NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND–In 2016, Donald Trump canceled his planned speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference amid rumblings of an audience walkout. Several speakers used their time slots that year to bash Trump, and the crowd vigorously booed each mention of his name.
A year later, a newly inaugurated President Trump and his staffers, advisers, cabinet members, and allies dominated the event.
“By tomorrow, this will be TPAC,” joked White House counselor Kellyanne Conway as she sang her boss’ praises to thousands of attendees.
So how does 2017’s TPAC compare to the decades of CPACs that preceded it?
~ In 2015, the last non-election year, the conference hosted nearly 20 members of Congress as speakers. This year, just a small handful made the pilgrimage.
~ The right-wing publication Breitbart, once so on the fringe that they held a rival conference outside of CPAC in 2013 and 2014 called “The Uninvited,” is now a lead sponsor of the official show, and several of its writers and editors spoke on panels and from the main stage.
~ Aside from Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), Trump’s vanquished Republican rivals are nowhere to be seen.
~ You couldn’t hear so much of an echo of the thunderous denunciations of Trump and Trumpism common on the stage in years past.
~ The small-government, free-market, libertarianism that has dominated the conference—which for years crowned either Ron Paul or Rand Paul winners of the CPAC straw poll—was also glaringly absent.
Many long-time conference attendees, including Brooklyn Tea Party Vice President Cartrell Gore, expressed unease about these changes.
“I don’t see the Ron or Rand influence this year,” he lamented. “But it’s alive and well in me.”
Gore, a Naval Reserve member who left the Republican Party many years ago when it became “too liberal for [his] taste,” became visibly uncomfortable when asked if he is a Trump supporter. “I can’t say that. I want to wait and see what happens. I’m not over-optimistic.”
Even some members of CPAC’s leadership broadcast some discomfort about the conference’s embrace of Trump. Conference organizer Dan Schneider told the crowd on Thursday: “We are so thankful to be celebrating a president … who is not named Hillary Clinton.”
The conference has been treated to speaker after speaker from the Trump White House and cabinet touting the nascent administration’s agenda. The often rowdy and contrarian crowd dutifully cheered even those policy positions at odds with traditional conservative dogma: scrapping free trade in favor of protectionism, making policy through executive orders, and singling out individual companies for favors and tax breaks.
Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus
When Trump himself spoke on Friday, he faced a sea of red Make America Great Again hats as he attacked the press, declared nationalism the driving theme of his presidency, and smiled uncomfortably through the anti-Hillary Clinton chant of “Lock her up!”
“Our victory was a win for conservative values,” he said. “The core conviction of our movement is that we put our own citizens first.”
Trump also rewrote his own fraught history with CPAC, saying that he pulled out of speaking in 2016 he was “worried I would be too controversial.” At the time, he said the cancellation was due to his campaign schedule.
CPAC communications director Ian Walters insisted to TPM that Trump was merely fulfilling a promise. “When the campaign made the decision at the last minute not to be here, they issued a statement that said, ‘We hope to attend next year as president of the United States.’ His appearance today was another example of him keeping the promises he made on the campaign trail.”
Last year, CPAC bashed Trump on Twitter for the cancellation, saying it “sends a clear message to conservatives.” But Walters said the conference’s attendees have proven themselves “willing to put aside what happened in 2016 because they’re seeing [Trump] begin to address so many of the important issues that they’ve been talking about for decades.”
Many Trump fans in the audience, including Linda Barnes from Centerville, Virginia, had a different take on CPAC’s abrupt about-face.
“Everyone gets on the bandwagon with a winner,” she said, rolling her eyes. “It’s like when the football team is doing well and everybody says, ‘I was always a fan.’”
Barnes had never attended to CPAC before, telling TPM, “There wasn’t anybody I wanted to see that badly.” This year was different. “I really just wanted to see Trump,” she gushed. “I just felt way more engaged this year.”
Genevieve Peters, from Playa del Rey, California, echoed this sentiment, telling TPM that Trump is the “only reason” she attended this year’s CPAC—her first.
“I think it’s the Trump Party,” she said. “I wouldn’t be involved in politics if it wasn’t for him, and millions of people wouldn’t be involved either. I don’t call myself a Republican. I call myself a Trumpian.”
William Temple, a fixture at Tea Party events for years, at CPAC in 2016
Even the man who threatened to lead an anti-Trump walkout at CPAC in 2016 says he has been won over. Dressed in Scottish highlander garb, a yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” draped over his shoulders, 65-year-old William Temple said of Trump: “The man is not a Christian, yet. But he’s got a wonderful vice president sharing the gospel with him all the time, and I’ve seen a change in his behavior.“
Yet despite all the signs of a Trump takeover, CPAC was still CPAC: dominated by young, white students, rattled by controversy, and marked by delightfully weird displays of patriotism.
The conference opened with a young teen dressed in black stoically strumming out the National Anthem on an electric guitar as a half-full hall of well-dressed people softly sung along. A few older gentlemen wandered the halls dressed in Revolutionary War garb, feathers streaming from their tricorn hats. A man dressed up as the D.C. swamp President Trump promised to drain shuffled slowly around the conference center.
Expanding gun rights and restricting abortion rights were still major themes.
But if President Trump has his way, TPAC could last for the next four, or eight, years. “We’ll see you again next year and the year after that,” he promised a cheering crowd. “I’ll make sure we’re here a lot.”
Alice Ollstein is a reporter at Talking Points Memo, covering national politics. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010 and has been reporting in DC ever since, covering the Supreme Court, Congress and national elections for TV, radio, print, and online outlets. Her work has aired on Free Speech Radio News, All Things Considered, Channel News Asia, and Telesur, and her writing has been published by The Atlantic, La Opinión, and The Hill Rag. She was elected in 2016 as an at-large board member of the DC Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Alice grew up in Santa Monica, California and began working for local newspapers in her early teens.