NATIONAL HARBOR, Md., March 4, 2016 – If this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference is any indication, America’s conservatives are both deeply divided and strongly united. They’re divided in their feelings about Donald Trump, and united by their feelings about Hillary Clinton and Ronald Reagan.
Trump’s now-cancelled speech at the American Conservative Union’s CPAC has produced more than customary excitement at the conference, not all positive. The intention of anti-Trump protesters to greet him at the conference and stage a walk-out may have influenced Trump’s decision on Friday to campaign in Kansas on Saturday and skip CPAC. Trump is averse to environments he can’t control, and CPAC is an uncertain environment for Trump.
Trump divides speakers and attendees at CPAC like nothing else on the agenda.
Criticism of Trump from programmed speakers on Wednesday and Thursday was largely indirect. Sen. Ben Sasse spoke of the importance of nominating not just someone who “wants to breath fire on Washington,” but someone who “wants to breathe passion into our children for a constitutional recovery.” Gov. Scott Walker and former Sen. Rick Santorum both alluded to the problem posed by Trump, but neither attacked him directly.
Some tea party conservatives have been less circumspect, loudly critical of Trump’s conservative bona fides. Jenny Barth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots took the CPAC stage on Friday to deliver a blistering denunciation of Trump.
Martin told the audience, “Donald Trump loves himself first, last, and everywhere in between. He loves himself more than country … more than the Constitution.” She added, “If you’re tea party, you have a much better candidate to support: Ted Cruz!”
Audience reaction to Martin was mixed. Many applauded her enthusiastically, but about as many sat silent. Tea party activists may have dominated CPAC in 2010, but they are a smaller contingent in 2016, and Trump has supporters in the conservative movement. Trump buttons and paraphernalia emblazoned with “Make America Great Again” are as much in evidence as buttons for Ted Cruz.
Talk-radio host Mark Levin praised the tea-party revolution, insisting that unapologetic conservatives can win elections. He suggested indirectly that Trump is not his idea of a real conservative. “We conservatives are in the best position in three decades to win back the presidency in a landslide if we nominate a true … unapologetic conservative.” That conservative is a “principled conservative,” one who doesn’t denounce the political establishment one day and suck up to it the next.
Fox News host Sean Hannity interviewed RNC chairman Reince Priebus on Friday, asking flatly whether the GOP will back the party nominee, no matter who it is. Priebus affirmed that the nominee will have the party’s full support. The party’s support will go even to Donald Trump, though Priebus emphasized that the nomination process is far from over. He added that he does not expect the nominee to be chosen by a brokered convention.
The audience reaction to Priebus was skeptical, but he emphasized that the party does not take sides. That is apparently also the attitude of the CPAC organizers. Their neutrality may include an element of self-preservation. The divided response of CPAC attendees to attacks on Trump is clear evidence that the conservative movement is not monolithic, and a large number of CPAC attendees would be turned off by a direct rejection of Trump by the ACU.
If Trump divides the conference, Hillary Clinton unites it. If Trump is a potential danger to some and a question mark to others, Hillary is an exclamation point and a clear and present danger to everyone here. The importance of defeating Hillary is a guaranteed applause line with the CPAC audience.
Former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton brought a near-capacity audience to its feet on Thursday with his denunciation of Hillary. As others would during the day, he observed that she might look good in orange, predicting that her campaign would claim to be pleased by how good she looks in ankle-cuffs.
Sen. Tim Gowdy of South Carolina picked up Bolton’s attack, emphasizing the dangers of a Clinton foreign policy. Distrust and dislike of Clinton is a common theme not just of program speakers, but of conference attendees. That dislike overcomes even the division caused by Trump.
Most CPAC attendees are clear that, even if they despise Trump, they’ll vote for him rather than see Hillary win the election. “I’d cut off my arm rather than vote for Hillary,” observed one.
President Reagan is the benign and unifying presence hanging over CPAC. Speaker after speaker has praised Reagan’s humor and grace, often using him to chide current GOP candidates over their fractious behavior. Levin observed, “If you’re 45 years or younger you’ve never had a chance to vote for a true conservative in a presidential election.” Conservatives have only held the White House for 15 years in the last century, in the administrations of Ronald Reagan and Calvin Coolidge.
Reagan remains the ideal of the conservative outsider breaking down establishment barriers to give the people and conservatism a national voice. Many at CPAC believe that Reagan and conservatism have been betrayed by the GOP, to the detriment of the GOP and the nation. Donald Trump is not their idea of the best leader to take them back to the promised land, but if the alternative is Hillary, many think that some time in the wilderness with The Donald is the better choice.