Steve Kelly-Contributing Writer
Russian flags waved in one section of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) as President Trump took the stage.
Surprisingly, these flags were not waving in protest.
Instead, a group of conservatives were tricked into waving Russian flags simply because they said “TRUMP” on them.
This prank comically represents how quickly conservatives have placed their loyalty in an individual above the values they claim to hold.
If you ever wanted to check the health of the conservative movement, CPAC has long been providing the diagnosis. For decades, CPAC has been the platform to define conservatism. The biggest influencers within the conservative movement speak to thousands of activists over the course of three days as they apply conservative principles to modern day’s pressing issues.
I have had the opportunity to attend CPAC three times, including the most recent conference just a few weeks ago. This year’s conference was profoundly different: if the conservative movement is defined by what is said at CPAC – as it has been – then conservatism isn’t what it used to be.
This year’s conference kicked off with a speech from President Trump’s former campaign manager Kellyanne Conway. She said, “By tomorrow, this will be TPAC,” meaning attendees would be replacing the word “conservative” with the name “Trump.” In my observations throughout the conference, Conway was completely right.
It’s unbelievable how much has changed in just one year. Last year, CPAC took place in the middle of the primary election cycle when we didn’t know who the Republican nominee would be. In the annual straw poll among attendees, Donald Trump received only 15 percent of the vote compared to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, who received 40 percent and 30 percent, respectively.
Donald Trump was scheduled to speak at CPAC last year, but he cancelled last minute. Trump cited a disagreement in the speaking format as the reason for his cancellation, but, judging by the crowd, his message would not have been received well.
Compare that to this year’s CPAC, where all of President Trump’s policies were enthusiastically supported. He was given an 86 percent approval rating, “Make America Great Again” hats were everywhere and one of Trump’s former primary opponents was booed as he came on stage.
The speaking lineup was also an indicator of where the conservative movement is going. Primetime spots were given to members of the Trump administration and campaign surrogates. Notably missing from this year’s lineup were conservative favorites from previous years such as Rand Paul, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan.
In a panel discussion, White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon thanked the organizers of CPAC for finally inviting him, indicating he was not a welcomed guest in previous years. Bannon was formerly the chief executive of Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign last August. Breitbart received attention throughout the campaign because of its obvious pro-Trump slant.
Donald Trump’s victory has a broader impact than government policy changes. Trump’s victory also gives credibility to his biggest advocates and supporters. Steve Bannon would be nowhere near the White House if any other Republican were President.
Even before CPAC started, controversy among conservatives began as Milo Yiannopoulos, one of Trump’s biggest advocates, was announced as the keynote speaker. Milo made a name for himself throughout the campaign by speaking at college campuses. His aggressive, provocative style of speaking resulted in protests at many of his events, some of which turned violent.
Just days before the conference started, Yiannopoulos’ invitation to speak was rescinded after a video surfaced of him condoning pedophilia.
The fact that he was invited to speak at a conservative conference in the first place is appalling. He doesn’t describe himself as a conservative, but he happens to be associated with Trump-type Republicans; therefore, he has credibility as a “conservative.”
This is a dangerous trend for the conservative movement. My fear is that, over the course of the Trump presidency, conservatives will trade their limited-government principles for the agenda of economic nationalism promoted by Trump and Bannon.
To be fair, President Trump has made some admirable conservative changes already. He is committed to deregulation and appointed an original constitutionalist to the Supreme Court. These actions should be applauded by conservatives.
On the other hand, economic nationalism is not a conservative ideal. Economic nationalism is the idea that all of our products should be made in America while imposing trade restrictions and tariffs on other countries, and this concept views all trade deficits as bad. This is not a free market, limited government way of approaching trade.
Similarly, the proposed healthcare law to replace Obamacare maintains many of the same big government policies that conservatives do not support, such as keeping many of the taxes and subsidies of Obamacare. The bill will soon be up for vote and Republicans will be faced with the choice of either supporting the president or demanding a more conservative solution.
Opposing the president has it consequences. Take a situation in the Ohio Republican Party, for example. During the campaign, Ohio Governor John Kasich did not support Trump. Likewise, the chairman of the Ohio GOP was reluctant to support Trump. Shortly after Trump’s victory, the president-elect personally called delegates within the Ohio GOP to have the chairman replaced by a more pro-Trump candidate.
Similarly, the president has threatened to support candidates in primary races against members of Congress who oppose his agenda. This puts pressure on conservatives who are reluctant to support the less-conservative policies of President Trump.
There is no doubt that Donald Trump now leads the conservative movement, but my hope is that conservatives will keep their focus on ideology rather than an individual.