In the middle of his speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference Friday morning, President Donald Trump stopped to tell a revealing story.
While he was getting to sign two executive orders that tried to revive the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, Trump said, he stopped to ask a question — “Who makes the pipes from the pipeline?”
When his advisers told him the steel came from all over the world, Trump says he responded, “Nope, comes from the United States or we’re not building it.” He asked the crowd, “If they want a pipeline in the United States, they're going to use pipe that's made in the United States. Do we agree?”
The crowd roared in approval.
As happens so often, what Trump actually did falls far short of what he’s claiming to have done. Brad Plumer explained last month that Trump’s order merely called on the Commerce Department to develop a plan for pipelines to use US “materials and equipment” to “the maximum extent possible and to the extent permitted by law.” There’s a ton of wiggle room there, and it’s unclear how that will be interpreted or implemented.
But the larger point was that at CPAC — a conference of activists who had long defined free market conservatism as one of their core values — Trump won big cheers for posturing against free trade and for the sort of “America first” contracting provisions that conservatives have long opposed. As National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke pointed out:
CPAC cheers against free trade.— Charles C. W. Cooke (@charlescwcooke) February 24, 2017
It should be noted that CPAC attendees who waited in line to get through security to see Trump speak are more likely to be fans of the president. Conservatives most critical of Trump likely didn’t show up.
Still, Trump’s triumphal appearance at CPAC — six years after he delivered his first major political speech at the gathering, and one year after he canceled on the conference in the midst of a contentious primary — further drives home how much he’s reshaped what was once American conservatism in his own image.
Trump showed CPAC a better way (to get votes)
“Once upon a time,” Matt Yglesias wrote recently, CPAC and the conservative movement professed to care about “ideological rigor and principle.” But “more recently it’s provocation, street fighting with liberals, and identity politics for aging white Christians” — embodied by the (eventually canceled) invitation of Milo Yiannopoulos to keynote the conference, and, of course, the embrace of Trump.
Trump has embraced some longtime tenets of conservative ideology. In the speech, he touted his support of the Second Amendment, his dislike of regulations, and his desire to repeal and replace Obamacare. And his nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court was probably his most conservative-pleasing move so far.
But his top issue has long been anti-immigration politics — something that used to split conservatives — and he’s thrown conservative tradition overboard on issues like trade and entitlement programs.
As if to rub it in, Trump even proclaimed to the CPAC crowd that the trade issue was key to his victory. “A lot of Bernie people voted for Trump because you know why? He was right about trade,” he said.
And when diagnosing the problems with the Affordable Care Act, Trump made a stray reference to the fact that “Obamacare covers very few people” — which could be reaffirming his frequently expressed desire for his replacement plan to cover everyone.
Criticizing trade, defending entitlements, and professing a desire to cover more people has proved to be good politics for Trump. But it certainly wasn’t understood to be traditionally conservative.
But in the end, it was Trump — not the very conservative Ted Cruz or even the solid conservative Marco Rubio — who won the primary and ended up consolidating most Republicans to his side in the general election. He’s now calling the shots and defining the party’s agenda. And the traditionally conservative activists who may disagree with him on these issues have to watch from the sidelines.