Conservatives are raging this weekend. Like literally throwing themselves a rager at a posh hotel just across the river from Washington, D.C.
But unlike in year’s past, this year the nation’s most famous conservative icons, heroes, and elected leaders who are speaking at CPAC – formally titled the Conservative Political Action Conference – aren’t talking about the nation’s now more than $22 trillion debt, up from $19.9 trillion when President Trump took office.
This is Donald Trump’s party now, and the sea of formerly conservative purists who used to annually bow at the feet of libertarian Ron Paul and fiscal conservatism seem just fine with that.
Nigel Farage, who helped spearhead and cheerlead Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, or Brexit, says the shift in focus is a global phenomena for conservatives.
“This is much more now about nation states, identity, culture, communities, security,” Farage told VICE News after being mobbed for selfies while walking through the hall outside of Congress. What’s “uniting conservative movements right across the western world isn’t economics in the way that it used to be.”
This year’s conference has been replete with outlandish charges of socialism lobbed like hand grenades at their Democratic neighbors and other divisive culture issues, like abortion. “Freedom, not socialism, ended slavery,” intoned Vice President Mike Pence. But that obvious ploy isn’t working for some here.
“Those are the trigger issues that they use to almost herd us – one party or another,” Lisa Pannett of Missouri, who is middle-aged, told VICE News. “They’re going to herd if we allow them to herd us.”
The lack of fiscal focus isn’t lost on many of the attendees, even as they adore President Donald Trump who has successfully not only co-opted the mantle of Republican Party leader but who has also turned the party away from its core issue just three years ago: The debt and the deficit.
When former President Barack Obama was in office that became the central issue, at least rhetorically, for most conservatives, but now that the GOP has the White House there’s only one panel officially focused on the topic out of the dozens and dozens of sessions scheduled for this three day long affair.
While the upper echelons of the Republican class seem to have turned their attention away from the nation’s books, many in attendance here haven’t forgotten about the need to tackle the soaring national debt — an idea their own party leaders have sold them for years.
“We need to do something about it. Before…it was a big deal, and now you’re kind of not hearing anything about it,” Poyntz Carswell, a 62-year-old from Texas, told VICE News. “It's easier to spend, instead of saying, ‘Hey, we gotta cut this out.’ It’s tough to cut.”
Still, the conservatives of CPAC have embraced his Reality-TV-style of politics, seeming to place Trump over the party’s foundational issue, i.e. conserving taxpayer dollars. And even Republicans who were just tossed out of office in November seem to have drunk all the Trump Koolaid (or possibly the last drops of the Trump Vodka).
“The president is focused on growth,” former New York Rep. Claudia Tenney told VICE News. “I think they’re looking for two steps forward and sometimes you have to go one step back to get progress.”
It’s not just the political class, this president is still seen as blameless by many here; former House Speaker Paul Ryan is more likely to get the blame than the president for piling debt on the nation’s books.
“We had two years, but we had Paul Ryan,” Carswell said. “He talked a good game, but then when he got in there he kicked the can down the road too.”
Still, many conservatives here are wondering why the party abandoned fiscal issues. And the main act in that one 19 minute panel on the debt and deficit isn’t happy that his party leaders on Capitol Hill abandoned efforts to reign in the debt for the first two years Trump was in the White House.
“I’m an outsider in the belly of the beast here [in Washington],” Sen. David Purdue (R-Ga.), a former CEO, told the crowd.
Purdue, who is urging his GOP colleagues to refocus their attention on fiscal issues, surely seems to be a voice crying out in the wilderness in Washington — even amongst the formal fiscal purists in his own party.
On Thursday the conference kicked off (after a prayer, the presentation of colors, the pledge and the national anthem) two of the founding members of the far-right Freedom Caucus, Reps. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), were the first to address this rowdy conservative crowd.
While their group was initially focused on reigning in the federal government — with federal spending at the top of their list — the $22 trillion debt never came up. Instead they were like school boys gushing over their new crush: Donald Trump.
“Why is he so popular?” Meadows, the current chair of the Freedom Caucus, told the audience. “He actually has fulfilled his campaign promises that he promised all of us. That’s why,”
“What a novel concept,” Matt Schlapp, the moderator and chair of the American Conservative Union that hosts the event, replied.
On Friday, VICE News asked him why this year’s conference is so light on the debt and deficit even as those were the top issues here just three years ago.
“You have topics for the panels, but then you have people that just address issues specifically,” Schlapp said. “One of the things that I’ve personally been critical of is politicians that keep promising progress in certain areas but seeming to have no intent to get it done. That’s probably the best example of it.”
But Schlapp failed to recognize that Trump is one of those politicians. In 2016 he promised voters he’d balance the budget in eight years. He has served two years, and added roughly $2 trillion to the federal debt, in part through the tax cuts his party ushered through that tilted towards corporations and the wealthy.
These math problems aren’t lost on many here. Raymond Aspinwall is a 71-year-old from New Jersey and he’s been coming to CPAC since, he guesstimates, 1974 or 1975. He’s only missed three or four in that period. And he’s not impressed with what his party leaders are doing with the federal credit card now.
“It’s kind of funny. When the other guys are in charge it’s, ‘Hey, they’re spending too much money.’ Now we’re in charge; nobody talks about it,” Aspinwall told VICE News. “I think we should focus on it more. I haven’t heard many people talk about it much.”
The debt problem isn’t lost on younger attendees either. Even as she adores Trump, Gelly Garay-Triviski, a 16-year-old from Minnesota, isn’t happy her party’s leaders are neglecting the issue.
“That really does worry me just because of how much money we’re spending on welfare a year. It just keeps going up because of that,” Garay-Triviski said. “I just feel like we’re not very concerned about it, which is kind of scary because it’s trillions and trillions of dollars and nobody’s really talking about it. Everybody’s just ignoring the fact that we’re trillions of dollars in debt.”
Garay-Triviski was rocking a t-shirt that read “Don’t Trust the Government,” which VICE News inquired about.
“Trump is the government, but Trump hasn’t always been the government,” Garay-Triviski said. “He came in fresh, and I feel like he’s trying to fight the government with us.”
Cover image: One of the attendees seen with Trump stockings during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center in Oxon Hill, MD. (Photo by Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)