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Trump’s Takeover of Conservatism Is Complete and Total

OXON HILL, Md.—If you’re a conservative with something critical to say about President Donald Trump, watch your back.

That was the implication Saturday afternoon at the Conservative Political Action Conference, where a panelist who rebuked the president, as well as the event’s organizers, had to be escorted out of the building by a three-man protective detail.

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Mona Charen, a well-known conservative author and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, was among four women discussing issues of feminism and sexual abuse on the final day of the annual right-wing gathering. Asked by the moderator to name something that gets their “blood boiling” as it relates to those subjects, Charen replied, “I am disappointed in people on our side for being hypocrites about sexual harassers and abusers of women, who are in our party, who are sitting in the White House, who brag about their extramarital affairs, who brag about mistreating women—and because he happens to have an ‘R’ next to his name we look the other way.”

And she didn’t stop there. With the audience silent and seemingly paralyzed by her assault on Trump—whose Friday-morning speech highlighted three days of uninterrupted adulation—Charen added: “This is a party that endorsed Roy Moore for the Senate in the state of Alabama even though he was a credibly accused child molester. You cannot claim that you stand for women and put up with that.” Her final line was interrupted with jeers and boos from the audience, mixed with scattered applause, with one woman near the front repeatedly yelling: “Not true! Not true!”

The moderator scrambled to move the panel forward, mentioning the “explosion” of incidents in which “accusation has been equal to conviction.” Many in the crowd continued shouting, several of them about the need to defend men from baseless allegations and separate good guys from bad guys.

“Speaking of bad guys,” Charen interjected, her tone louder and more aggressive than before, “there was quite an interesting person who was on this stage the other day. Her name is Marion Le Pen. Now, why was she here? Why was she here? She’s a young, no-longer-in-office politician from France. I think the only reason she was here is because she’s named Le Pen.” A man screamed from the audience: “Why are you here?” Charen continued: “And the Le Pen name is a disgrace. Her grandfather is a racist and a Nazi. She claims that she stands for him. And the fact that CPAC invited her is a disgrace.”

By the time Charen had finished, boos and taunts drowned out the applause. “You’re a disgrace!” another man shouted.

Waiting for Charen afterward in a hallway inside the Gaylord National Resort, I was surprised to see her surrounded by three security officers. She was surprised, too. Charen told me the detail had suddenly appeared backstage, “seemingly nervous,” having been assigned to protect her on the way out. As we talked, and the detail marched Charen briskly toward the front doors, a few people tried to approach her but nobody got close. “They were acting as if I were in real danger,” she texted me afterward, “which I didn’t feel at all.”

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and the chief organizer of CPAC, said he didn’t see Charen’s panel and wasn’t sure who requested the security guards. Schlapp sought to cast the incident as evidence of the diverse viewpoints represented at the conference. “That’s a little bit of what CPAC’s all about,” he said. “We don’t have a monolithic message. We put a lot of people on stage.”

This is a well-worn line for Schlapp, who has courted controversy at the past two conferences by inviting—and in certain cases, uninviting—fringe characters outside of the conservative mainstream. This year’s contentious roster included Le Pen, a member of France’s far-right National Front party and the niece of its current leader; former Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke, who has encouraged violence against the media and in whose jails multiple inmates died; and Frank Gaffney, the conspiracy-minded national security hawk who has long been estranged from the conservative movement over his extreme anti-Islam rhetoric.

Schlapp defended his guests and complained that critics are focusing on the “2 percent” of disruption at the conference instead of the “98 percent” of speeches, panels and workshops that went off without a hitch. Even if that ratio is warped, his point is fair: With scores of events spread across three days, this year’s CPAC was on the whole a quiet, nonconfrontational affair. Schlapp also argued that the old internecine disputes over Trump are settled. “This idea that the Republican Party is somehow split, or the conservative movement is somehow split about Trump, it’s just not an accurate portrayal,” he said. Indeed, more than 9 of 10 attendees at this year’s CPAC approve of the president’s job performance, according to straw poll results.

That monolith is what made Charen’s remarks so unpopular—and what compelled some worried soul to assign her a security detail. It’s a dizzying bit of irony: There are indeed still plenty of prominent conservatives who object to Trump, yet they are unwelcome at an event they once dominated, replaced by fringe characters whose presence is justified by the pursuit of ideological diversity.

“There are a huge number of conservatives who feel as I do. And I just felt it was important that people at this conference hear from us, too,” Charen told me before leaving the hotel. “The conservative movement is broader than CPAC. And it still contains a tremendous number of people with principles and high standards.” She paused, then added, “There are still good people at CPAC. Very good people. But it’s important to draw a line.”


Charen’s outpouring of dissent accentuated how quickly and completely CPAC has become a pro-Trump gathering, just two years removed from him skipping the event because of a planned walk-out among conservatives who opposed his candidacy. Late Friday morning, with a standing-room-only ballroom full of conservative activists thundering down applause, Trump told of the “horrendous” immigrants taking advantage of our visa lottery system. He warned of dangerous and unproductive people arriving via “chain migration.” And then, underscoring these threats, the president dusted off “The Snake,” a ballad he often recited on the campaign trail, which likens immigrants welcomed by America to a venomous serpent that bites and kills the woman who took it in.

It seemed to set a tone. Gaffney, invited back to CPAC after being banished from the event for years, warned that most of the Chinese nationals in the United States are here to spy on Americans. A short while later, Rick Ungar, a left-wing radio host whom Schlapp invited for a panel discussion, was booed when he described a naturalization ceremony—and again when he said that Mexican immigrants have “more in common” with conservatives than liberals. That night, Schlapp’s communications director, Ian Walters, stunned attendees of the event’s trademark Ronald Reagan Dinner by saying the Republican National Committee elected Michael Steele as chairman in 2009 “because he’s a black guy.”

All of this in one day—and less than 24 hours after the Trump administration changed the mission statement of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency to remove the phrase, “a nation of immigrants.”

“None of this happens in a vacuum,” Steele told me Saturday morning, still visibly upset by Walters’ remark. Steele said that Schlapp had apologized to him but then pointed to Steele’s criticisms of Trump and the Republican Party. “And I’m like, ‘Yeah? What the hell does that have to do with what your guy said from the podium last night?’ He was twisting it back on me,” Steele said. “There are people who have an attitude regarding race in this party that needs to be cleansed out. Otherwise this party will die from it.”

Schlapp, whose wife works in the White House communications office, is widely known as one of the nicest guys in the Republican Party. But his friends believe there’s a stubbornness, and a blind spot, when it comes to controversy. “The bottom line for Michael Steele,” he said, when I asked about Walters’ remark, “is there are those who are critical, including a lot of members of the press … who believe that his time as chairman did not demonstrate high capability.” What does that have to do with him being black? “The point was that he was not necessarily a great chairman,” Schlapp replied slowly.

This dynamic is amplified when it comes to Trump. At one point in our conversation, as he defended his speaking lineup, Schlapp said, “You have a president, who nobody would say came from the fringe, who is wildly popular and came here.” Certainly, there is no debating Trump’s good standing among the CPAC faithful; there is also no debating that Trump promulgated the falsehood that Barack Obama was born in Africa, appeared on Infowars as a guest of Alex Jones and accused Ted Cruz’s father of being complicit in John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Schlapp came under siege in 2017 for asking former Breitbart provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at CPAC. (He rescinded the invitation when video footage surfaced of the openly gay Yiannopoulos endorsing pedophilia.) Schlapp faced similar outrage this year, and not just over Le Pen. Conference organizers were skewered for inviting Pamela Geller, who has been barred from past CPACs due to her incendiary rhetoric about Islam, and Jim Hoft, whose “Gateway Pundit” blog recently attacked students from Parkland High School who spoke in favor of gun control after the mass shooting at their school on Valentine’s Day. (This prompted Matt Lewis, a onetime CPAC “blogger of the year,” to pose the question: “Why is CPAC Afraid of Real Conservatives?”) Both Geller and Hoft were slated to participate in a panel on free speech; Geller quit when she came under pressure from the panel’s sponsor, the American Principles Project, to drop Hoft. When the revised panel on tech censorship concluded, and the APP moderator asked for audience questions, a young woman asked angrily why Hoft himself was being censored. Other attendees erupted in agreement.

Some of the other events at CPAC were anodyne and engaging, delving into important policy debates on the right. A Friday discussion on criminal-justice reform was thoughtful and nuanced, as was a Saturday morning conversation on marijuana legalization, broadcast from a satellite event in Colorado. This, many conservative movement veterans recall, is what CPAC used to be about—a competition of ideas among fellow travelers, albeit always with a dash of cartoonish people and circus acts on the side.

These days, Steele said, “the sideshow is on the main stage.” This has meant a blurred line between patriotism and nativism. It has also meant provocation over policy: On Friday morning, National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch said that “many in legacy media love mass shootings,” adding, “Crying white mothers are ratings gold.” A bit later, before Trump spoke, Fox News host Laura Ingraham quipped, ”Liberals are kind of like herpes. Just when you think you have them beat, they come back again.”

Perhaps most manifestly, the shift at CPAC has made hyperbole and alarmism the norm. No one bats an eye when a video message from the Tea Party Patriots warns that America is doomed unless its patent system is strengthened. Every head nods when former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka—who shoved one reporter at the event, and threatened at least one other—says Trump must finish two full terms, followed by two for Pence, because, “We need a minimum of 16 years to get back our republic.” It’s par for the course when radio host Mark Levin says the nation is “at a precipice” and warns that the left is going to defeat Trump “over our dead bodies.”

All of this fits “a broader pattern of a party that has lost its way, lost its moorings,” Steele, a frequent critic of his party, told me. “There are no William F. Buckleys up there to give appropriate context on what conservatism means in the 21st century and how it shapes the surrounding environment. I think without that intellectual heft it’s now just base, raw emotion. It’s all about how I feel and what I think. It’s not about what I understand and what I know. It’s reality TV conservatism.”


National Review, Buckley’s brainchild magazine that helped inspire and mobilize the conservative movement, and where I previously worked as a reporter covering the 2016 campaign, was once a dominant presence at CPAC. That is no longer the case (although fittingly, Charen was a longtime National Review employee and still writes for the publication). The most visible remnant of Buckley’s legacy at this year’s event was a small booth in the exhibition hall, manned by a single staffer, with free magazines and pamphlets on display.

At one point, two college kids approached. They were students from the State University of New York at Binghamton, and neither is a fan of the magazine. “Too left-leaning,” said Luke C., a senior who has a job lined up and doesn’t want the #FakeNews media to ruin it by using his full name. When I asked what conservatism means to him, he replied: “Traditional values.” When I asked whether Trump has changed what it means to be a conservative, he excitedly answered in the affirmative. “Now you can talk about things you couldn’t before,” he said. “Immigration has been such a sensitive subject. Republicans were afraid to talk about it. But now you’ve got fringe characters like Ann Coulter who are more mainstream, and that’s a good thing.”

Ben Rauff, a 19-year-old freshman at Kansas State University, had nearly identical responses. Conservatism, he said, is about “values,” with “a lot of nostalgia to it, harkening back to what things used to be like.” Trump, he said, has changed conservatism “by making people braver to say what’s on their mind.”

Erin McLaughlin, a freshman at Grove City College in western Pennsylvania, defined conservatism as “a set of core beliefs based on values that will never change—the right to life, individual rights.” And yet, she conceded, Trump has revised what it means to be conservative, even if only temporarily.

Youth is the lifeblood of CPAC. More than half of its attendees any given year are university students, giving the gathering its reputation for its all-night ragers and no-strings-attached romance. The college demographic also provides a built-in excuse for those on the right who have never been inclined to take the conference seriously. “This is a fun place to do all the radio shows and run into people in the halls, and for half of the people here who are college-age to see real-life congressmen, senators, presidents,” Grover Norquist, the head of Americans for Tax Reform, told me Saturday morning. “They can see stars and see famous conservatives they see on TV. That’s what this is. Nobody is thinking through the modern conservative agenda at this conference.”

Yet in the era of Trump, with the core tenets of conservatism potentially evolving in real time, surveying these young activists took on greater urgency. In interviews with more than a dozen students here, I was struck by the near-uniformity of their responses to questions about conservatism and Trump’s effect on it. Three patterns emerged. First, they believe conservatism is defined by timeless principles—while acknowledging that Trump is changing the definition before our eyes. Second, their biggest concern with the president was over his proposed “amnesty” for illegal immigrants—even with concessions on border security and the wall, things they believe the White House is unlikely to achieve. Third, and perhaps most unexpected, many of the students I spoke with expressed skepticism over the existence of an intellectual “conservative movement”—but of those who believed, not a single one named Trump as its leader. This, in spite of pollster Jim McLaughlin declaring of Trump during the CPAC exit-poll unveiling, “The conservative movement has found a new leader.”

Instead, nearly every student named Ben Shapiro, the California-based radio host and blogger whose frequently-protested campus appearances have taken his celebrity to new heights. “The older generation had William F. Buckley,” Rauff told me. “But Ben Shapiro, with his podcasts and speeches, he is sparking that fire in my generation.”

Interestingly, Shapiro was the only other person I heard at CPAC who took on Trump. Near the end of his Thursday speech—a water-from-a-firehouse repudiation of the left, peppered with lines such as “social justice is not justice” and “no more subjective feelings trumping objective facts”—Shapiro emphasized “truth” as the crucial weapon in their fight against political correctness. “When President Trump complains that everything negative anyone has ever said about him isn’t true, or when President Trump says he had the biggest inauguration crowd in history, or when the president says there were good people marching in Charlottesville, that is not him waging an effective war against PC,” Shapiro said. “It is nonsense. It is immoral. And it actually helps those who push PC.”

There were scattered boos in the ballroom. But far more applause—and no threat to him, real or perceived, on the way out.

Shapiro will almost certainly be back next year. The question already facing Schlapp, who looked exhausted by the deluge of incoming this week, is who will speak next year. He said he’s taken to heart the criticisms from longtime friends and allies, but doesn’t plan to change his approach. “The political world we live in, there’s a lot of change, and I’d rather attendees see what’s happening,” Schlapp told me. “We will not court the fringe. But we are also not going to overly censor people who have a point of view. Sometimes that point of view I will completely disagree with. But we’re going to let them talk—unless the reason why they’re fringe is harmful to these kids.”

Tim Alberta is national political reporter at Politico Magazine.

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