Way back in late February of 2011, the reality show star Donald Trump was roundly booed during a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference’s annual convention. Trump declined his next invitation to CPAC’s 2016 convention during the Republican presidential primaries, which is something Republican presidential hopefuls normally don’t dare, but was nonetheless roundly booed when then conservative hero Sen. Ted Cruz derisively mentioned his name.
President Trump was greeted as a conquering hero at the 2017 CPAC confab, however, and is expected to as rapturously received when he returns today. This raises question of whether it’s Trump or conservatism that has changed over the past six or seven years.
There’s a strong case to be made that Trump has been transformed. Back in ’11 he was still flaunting his friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton, writing checks to all the New York and Florida Democrats he relied on for favors, and was still on the record in favor of banning “assault rifles” and allowing unrestricted access to abortion, among his other many heretical opinions. By 2016 he’d been a leading proponent of the “birther” theory that President Barack Obama was not and American citizen, was saying the nastiest things anyone had to say about the Clintons, promising to get tougher on illegal and legal immigration than anyone else dared, all in the snarling rhetorical style of talk radio, but his conservative credentials were still in doubt.
By the time he made his triumphant return to CPAC last year as the Republican party’s very own president, having triumphed over such well-credentialed conservatives as the aforementioned Cruz, Trump was clearly not the New York City liberal he had once claimed to be. When he takes to the stage today he’ll be able to wave a big tax cut bill that he signed into law, point to all the burdensome regulations he’s eliminated, brag about the strict constructionist he appointed the Supreme Court, and rightly claim that although he didn’t repeal and replace Obamacare his tax cut bill at least rescinded the hated individual mandate. So far he hasn’t caved on promises to kick out all those illegal yet sympathetic “dreamers” who were brought here as children, or his promises to deliver the favors the National Rifle Association paid him for, and although he’s sounded kind of wobbly on both lately his conservative credentials probably won’t be checked at CPAC’s door.
Still, we can’t quite shake a sad feeling that this is not the conservatism we signed up for so long ago. In our idealistic youth, which occurred during one of those occasional epochs of cataclysmic cultural change, we embraced a Burkean conservatism that sought to maintain the best of what our culture had established over the generations, to move cautiously toward its highest and most time-tested ideals, and resist the worst of all the craziness coming from the left. This led us to certain conclusions about the government that governs best being the one that governs least, the enduring wisdom of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the many ways that humans gotten it wrong, not letting petty disputes devolve into warfare, and the importance of eventually balancing the books.
For the most part the Republican party has imperfectly followed these general principles for most of our lives, but these days it seems to have made a predictably bad deal with the guy who had “The Art of the Deal” ghost-written for him. The craziness coming from the left is crazier than ever, and we feel it must be resisted, so it’s especially sad to realize that’s about all we have left in common with the right these days.
The conservative cheers for Trump won’t be for the enduring wisdom of Judeo-Christian tradition, as anybody understands it, and the mention of any institutions that have been painstakingly established over the generations to resist his worst impulses will surely be met with talk of “deep state” “silent coups” by “enemies of the people” and chants of “Burn it down!” The CPAC crowds have already indulged themselves with the ritual chant of “Lock her up” at the mention of vanquished Democrat foe Hillary Clinton’s name, just like the crowds at the Ukrainian strongman’s rallies arranged by Trump’s former and now-indicted campaign manager, which did result in the losing opponent going to jail, which actually outraged most conservatives way back then.
These days too many self-described conservatives seem to like that strong man style of governance, even as they insist they’re freedom-loving small government types. They still insist they’re against annual deficits and multi-trillion dollar debts, but don’t seem to mind that all of Trump’s budgets lead to a bigger-than-Obama hole. They still insist they’re the party of family values, but they’ll give a Trump a pass on his extramarital flings with porn stars and Playboy centerfolds. They still want to lock Clinton up for mishandling classified information, but they’re perfectly fine with alleged-wives beaters and a suspicious-as-hell son-in-laws and dozens of other uncleared staffers getting daily access to top security intelligence briefings.
At least he’s not Hillary, the CPAC conventioneers will surely say, and we have to admit they’ve got a point. The CPAC convention has always drawn almost every sort of self-described contrastive, but mostly the types who take it far too seriously, so it’s always been a bit of a freak show. When Trump was booed back in ’11 it was because he disparaged far-libertarian Rep. Ron Paul, who had easily won the convention’s primary straw poll over eventual nominee Mitt Romney, and this time around it featured the last French election’s nominee from the National Front, a far-right nationalist party with fascist roots whose campaign also received cyber support from the Russian government, and she was more warmly received than Trump was back in ’11. As bad as that sounds, though, we’re quite sure the next big liberal confab, full of people who also take this stuff far too seriously, will have something just as bad. The CPAC convention’s one saving grace has always been that it united all those factions in their opposition to the worst of all that leftwing craziness, and for now Trump is the only champion to rally around in that righteous cause.
If conservatism is thus defined as rallying around Trump, though, it’s in worse trouble than anybody at CPAC seems to realize.
— Bud Norman