Once upon a time there was an American conservative movement. A liberal might not have much liked it, but its grandees have commanded a respect that if anything has grown down the years: from its intellectual powerhouse William Buckley, founder of The National Review, with his languid manner and mid-Atlantic drawl, to the sainted Ronald Reagan himself.
Another constant of the movement for the last 40 years has been CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of activists and true believers that gave a sense of where the movement was heading. CPAC has had its weird and wacky moments, and some pretty squalid ones too – like 1994 when it briefly turned into a circus featuring the former Arkansas state employee Paula Jones and her sexual harassment claims against then president Bill Clinton (who admittedly drove conservatives crazy as no other Democrat before or since).
By and large though, CPAC has been a pretty reliable indicator of the mood on the activist right of the party, of their preferred candidates, and of the ideas which were driving American conservatism at that given moment.
It was courted too, by presidential aspirants seeking to curry favour with the right: not least Mitt Romney whose repeated professions of conservative orthodoxy at CPAC may have scared off the centrists he needed to win the White House in 2012. But now CPAC is an indicator of nothing – other than conservative disarray.
The story of its relations with Donald Trump tells everything. A decade ago, Trump was considered if anything a Democrat. A first sign of his shifting allegiance was his CPAC appearance in 2011, hinting at a possible White House run in 2012. A minority thrilled at the prospect, but most were suspicious, regarding Trump as a sideshow, a publicity-hound with the barest of conservative credentials.
His subsequent appearances were little more convincing. In 2015 he was booed for calling for the deployment of US ground troops in the Middle East to defeat Isis. In 2016, by then a presidential candidate, he skipped the event entirely, and CPAC’s straw poll of presidential preferences was won by that unimpeachable conservative, Ted Cruz.
Then you get to CPAC 2017, last week’s showcase of how Trump – with the help of his ideological mentor and senior White House adviser Steve Bannon – has hijacked not just the Republican Party but the American conservative movement as a whole.
Many of the country’s most important conservatives, CPAC fixtures in years past, were not there, either having chosen to take a pass, or for lack of an invitation. One who was invited however was the infamous Milo Yiannopoulos, who had been a protégé of Bannon’s when he was running the hard right Breitbart news website, and has now turned into an all-purpose attention seeker and “alt-right” troublemaker. That crowning embarrassment was only avoided when he went too far even by his standards, appearing in a video in which he seemed to approve of paedophilia.
The invitation was hastily withdrawn, and a CPAC official tried to further cauterise the wound with a speech excoriating the alt-right as a “hatefilled left-wing fascist group” that was “trying to worm its way into our ranks”. But the worm has already reached the apple’s core. Who needs Milo and his self-serving version of the alt-right, when you’ve got the real thing in Steve Bannon?
Bannon’s appearance on Thursday was the real highlight of the week. Trump’s speech may have been the first to CPAC by a sitting president since Reagan in 1986, and contained some extraordinary lines (among them, “The GOP from now on will be the party of the American worker”). Basically though, the speech was campaign boiler-plate, as he hopped from one well-worn theme to another, spiced up with Trump-patented alternative facts.
Bannon, though, fed the conference real red meat. Some was 100 per cent to conservatives’ taste, such as when he spoke of his goal as the “de-construction of the administrative state”, that permanent downsizing of government of which Buckley and Reagan dreamed.
Less palatable however were Bannon’s tirades against corporatism and globalism, themes close to an orthodox American conservative’s heart. And he made no bones about the real name of the game: populism and a hard-nosed America-first nationalism. If that meant ripping up the established international order, then so be it. Populism is one of those places where right and left overlap. At times it might have been Bernie Sanders addressing the faithful.
The battle between Trump’s version of conservatism and the conventional variety is not yet decided. It may yet be he makes one error too many and the establishment rallies its forces, and stages its counter-coup.
Moreover, one overriding paradox obtains. The man himself is no more obviously conservative than he was a decade ago. But with his victory, and the Democrat’s failure to recapture either House or Senate on Capitol Hill, Trump has given Republicans their best shot in years at passing a genuinely conservative agenda, featuring juicy tax cuts for the rich, a bonfire of regulations on industry and finance, even the long promised repeal of Obamacare. And with the impending return of a conservative majority to the Supreme Court, he’s about to give them a leg-up in America’s eternal culture wars as well.
Thus the absence of Republican insurrection, for now at least. Misgivings about Trump in his own party on Capitol Hill abound, and won’t have been mitigated by the protests some Senators and Congressmen have faced back in their states and districts during last week’s recess. For now however, it suits everyone to get along.
And even if Trump does come to grief it won’t be a return to business as usual for conservatives. CPAC showed that last week. Trump and Bannon have changed the parameters. His White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway has made her name thus far mainly by getting her facts wrong. But she got one prediction dead right. By the end of the week, she declared, “it won’t be CPAC, It’ll be TPAC”. It is.
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