President Donald Trump is scheduled to speak this Friday morning at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. It’s a reminder of how much difference a year makes.
In March 2016, CPAC’s biggest controversy had nothing to do with right-wing internet troll Milo Yiannopoulos or the “alt-right.”
Last year, the controversy was over Trump himself — then a firebrand outsider and long-shot presidential candidate who decided the day before his address that his time would be better spent campaigning in Kansas and Florida than talking to the largest right-wing political gathering in the United States.
Trump’s team insisted he was canceling in order to campaign. But his decision to bow out came amid widespread talk of a planned conservative “walkout” during his address. “Not the last time @realdonaldtrump will abandon conservatives,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse tweeted. Many of the right-wing intellectuals who opposed Trump — op-ed writers, think tank staffers, libertarian policy wonks — openly celebrated his decision not to attend. Republican senators criticized Trump in their CPAC speeches; conservative activists at the event cheered his withdrawal.
His reception this year is likely to be very different.
What is CPAC? And how do I watch?
CPAC will officially kick off on Wednesday morning in Maryland’s National Harbor and go until Saturday afternoon.
News of this year’s event has been dominated by the conference’s invitation of alt-right Yiannopoulos. On Monday, CPAC rescinded its invitation of Yiannopoulos after video resurfaced of him seemingly defending the sexual abuse of children.
But despite the flurry of headlines, the Yiannopoulos event was never going to be anything more than a small part of the four-day series of events stretching from speeches from the party’s top politicians to “activist boot camps” and roundtable discussions from those in the movement.
Some of the Trump administration’s most controversial figures, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, and senior White House adviser Steve Bannon, are set to address the group. These events are all expected to be live-streamed at CSPAN.org.
- Four Republican governors — Matt Bevin (R-KY), Sam Brownback (R-KS), Doug Ducey (R-AZ), and Scott Walker (R-WI) — will speak on their states’ economies at 10:05 am.
- Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) at 11:10 am will have “a conversation about the Constitution” with radio host Mark Levin.
- Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will speak at 12:50 pm.
- White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Bannon will talk with the head of the American Conservative Union at 1:05 pm.
- Vice President Mike Pence will also give a major address at 7:30 pm.
- President Donald Trump will speak at 10:20 am.
- Former Ambassador John Bolton, now at the American Enterprise Institute, will headline an event at 2:20 pm.
- Rep. Kevin Brady (R-TX), a key House Republican leader on tax reform, will speak at 2:30 pm.
- Gov. Paul LePage (R-ME) will speak about welfare reform at 4:15 pm.
- Scott Pruitt, Trump’s recently confirmed EPA administrator, will talk at 1:50 pm.
What will Trump tell CPAC? And does it matter?
In 1985, President Ronald Reagan explained why he was attending the 11th Conservative Political Action Conference: “CPAC is the opportunity to dance with the one who brung ya.” Reagan’s quote was a tribute to the role the conservative movement played in his election victories, but it also spoke to their mutually beneficial relationship — Reagan embraced conservatism early in his political career, and conservatives saw him as a champion of their cause.
Trump’s relationship with conservatism is much more difficult to untangle. Though more than 80 percent of Republican voters supported him in the general election, he was not conservatives’ favored candidate during the primary — a distinction that went to Sen. Cruz.
The question to watch at CPAC will be how much space between Trump and American conservatism remains. In an op-ed published on Monday, Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union, which is responsible for putting on CPAC, ducked the question altogether beyond noting “there are questions” because Trump “did not run as a longtime champion of conservative causes.”
In May 2016, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat warned his fellow conservatives not to follow Trump — that there was a distance worth preserving between the two visions each held for the country.
“In a fully Trumpized G.O.P., Reagan’s ideological coalition would crack up, with hawks drifting toward the Democrats, supply-siders fading into crankery, religious conservatives entering semi-permanent exile,” Douthat wrote. “And in its place a Trumpized Republican intelligentsia would arise, with as little interest in Reaganism as today’s conservatives have in the ideas of Nelson Rockefeller or Jacob Javits.”
Douthat’s prediction of hawks leaving the party seem at least plausible — nothing about Russia is on the schedule this year. (Pence gave a speech denouncing “Putin’s Russia” at the 2015 CPAC.)
And the Times columnist’s guess of a “Trumpized Republican intelligentsia” also looks like it may prove accurate, at least if the CPAC schedule is any guide. Breitbart reporters or editors are moderating at least eight events. Among the scheduled talks are multiple Trump allies, including Kellyanne Conway, and, of course, the key speaker will be Trump himself.
Last year, it was plausible for those who found Trump abhorrent to still go to CPAC and say it reflected their political perspectives. It’s much harder to imagine how they could do the same this time around.