Donald Trump at the Conservative Political Action Conference (Getty/Chip Somodevilla)

Is Trump bending the GOP to his will? It's more the other way around

This year's CPAC wasn't about Donald Trump corrupting the conservative movement. It's more like he joined it


Matthew Sheffield
February 25, 2018 4:00PM (UTC)

News moves so rapidly since Donald Trump emerged on the political scene that it seems like much more than two years have passed since the 2016 Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. That was the one that erupted in controversy as Trump was about to become the Republican presidential nominee, vanquishing his far-right rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.

Radio talk show host Mark Levin -- who never mentioned that his stepson had been working for Cruz until that was exposed -- was one of several speakers who lambasted Trump from the stage in 2016 as a deceitful liberal who was manipulating the conservative base through bombastic rhetoric:

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It’s not enough to win the nomination by personally beating down your opponents with such vulgarity and ruthlessness, espousing conflicting or ever-changing beliefs, trashing the establishment one day yet bragging about working with them the next, that is playing both insider and outsider, and then expect these dispirited parts of the Republican Party and the conservative movement, having been exploited and turned against each other, to suddenly rally to your cause.

Brushing aside the absurdity of a talk show host whose radio career has been built on his willingness to scream and rant on-air for hours denouncing incivility, Levin’s argument had a certain validity. There’s no question that Trump’s insult-comic shtick was instrumental to his vanquishing of 16 other GOP candidates.

Invoking the sainted name of Ronald Reagan, Levin and others argued that Trump could not be trusted. After all, the real estate tycoon had been a registered Democrat for many years and supported liberal policies like abortion rights.

While outside-the-Beltway Republican voters had no problem with the idea of Trump as the GOP standard-bearer, the thought was palpably offensive to most people I talked to at the 2016 edition of CPAC. In a straw poll of who paid ticket-holders preferred to become president, Trump received just 15 percent of the vote. Cruz won with 40 percent, while Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also finished ahead of Trump with 30 percent.

As allegations swirled that Trump had been bribing his way into CPAC speeches since 2011, many Rubio and Cruz supporters even discussed the idea of a mass walkout during the former WWE star’s scheduled speech -- almost the physical equivalent of the “Against Trump” special issue that National Review had published a few months earlier in an attempt to sway Iowa caucus voters against him.

Faced with such strong antipathy, Trump canceled his plan to address CPAC, even though he had become something of a fixture at the conference since his first speech there in 2011. Trump’s campaign officials said he had pulled out because he was campaigning for votes in the Kansas Republican caucuses; he told CPAC attendees something different when he returned there last year as president.

Trump began with flattery to the audience who had opposed him so vehemently just a year earlier.

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“It really is an honor to be here. I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends, these are my friends. I’ll be doing this with CPAC whenever I can and I’ll make sure that we’re here a lot.”

He then turned to his previous cancellation:

“I would’ve come last year but I was worried that I would be, at that time, too controversial,” Trump said. “We wanted border security. We wanted very, very strong military.”

After briefly telling the truth, he told the audience a lie they wanted to hear:

“And people consider that controversial but you didn’t consider it controversial.”

*  *  *

With so much else available to focus on, it’s no wonder this little vignette from last year’s CPAC provoked little attention from the press. In retrospect, the moment is a perfect preview of the way that Trump would act throughout his first year in the White House.

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As Trump was wresting control of the GOP and the presidency, it seemed to some political observers that he was on the way to setting up a dictatorship (something his white nationalist “alt-right” fans desperately wish was the case). Now that he’s been in office for more than a year, it’s become clear that Trump is an incredibly weak chief executive, embarrassingly willing to do whatever fellow Republicans tell him to.

During his campaign, Trump was willing to routinely violate conservative dogma by praising single-payer health care, promising not to cut Medicare or Social Security, vowing to spend at least $275 billion on infrastructure, and proclaiming his desire to increase taxes on the rich. But as president, Trump has essentially been the third term of George W. Bush, at least from a policy perspective.

He’s outsourced his judicial appointments to the Federalist Society, a group for conservative lawyers. He’s appointed former Tea Party congressman Mick Mulvaney to head up the Office of Management and Budget and also the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He’s hired Marc Short, a former apparatchik for GOP megadonors Charles and David Koch, to be his director of legislative affairs. He’s given Christian nationalists unprecedented access to the White House.

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Even on his signature issue of immigration restriction, Trump has appeared more than willing to let pro-immigrant traditional Republicans like Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake take the lead. More than once, the president has publicly stated that he wants to grant citizenship to people currently protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order of former president Barack Obama.

Trump made vague promises of moderation amid all his verbal bombast, but as president has transformed into a stridently conservative figure. This should not be a surprise, as New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait noted on Friday:

The conservative movement’s long march through [Republican] institutions has methodically eliminated all rival power sources within the party. And so, while Trump may have little personal grounding in conservative theory, there are no longer any other sources of ideas or political support on which he can draw.

Basically the only person in the administration who appears to have believed in the big-spending nationalism that Trump promised on the campaign trail was Steve Bannon, the former Breitbart News chairman who lasted barely six months in his job as the president’s chief strategist. Since he didn’t bother to build up a policy development shop, it was inevitable that Bannon’s grand visions have remained phantasms.

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As president, Trump has no idea what he wants to do. So instead he just signs off on what Republican functionaries tell him is a good idea while he watches TV and pouts on Twitter. It works out for both sides as long as the congressional GOP leaders run interference against special counsel Robert Mueller and he gives them the policies they want.

While Trump personally has all sorts of authoritarian instincts, he’s just an old man who likes to watch Fox News all day. The only difference between Trump and your talk radio-addicted grandfather is that the people on TV talk back to him.

All the early morning tweets that many of the president’s critics feared were wily attempts to manipulate the news cycle were actually just Trump tweeting along with the telly during his many hours of daily “executive time.” It’s become apparent that the commander in chief isn’t making decisions based on classified intelligence reports, he’s doing so based on what the cast of “Fox and Friends” tell him to do.

Some of us saw this coming. The future president gave a clue during an August 2015 interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd.

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“Well, I watch the shows,” he said when asked who his military advisers were. “I mean, I really see a lot of great — you know, when you watch your show, and all of the other shows, and you have the generals, and you have certain people you like.”

In October of 2016, future White House counselor Kellyanne Conway explicitly said that one way she had discovered to persuade Trump was to recite her own ideas during television interviews that she knew he’d see.

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Trump wasn’t the person that the conservative establishment wanted to become president, but since he’s been in office it’s become clear that his ascent wasn’t a hostile takeover, it was a merger.

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In conversation, I’ve had a number of veteran conservative journalists and policy mavens lament to me that their movement had been taken over by conspiracy theorists thanks to the ascent of Trump.

Some have said as much publicly.

“I know I should be over it, but the speed at which the organized conservative movement became the ideological home of Marion Le Pen, Seb Gorka, Nigel Farage, Dinesh D’Souza and their ilk remains shocking to me,” Bari Weiss, a staff editor and writer at the New York Times wrote in a Thursday Twitter post.

In truth, however, almost all of the people commonly associated with cultural populism have been fixtures at Fox News for years, long before Trump came along. A number of them, including D’Souza, have spoken to CPAC many times.

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While the GOP’s craziest now have much more visibility than ever before, they were always present in force. The Trumpist GOP is cruder and more dumbed-down than ever before but it is still saying all the same things.

“When we’re in the wilderness, CPAC is like the Ringling Brothers Circus,” Jim Swift, the deputy online editor of the anti-Trump Weekly Standard magazine, told NBC. “When we’re in power, it’s like Cirque du Soleil — it’s like a circus on acid.”

That this year’s CPAC ended up being one loving serenade to the president after another is no surprise at all. That’s because Donald Trump didn’t defeat conservatives, he became one — in almost every possible way.

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Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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