Trump, Anti-Socialist Messaging Enliven a Mellow CPAC
It was clear, the New York Times observed after the first Conservative Political Action Conference, that the hearts of the right belonged to Ronald Reagan. Nearly half a century later, their political hearts are solidly the property of Donald Trump.
That much was evident as Trump took the stage Saturday -- hugging an American flag as he made his way to the podium and drawing a palpable energy from the crowd at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center outside of Washington, D.C.
Trump was so much at home at CPAC that he spoke for two hours, the longest speech of his presidency. He said it was his first visit to the annual conference in 2011 that inspired him to run for president. He bragged about everything from inaugural crowd sizes and his Electoral College victory to his deregulation and his confirmed Supreme Court justices. He went off-script frequently.
Though freewheeling, Trump made sure to pick up where other speakers had left off during the preceding three days: He condemned socialism as the de-facto ideology of the left:
“Socialism is not about the environment, it’s not about justice, it is not about virtue. Socialism is about only one thing: it’s called power for the ruling class. All of us are here today because we know that the future does not belong to those who believe in socialism.
“The future belongs to those who believe in freedom,” Trump boomed. “… We believe in the American dream, not the socialist nightmare.”
At this line, the crowd burst into chants of “USA! USA! USA!” If the conservatives gathered at CPAC had been harmoniously mellow during the prior days of the annual gathering, that changed as the president spoke in ideological tones befitting a political preacher.
After the speech, a triumphant Matt Schlapp, president of the American Conservative Union and CPAC maestro, told RCP the president had just offered a preview of 2020.
The socialism broadside, in particular, was appropriate, because so many of “the leading lights” on the left have embraced the ideology, he said.
Schlapp is understandably happy with Trump as anti-socialist champion. His organization can take considerable credit in that development; CPAC sparked his political ambitions and it readied a populist platform for him. And CPAC has served as a safe harbor for his administration.
This year’s event lacked the drama that has punctuated past gatherings — the sniping at competing presidential candidates, the uneasiness of old guard conservatives coming to grips with conquering populists, the friction between the established orthodoxy and upstarts at the ideological fringe — were gone. All was harmonious inside the ballroom and adjoining conference rooms as conservatives enjoyed unity and confidence while waiting for the left to pick a presidential challenger.
Speakers repeatedly focused their attacks on what liberals might describe as a postmodern Red Scare. Conservatives, however, have their evidence, and make a frequent foil of the ideas of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the millennial democratic socialist from New York.
“Under the guise of Medicare-for-all and a Green New Deal, Democrats are embracing the same, tired economic theories that have impoverished nations and have stifled the liberties of millions over the past century," Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday.
“That system,” he continued, “is socialism.”
If CPAC had a theme, this was it. There were panels on how to deal with reemerging Marxism. There were giant video screens warning that leftism is on the march. There were college kids running around wearing T-shirts that read, “Socialism sucks.”
“I want you to put socialism on trial,” Larry Kudlow told the crowd Wednesday.
“I don’t want us to stand idly by,” the White House economic adviser added. “I don’t want to let this stuff fester. I want it challenged. I want it debated. I want it rebutted. And I want to convict socialism.”
A second conviction expressed at CPAC was the certainty that Trump will prevail at the 2020 ballot box.
This was clear from the sea of red MAGA hats, not to mention the 30-foot mural of the 45th president in the exhibit hall. Something of a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Dirty Harry, an acrylic Trump stared out with steely blue eyes as an eagle soars over a renewed United States complete with border wall.
The whole White House gang was there to promote this vision. Six different Cabinet members addressed CPAC, and big names like Kellyanne Conway regularly posed afterward for celebrity selfies. The less prominent, like Peter Navarro, went unrecognized once off stage. The director of the White House National Trade Council, the man perhaps most responsible for economic war with China, stood seemingly unnoticed while waiting with his staff by coat check.
If much of the event’s programming was tame compared to past conferences, “America Fest” on Thursday night was not. The line into the party hosted by Turning Point USA snaked around the block as millennials waited up to an hour to get inside the bar.
And if CPAC used to be called “nerd prom,” this was the party that parents might worry about.
There was a mechanical bull, confetti falling from the ceiling when the DJ made it “rain” on especially attractive riders, and blaring rap music. At the center of it all was Charlie Kirk, the 25-year-old founder and CEO of TPUSA, the millennial mayor of CPAC.
That title is an imaginary honorific but not far from reality at the conference. College kids and boomer VIPs mobbed him. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel calls him the future of the GOP. Trump Campaign Manager Brad Parscale is counting on him to help win “the youth vote.”
Almost a third of the 9,000 CPAC attendees were students, a testament, Kirk said, to how “the youth movement has been growing in size, scope and influence, especially in the last five years and then in the last two since the election of Donald Trump. … The average age of a CPAC attendee is much younger in 2019 that it was in 2012 and 2008.”
Conservatives are counting on these young to serve as the next vanguard against liberalism in 2020. In the meantime, they’re counting on the man they helped catapult into the Oval Office.
Dan Schneider, the executive director of the ACU, told RCP that “by far the Trump Cabinet is the most conservative administration in 50 years. It makes the Reagan administration look like liberals.”
Schlapp added that though “people love Reagan … he is in Heaven, not on Earth and the fight is right now, here amongst us, and Trump is leading the charge.”