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Trumpism at CPAC

Matt Schlapp: “Can this Trump movement be combined with what’s been happening at CPAC and other conservative movements for 50 years?”

Steve Bannon: “I think the center core of what we believe is that we are a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being, and I think that’s what unites us and I think that is what is going to unite this movement going forward.”

That exchange took place at the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday. The annual event, held since 1973, brings together the grassroots activists, politicians, and elite media personalities of the mainstream conservative movement for a wide range of speeches and strategy sessions. Trump himself will be giving his first CPAC speech as president this morning.

Movement conservatives have struck a triumphant tone in the wake of Trump’s victory, but they now face the task of addressing exactly where they fit in relation to the rise of the Trumpian right. Unlike Trump, they did not identify and respond to two key issues that have rearranged the political spectrum: globalization and political correctness.

Instead of speaking for the people left behind by globalization, movement conservatives uncritically praised global capitalism, acquiesced in high levels of illegal immigration, and supported unnecessary wars in the Middle East. Meanwhile, the spread of trigger warnings and safe spaces led to an extreme counter-reaction in the form of white identity politics, expertly manipulated by Trump and his supporters. And now that Trump has been in office for a chaotic and controversial first month, there have been different responses from the three major components of movement conservatism.

First, classical conservatives, more accurately described as “classical liberals,” believe in free enterprise and limited government. They have little love for Trump and even less for his protectionist economic policies and nativist rhetoric. They are, however, willing to support him in return for tax reform, deregulation, and Obamacare repeal.

Second, evangelical Christians, focused on social and cultural issues, are somewhat put off by Trump’s lack of Christian morals, but they are willing to hold their noses and support him if it leads to pro-life victories, such as the recent reinstatement of the Mexico City policy (which blocks federal funding for international organizations that perform or advocate abortions) and a conservative replacement for Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Third, neoconservatives, responsible for movement conservatism’s liberal-interventionist stance, have been the most vocal critics of Trump’s agenda. Trump’s almost Jacksonian brand of foreign policy is unlikely to ever win over this small but influential cohort.


This lack of consensus within movement conservatism has only deepened its crisis of identity. It is in this moment of confusion that movement conservatives have begun to engage with the Trumpian right at CPAC this week. Appropriately, the first panel to kick off yesterday’s talks was “Conservatism: Where We Come From, Where We Are, and Where We’re Going.”

The Trumpian right is not a single organized unit but a disparate collection of contrarians and nationalists who see movement conservatives as the real enemy. They were given a major platform by Breitbart, a website with an irreverent attitude toward liberal self-righteousness but also a tendency to rely on clickbait to generate publicity and outrage. Breitbart popularized the “alt-right” and provided Trump with Bannon, his closest and most trusted adviser. Breitbart is well-represented at CPAC this year by the likes of Alex Marlow, Joel Pollak, and, of course, Bannon himself.

In an important symbolic moment noted above, Bannon and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus appeared together in an interview with Matt Schlapp—chairman of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC—to encourage this coming together between movement conservatism and the Trumpian right. Bannon clearly defined the Trump administration’s agenda as based on the need for “national security and sovereignty,” “economic nationalism,” and the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” If this agenda succeeds, it will be nothing less than a major reconfiguration of what movement conservatism represents.

Despite this engagement with the new nationalist phenomenon on the right, movement conservatives have shunned the more extreme elements, such as Richard Spencer, a white nationalist and leading spokesman for the alt-right, who was thrown out [1] of CPAC yesterday. Dan Schneider, an executive director of the American Conservative Union, also launched a blistering attack on the alt-right in a speech, saying “they hate the Constitution, they hate free markets, they hate pluralism, they hate everything and they despise everything we believe in.”

The difficulty of treading this fine line was well illustrated by the organizers’ decision to invite Milo Yiannopoulos, the highly controversial self-proclaimed free-speech advocate, to speak. After a video interview surfaced in which Yiannopoulos defended pederasty, the invitation was rescinded. Yiannopoulos also lost his book deal and resigned from Breitbart. His remarks were terrible, but the fact is that Yiannopoulos has always been a vulgar, rude, and cruel individual consumed by an insatiable thirst for fame and attention.

That is not to say Breitbart and the Trumpian right have come out of nowhere. Their rise to prominence was made possible by movement conservatism’s obsession with chasing celebrity and headlines, especially on radio and television. This created a space for populists like Sarah Palin and controversialists like Ann Coulter—a space that Trump entered with relative ease.

CPAC itself played a role as well. After Trump’s high-profile support for the “birther” movement, the organizers legitimized Trump as a conservative figure by inviting him to speak in 2013. Trump defeated his conservative rivals by seizing the leadership of a movement that had already made a virtue of brashness and crudity.

For too long, movement conservatism has been narrowly ideological, ahistorical, and overly focused on materialism and the individual. Today we live in an age defined more by culture, identity, and a popular craving for solidarity and citizenship fueled by dissatisfaction with globalization and political correctness.

It will be difficult for movement conservatives to adapt to the new political landscape. Many will stand firm by their belief, as Sabrina Schaeffer of the libertarian Independent Women’s Forum put it yesterday, in a “commitment to a shared set of ideas and principles and to the notion that principles trump identity.” Failing to change will only result in the decline of movement conservatism.

But there are already signs of movement conservatives’ reaching a healthier engagement with these issues. Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry’s National Review piece “For Love of Country” [2] is perhaps the best attempt so far. They argue for “a broad-minded nationalism that takes account of the nation’s idealism and rationally calculates its economic and foreign-policy interests.” There are limitations to their approach, particularly in regard to their claims that an interventionist foreign policy best serves America’s national interest, but it is a robust start to what should become an ongoing conversation.

Given the turbulence and unpredictability of the past month, it remains to be seen if Trump can bring about truly transformative change. What is clear is that Trump is not an anomaly but the harbinger of a new age in American politics. As movement conservatives consider their future at CPAC this week, they must begin to forge an enlightened nationalism which combines ordered liberty with civic solidarity, and express it in a measured and thoughtful voice.

David A. Cowan is a freelance writer and conservative activist who graduated from the University of Cambridge with an M.Phil. in political thought and intellectual history.

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Trumpism at CPAC"

#1 Comment By Will S. On February 23, 2017 @ 11:31 pm

“How do movement conservatives fit in to our new political reality?”

You don’t.

Your time is done.

Simple as that.

#2 Comment By John Gruskos On February 24, 2017 @ 10:23 am

Foreign policy is the biggest conflict between Trump’s campaign promises and the Republican establishment.

Trump promised détente with Russia and an end to regime change wars.

The establishment wants a continuation of the Saudi/Israeli “outside-in” foreign policy: Cold War II and regime change wars.

The establishment’s foreign policy has been a catastrophic failure. Thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners have died. Trillions of dollars have been wasted. There are millions of refugees, and tens of millions of migrants. Christian communities in the Middle East who survived almost 14 centuries of Muslim rule, who even survived genocidal maniacs such as Tamerlane and The Young Turks, have been destroyed by the neocons. Al-Qaeda and its offshoots such as Nusra Front, ISIS, and AQAP are stronger than ever.

We need to vociferously support the foreign policy promises which helped Trump win the election: 1. No more regime change wars. 2. Détente with Russia and every other country which wants to help destroy Al-Qaeda and its offshoots, and return peace and stability to the Middle East.

#3 Comment By KennethF On February 24, 2017 @ 11:16 am

“What is clear is that Trump is not an anomaly but the harbinger of a new age in American politics”

If so, then I agree with David Frum and others that the American experiment has failed. Trump is not a statesman. He won the presidency because he is a talented con man, panderer, and demagogue. He began his 2016 campaign with the outright lie about Obama’s birth certificate, and continued with tripled-down lies such as “Obama literally founded ISIS”. The only reason he’s a conservative is because it helps his popularity and personal wealth. He is incapable of commenting on policy in any detail or depth. His tweets are often incoherent.

Point being, if Trump is the future, then Mencken was right: “As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

P.S. Excellent article from TAC because it’s largely about conservatism, not The Donald. Props to Dreher and Larison for not accepting Trump as their new Messiah, but a few at TAC are busy weaving fancy new clothes for the naked emperor. All I have to say is “Seriously?” I didn’t agree much with Reagan, but he had eloquence, intelligence, and dignity. If Trump is the future, Reagan is truly dead and gone.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On February 24, 2017 @ 11:57 am

I had every intention of returning to CPAC, but it as become so ridiculously expensive,, it simply is not worth it. That is of course the point. To keep us “riff raff” out. Well, in my case they have succeeded.

I was mildly happy that you chose to make a distinction between conservative and “movement conservatives. I side with Mr. Oakshott. The use of the term movement is not an accurate descriptor of what a conservative represents.

And while, I supported the current executive, I am slow to identify him as a conservative. His ideological perspective may be a bit too fluid. I would point his position on “same sex relations” in need of some unique protections or his support for the marriage of such relationships as clearly not conservative. It is such radical departure from anything helpful to community to embrace in any manner is a radical position. It’s a press against the very foundation of a communities, growth and maintenance that yields no fruit. It may be a convenient political position for the popularly fringe, but hardly a mark of a conservative. Juxtaposed against his vehement support of family, regardless of divorce and his belief that marriage should be a heterosexual dynamic, it’s peculiar. Excuse me, the embrace of Mr. Trump was not for his impolite rhetoric. It was taking on issues about which the many had been told hey must be silent on or be punished — primarily “marriage and homosexual conduct.” Everything else, just added fuel to that underlying current of seethe.

Whether he actually embraces his campaign position on needless use of military force is still in question. It appears he is currently leaning on expanding terrorism to justify the use of force. Whether it a compromise position to appease a Congress unable to deal with the realities of failure of our use of force over the last sixteen years or more or just a play for strength against the emergence of China, and Russia the strategy hardly seems one of prudence, a signature card of a conservative ob policy. Though CPAC itself is hardly a traditional conservative organization. They current history hardly reflects prudence on the use of force. In fact, they have been one of the primary promoters as has the ACU. No. What constitutes a conservative is a very small wing of the Republican party.

One doesn’t have to embrace any belief in God to be conservative. But one generally embraces the principles that those who believe in God desire to live by. What Pres. Trump is not going to do is continue the war on people of faith that begun under Pres Reagan and lost all shame over the last 12 years. As Iraq unveiled it’s failure another veil was lifted. The deep animosity against people of faith who had largely supported the effort, just as their attackers had. Here christians are may find themselves deeply betrayed, again. If the current executive ignores conscience on the question of making cakes for an practice condemned for people of faith, it’s going to be a desert for many christians business forced to serve private cultural ceremonies they cannot abide. I could never coach someone advancing the virtues of homosexual behavior –

But like members of CPAC, comprehending necessary distinctions ma be too inconvenient. The members of CPAC are “law and order” crowd, but their view of law and order as has been the understanding for most of the country is lopsided. It runs one way and thereby has consistently missed the goal of the law — justice to fairplay equal under the law. Order mins the latter is an empty shell. A war on cops, not supported by the numbers nor the vast amount of sentiment concerning the country’s police forces. But using white women to stoke fear and panic is an old ploy and thus far Trump has been all to happy to play along, as he did with New Yorkers and has yet to redress concerning revelations concerning the central park teens.

Or the caterwauling about quotas and AA, unless it was granting room for white women, homosexuals or the quota systems they claim didn’t work but were happy to institute to support the needless use of force in Iraq, Afghanistan and no doubt other regime change models.

I disagree with anyone who makes claim to comprehend the nature of Pres Trump or his tenure. He is not a typical politician, in fact, he is a far cry from what we have come to expect from politicians. Which in the immediate will be a good test of the Republic. We don’t have to manufacture Pres. out of the myopic yale, harvard and other small pool of the US educational, wealthy class system. It can and should be a system subject to other minds and other means of service as it was intended to be.

As for the soothsaying, hyperbole of the obvious, exaggerated or made up speculation about who ad what the Admin is or will be by assuming others either don’t know or don’t care doesn’t call for much in the way asute political minding.

Pres Trump has just started. He must continue to forge his way through a system created by those happy to have taken his money, but utterly contemptible of his intrusion. He has in his hands an opportunity to transform the direction we were headed for a more service oriented to the good of the state overall or he could simply become another cog to their elite ambitions. Only time will tell.

I do not regret my support, despite our differences. I remain encouraged that someone has made the distinction between conservative tradition and the “movement brand” that has been front and center. They are not the same thing at all.

#5 Comment By collin On February 24, 2017 @ 12:24 pm

While Breibart/Trumpsim does share the same goals as Movement conservatism, it appears

1) While there are complaints against poltical correction, Breibart/Trump are simply outright rude in their approach. One can be against illegal immigration, but Trump’s approach to Mexico and their people (as well as US citizens) is try to humiliate them.
2) While both movements are against globalism, tell me one example that Trump has changed the course of globalism and help the average person? The EO against 7 nations was small potatoes and most American suspect that Border tax and protective tariffs simply hurt the average person.

#6 Comment By SteveM On February 24, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

Re: “Third, neoconservatives, responsible for movement conservatism’s liberal-interventionist stance, have been the most vocal critics of Trump’s agenda. Trump’s almost Jacksonian brand of foreign policy is unlikely to ever win over this small but influential cohort.”

Agree 100% with John Gruskos. The quote above is already OBE. Trump’s inner sanctum has been fully militarized. Rex Tillerson has already been shoved to the corner. The belligerent speech at the UN by Nikki Haley had to have been vetted by the White House. Foreign policy is being run by the Militarists.

The people banging in Trump’s ear on a daily basis now are Military lifers who grew up professionally to view foreign policy as a nail to be pounded down by the War Machine hammer. And they have their favorite targets all picked out: Russia, Iran, China. The Militarists have rolled Trump into compliant Neocon orthodoxy.

Moreover, to amplify John Gruskos observations, Trump also wants to significantly increase “defense” spending for conventional forces and also take on a massively expensive charge for updating the nuclear weapons inventory. Trump is apparently providing the Neocons with everything that they could want.

BTW, halving the workforce of the civilian agencies is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of workers and contractors attached to the Security State. Given that Trump is fully invested in the Cult of Military Exceptionalism, the Security State is again immune from a rational benefit-cost assessment and intelligent downsizing of wasteful programs and activities.

Short of the actual military confrontations that are probably already in the planning stage, this is about as bad as it can get. The Trump Big Sell-Out is nearing completion.

P.S. the CPAC/Breitbart crowd are screaming wildly for Trump’s military initiatives, not realizing that they are yet again being played for chumps by the Neocons and the Security State apparatus.

#7 Comment By Dan Phillips On February 24, 2017 @ 1:19 pm

I address this same issue here. Movement conservatism has to recognize it’s implicit and often explicit globalist assumptions.


#8 Comment By Rossbach On February 24, 2017 @ 2:21 pm

“…we are a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being..”

Unless movement “conservatives” subscribe to the above-stated ideal, they are on no use to the American people and will, hopefully, fade away.

#9 Comment By David Naas On February 24, 2017 @ 3:50 pm

For some time, I have thought that Modern Conservatism was birthed by Wm. F. Buckley, Jr. and died with him.

Once again, the old war between conservatives and the Right is at hand. Conservatives may be on “the Right”, but not all on “the Right” are “conservatives”.

If I have to explain the difference, they probably still wouldn’t understand.

The ascension of Trump has shown how few “conservative” principles remain after the feckless snobs kowtow before Money and Power. If Mammon is a “conservative principle”, then conservatism can go hang.

#10 Comment By David Naas On February 24, 2017 @ 3:52 pm

Oh, and what EliteCommInc said on February 24, 2017 at 11:57 am .


#11 Comment By Joe the Plutocrat On February 24, 2017 @ 4:03 pm

I suspect, movement conservatives need only bide their time, and Trumpism’s 15 minutes will expire (possibly as early as 2018, if not sooner via impeachment or resignation, in the face of impeachment). Frankly, I am more interested (as an observer) in the Left’s next move. The bottom line is substance “trumps” form in DC. Trump (like bannon, Coulter, Pallin, and Milo what’s his name?), is a master of form over substance. “The Trumpian right is not a single organized unit but a disparate collection of contrarians and nationalists who see movement conservatives as the real enemy”. When the enemy is not the FBI, CIA, New York Times, and CNN. And ironically, “movements” like Trump’s need an enemy (probably goes back to his involvement with Pro Wrestling). And therein lies the rub. As we are seeing, it is easy to campaign on a “contrarian” platform. Slinging mud at immigrants, Mexicans, Muslims, and any other non-white, non-Christian boogeyman, but it is not so easy to “faithfully execute the Office of POTUS” when the only tool in your toolbox is your Twitter account. “Globalism” is a reality (Trump employs immigrants and has built a “global” empire. Call me the anti-deplorable, but this is nothing iof not ironic. Leadership requires vision and innovation, and ideas. Wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth is not leadership; it’s complaining. When two key members (on no longer) are purveyors and consumers of conspiracies and “alternative facts” you have to ask yourself, WTF? Politics is like gambling. There is a “line” or an over/under, and it remains to be seen who placed the right bet, the “movement Conservatives” or the “different movement” Conservatives. My bet is, the old movement will win.

#12 Comment By rick allen On February 24, 2017 @ 6:52 pm

“…we are a nation with a culture and a reason for being.”

We are indeed. But I noticed there was no attempt to get any more specific.

What things constitute American culture? “All men are created equal”? The melting pot? The sentiments engraved on the statue of liberty? A government of three co-equal branches with checks and balances? Freedom of the press? Freedom of religion? Freedom from cruel and arbitrary government action? Keeping our promises? Jazz? Hollywood? Mark Twain and Raymond Chandler? “It’s a Wonderful Life”?

Welcome to Pottersville.

#13 Comment By Concerned Citizen On February 25, 2017 @ 10:44 am

Could someone please describe for me what our nation would look like after “deconstruction of the administrative state”? The very term frightens me. If all pillars this country has relied on since inception are brought down, what would remain? It certainly wouldn’t be the United States of America.

#14 Comment By The Z Blog On February 25, 2017 @ 10:57 am

So-called “movement conservatism” has only managed to move backward, in constant retreat as the Progressive onslaught has swept the nation. They have not even managed to get off a few shots in most engagements. Instead, they flap their arms and repeat some lines from the Reagan Mystery Cult and scurry away into the undergrowth whenever Lefty arrives.

Movement Conservatism is dead.

Good riddance.

#15 Comment By Dr. Diprospan On February 26, 2017 @ 10:29 am

The world lacks the remarkable orators, especially in politics.
I looked through speech of Donald Trump at CPMC twice.
I do not agree with the President Trump in one. Specifically that there is
an urgent need to spend money to upgrade weapons.
Donald Trump himself is like a hydrogen bomb.
This is a man who is able to captivate billions without any force of arms.
In my opinion Donald Trump is a real treasure and like any treasure can be easily lost. Lately Russians could not preserve Vitaly Churkin – bright speaker, Russian Ambassador to the UN. Not right when people over 60 are spending on sleep 4-5 hours…
Give the man a bit of time!
Not the end of the world tomorrow.
USA will be great again!

#16 Comment By Uncle Billy On February 27, 2017 @ 8:59 am

“Conservatism” must be more than just tax cuts for the rich. It must advocate programs which help all of our citizens. The takeover of the Republican Party by the very rich, has resulted in a party which is basically intellectually bankrupt. No ideas other than tax cuts for the rich. They seem to think that this will fix each and every problem this nation faces.

How will enriching the Forbes 400 even more, help with our crumbling infrastructure? Our less than stellar public schools?

The game is over. The so called “conservatives” bamboozled us for quite a while, but now people are starting to wake up and realize that all this tax cuts for this rich and open borders to hold down wages are not doing most of us any good.

Note to “conservatives:” what do you have other than tax cuts for the rich? Specifically, what else do you have?