam, conservatives were driving the debate. CPAC was part of a large ecosystem that produced conservative ideas, along with journals like The National Review and think tanks like the Heritage Foundation.
A high point came in the 1981 conference, when Reagan returned triumphantly as President to say, “Fellow citizens, fellow conservatives, our time is now. Our moment has arrived. We stand together shoulder to shoulder in the thickest of the fight.” After he was re-elected in a landslide victory against Walter Mondale, Reagan told the gathering in 1985, “The tide of history is moving irresistibly in our direction. Why? Because the other side is virtually bankrupt of ideas.”
Reagan’s comments should now haunt conservatives. The tone and tenor of this meeting has changed dramatically in recent decades. Although the fringe was always a part of the conference, now they have taken over. In 2007, Ann Coulter gave the nation a good flavor of what these gatherings are all about when she said, “I was going to have a few comments on the other Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards, but it turns out that you have to go into rehab if you use the word ‘f—–,’ so I’m – so, kind of at an impasse…” Quite a moment for the party of ideas.
Before he became president, Donald Trump made several appearances at CPAC to see what this conference was all about. In 2011, Trump floated out birtherism when he said, “Our current president came out of nowhere. Came out of nowhere. In fact, I’ll go a step further: The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don’t know who he is. It’s crazy.”
In 2014, he bragged about his good relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, telling the audience that “I was in Moscow a couple of months ago, I own the Miss Universe Pageant and they treated me so great. Putin even sent me a present, a beautiful present.”
The CPAC that has been on display this week is a far cry from what some of the more serious conservatives of the 1970s had in mind. The event has become a political circus filled with conspiracy theories, cranks and far-right extremism. The past few days have featured speakers from Fox News and the Trump world spewing out the most outrageous statements they could think of making.
One of the oddest moments came when Trump’s former deputy assistant, Sebastian Gorka, warned against supporters of the Green New Deal and told the crowd, “They want to take your pickup truck, they want to rebuild your home, they want to take away your hamburgers. This is what Stalin dreamt about but never achieved.” The podium had the feel of a “safe space” where conservatives could speak their minds and trot out zany ideas without fear of attack.
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So it was not a surprise that Trump returned to form today and that the crowd loved it. The conference is a reminder of how much the world of conservatism has changed since the 1970s, and how it produced a Republican candidate like Donald Trump, who seems like a pretty safe political bet going into 2020. If anyone believes that Trumpism will go away soon, the conference shows how difficult it will be for the GOP to remake the kind of conservatism that now inhabits the White House.