Among Conservatives, Tension Over What Trump Means for Movement

  • Battle for precedence between individualism and nationalism
  • Traditional leaders of movement versus rising new voices

Trump's Muddled Message From a Divided White House

It’s Donald Trump’s party now, but activists at a gathering of conservatives outside Washington this week are still struggling over whether to fully embrace the president’s vision for what it means to be a Republican.

The mood in the hallways at the Conservative Political Action Conference Thursday mirrored tensions within the Republican Party over how its central values are defined: long-standing principles of low taxes, small budgets and limited government, or Trump’s personal brand of nativist-tinged nationalism that helped propel him to the presidency.

Trump, who skipped speaking to CPAC last year when he was the front-runner for the Republican nomination, is scheduled to address the group on Friday. Top officials of his administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, appeared at the conference in suburban Maryland on Thursday to set the table for him.

The reception was largely friendly. But Kellyanne Conway, a counselor to the president, upset some attendees when she said that “by tomorrow, this will be TPAC."

“That kind of rubbed me the wrong way,” said Steve Kelly, chairman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans.

Still Uncertain

Kelly, who backed Scott Walker and then Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, said Trump probably would have gotten booed if he appeared at CPAC last year. Some conservatives, he said, still are uncertain about the president’s ideology.

Kelly said he’s excited about Trump’s vow to “get things done” and his high energy. “But we need to see where that energy is placed," he said.

Brent Carr of Alabama, 21, went further: “It’s just absolutely wrong. We’ve got so many wonderful speakers here that aren’t necessarily with him,” said Carr, who voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the November election.

Among the new voices on the conference stage was Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon, who in his first public address since joining the president’s team in August cast Trump’s path for the country as “an economic nationalist agenda.”

Steve Bannon and Reince Preibus during CPAC, on Feb. 23.

Photographer: Mike Theiler/AFP via Getty Images

Bannon, who before signing on with Trump made his reputation as anti-establishment brawler while executive chairman of Breitbart News, made clear that the guiding ideas for the Trump presidency are a rejection of “open borders” and an appreciation for America’s cultural heritage.

“We are a nation with a culture and reason for being,” he said. “And I think that’s what unites us.”

New Energy

Mary Layher, a retired teacher from Fairfax, Virginia, said that after listening to several Trump administration officials speak at CPAC, she’s impressed with what the president has accomplished in 30 days.

"It’s fantastic," Layher said. "We knew he needed help, from the cabinet, and I think he’s picked fantastic people."

Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union that puts on the conference, insisted that it was new voices like Bannon that were giving the party its energy in the age of Trump.

“The idea that sovereignty resides in the individual -- that’s how we define conservatism," said Schlapp, a former political director for President George W. Bush. “But what it means in the era of Trump is that the people who used to set the rules of politics and the people who used to set the rules in the Republican Party -- they’ve been minimized and marginalized. And now we’re seeing new voices and new faces.”

That was a theme repeatedly invoked by Trump’s surrogates on Thursday. Pence in his remarks taunted “the media, the elites, the insiders, everybody else who profits off of preserving the status quo,” for dismissing Trump’s chances during the campaign.

“They’re still trying to dismiss him,” Pence, who spent six terms in the U.S. House and was the governor of Indiana, said. “They’re still trying to dismiss all of us.”

Invitation Revoked

But bringing in new voice sometimes has pitfalls and one for CPAC this year was a planned appearance at the event by Milo Yiannopoulos.

The now former senior editor at Breitbart News has been a fervent, and often provocative defender of Trump’s stands on immigrants, globalization and political correctness. His speaking engagements on college campus frequently spark protests and sometime violence.

But Yiannopoulos’s invitation to speak at CPAC was revoked Monday after a group calling itself the Reagan Battalion released a video in which he defends sexual relations with boys as young as 13. He also resigned from Breitbart after an uproar over the video among staff at the website. Yiannopoulos has denied that he condoned pedophilia.

For now, the conservative and nationalist wings of the Republican Party are coexisting, with Trump enjoying strong popularity among Republican-leaning voters.

Conservative vs Populist

William Temple of Brunswick, Georgia, who was dressed in a colonial costume, said Trump isn’t a conservative, but rather a “populist” who “really cares about the common guy” — and that’s just fine.

“What he’s doing is everything I wanted Ted Cruz to do — including the Supreme Court, rebuilding the military, building the wall, stopping illegal immigrants from coming into the country,” Temple said.

Yet a brief appearance at the event of white nationalist Richard Spencer, whom Trump has publicly disavowed, dramatized anxieties among conservatives that Trump’s "America First" rhetoric could be taken too far.

Nearby, on the main stage, conference organizer Dan Schneider blasted Spencer’s movement as a “sinister,” “hateful” and “fascist group” that’s trying to infiltrate conservatism.

Before organizers eventually kicked him out, Spencer held court in the hallway, lauding the lift he said Trump’s victory has provided in "amazing new opportunities now because he’s bringing nationalism to the fore." He described the election win as a "miracle."

— With assistance by Jennifer Jacobs

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