Trump's CPAC Speech Showed That Trumpism Has Killed Conservatism
Trump used the conservative movement to rise to power, and now that he's won he doesn't need it anymore.
Photo by Eric Thayer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Friday morning, Donald Trump showed up at CPAC, the annual gathering of political types who are to the right of moderate Republicans but to the left of actual Nazis and pedophilia apologists, to take a victory lap. He looked as comfortable as he's ever been in the long month since his inauguration, smiling, congratulating himself and the crowd on the election win, trotting out the greatest hits of his ideology. Miners will go back to the coal mines. Mexicans will go back to Mexico. Bricks for the wall, more money for the military, fewer regulations for everyone, no more getting screwed by other countries. America great, first, etc.
The only notable thing about Trump's speech—beyond the aggressive media bashing, which is just a part of the Trump brand at this point—was that CPAC was once a safe space for conservatives. And though Trump is most definitely a deep-red right winger, and though he's allied with conservatives on a number of issues, he's not, and never really has been, a member of that particular movement. Showing up at CPAC wasn't just a chance for Trump to bask in adulation; it was a chance for an outsider to gloat at his complete and total victory over the Establishment. As Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway said, you might as well call the event TPAC—Trumpism has supplanted conservatism as the dominant philosophy of the right.
To unpack that, I should say that I'm using "conservative," a fairly complex term, to point to a philosophy of self-reliance, freedom from government interference, and a defense of traditional (often religious) values. Conservatives don't want a large government, though they support more government functions, like policing and a robust military, than outright libertarians. They want to be able to own guns, teach their kids what they want, and fight to ensure that Christianity has a large role in public life. When it comes to foreign policy, they generally want the US to be the leader of an increasingly free world—that means the pushing back of communism and radical Islam, and also a commitment to a worldwide system of capitalism that they think is the best way to pull people out of poverty.
Watch this VICE News segment about Trump's mental health:
You may dislike part or all of that philosophy, but the rise of conservatism in the Republican Party and the country as a whole has been the major story of American politics since the middle of the last century. As it grew, conservatism hardened into a set of orthodox policy positions: Conservatives are pro-gun, anti-abortion, pro-cop, pro-free trade, anti-regulation, pro-military, pro-school choice, in favor of privatizing nearly every function of government, and against most attempts to push forward civil rights for LGBTQ people.
Trump looked at all of that and said, Meh. During the campaign he was criticized by conservatives for being a political opportunist with no real philosophy, but also for having positions that clashed directly with conservatism. In January, during the 2016 primaries, National Review, the conservative movement's most famous journal, devoted an entire issue to attacking Trump. A sample from the lead editorial:
Trump has shown no interest in limiting government, in reforming entitlements, or in the Constitution. He floats the idea of massive new taxes on imported goods and threatens to retaliate against companies that do too much manufacturing overseas for his taste. His obsession is with "winning," regardless of the means—a spirit that is anathema to the ordered liberty that conservatives hold dear and that depends for its preservation on limits on government power.
Those attacks, somewhat oddly, followed years of Trump trying to tie himself to the conservative movement. His 2011 CPAC appearance marked the beginning of his political career, and he used subsequent CPAC speeches to develop what became his platform. In 2013, for instance, he said that unlike many Republicans he was against cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, or Social Security ("you can't win elections" advocating cuts, he said), a position that would separate him from the GOP pack in 2016. That year he also talked about taking Iraq's oil—a bizarre outsider position he's trotted out occasionally since then, usually to intense criticism—and used the "Make America Great Again" slogan for what was probably the first time. (He trademarked the phrase after the 2012 election.)
Trump at CPAC 2013:
By his 2015 CPAC appearance—during which he and Sean Hannity teased the prospect of his presidential run so aggressively it might as well have been a campaign announcement—Trump was talking about building a wall, complaining that the US "never wins," and claiming "Mexico is ripping off the United States big, big league." That was the core of Trumpism: economic nationalism combined with a lot of vague gibberish about victory.
He spent the next year proving that Republican primary voters actually liked promises to bring back manufacturing jobs and incredibly aggressive talk on immigration more than they liked GOP dogma. Or maybe it was that all the traditionally conservative candidates congealed into a mess of smiles and haircuts, and Trump was able to stand out. As Rush Limbaugh summed it up in September: "Conservatism lost, in the primary, if that's how you want to look at it." However you explain it, Trump won. Then he won again.
The Trump administration hasn't been unfriendly to conservatives. This week's rollback of a rule allowing trans kids to use bathrooms that don't correspond to their birth gender is obviously supported by the religious right. And the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is a huge victory for the conservative movement. Trumpism and conservatism both exist in the universe of right-wing politics, so there are shared goals like cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare. Conservatives have largely supported Trump because of those priorities—National Review writer David French, once floated as an anti-Trump third-party presidential candidate, recently wrote about how actually Trump is less authoritarian than Obama.
But it was striking on Friday to watch the CPAC crowd applaud protectionist policies that Trump and Bernie Sanders both broadly supported. And while Trump spent an interminable amount of time complaining about unfavorable media coverage, he paid barely any attention to some of the totems of modern conservatism. The Second Amendment merited only a brief mention, and when Trump talked about faith—something pretty much every conservative politician does as easily as breathing—it came at the end, when Trump thanked the religious right for supporting him.
Some conservatives complained about the speech on Twitter, but there's nothing the movement's writers and intellectuals can do. Trump proved he doesn't need them, while they obviously need him very badly in order to get their agenda passed. All those years conservatives spent amassing political power and creating an alternative media universe paid off, they won—except in the process their entire apparatus was taken over by an unpredictable orange reality TV show star. And the kicker is it turns out the rank and file on the right actually like him a lot better than anyone the GOP has given them.
The song that played as Trump left the stage, by the way? His campaign theme: "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.