Imagine your favorite Republicans and “Republicans”- Ted Cruz, Kellyanne Conway, Mike Pence, Betsy DeVos, Steve Bannon, and Donald Trump- all gathered together in one place for three whole days. Imagine that these conservative demigods are joined by the likes of America’s scarlet sweater-wearing sweetheart, Ken Bone, and the most elusive species known to humankind, the Republican college professor.
Is this right-wing wonderland real? Indeed it is. And it’s called CPAC- the Conservative Political Action Conference. This annual conference is held at the Gaylord National Harbor Hotel in Maryland. I was one of the Hoyas who had the opportunity to attend CPAC on February 23rd-25th, and it was one wild ride.
CPAC featured three days of panels, interviews, and speeches by many different bases in the conservative movement. These sessions covered issues like the Second Amendment, the Pro-life movement, tax reform, and President Trump’s signature wall policy. On balance, the message was unified and consistent with the conservative platform. However, there were a few notable exceptions.
The most prominent policy shift in CPAC this year was its opposition to free trade, often called protectionism. A major subject which became enjoined with the conservative movement only recently, protectionism was championed by Mr. Trump in his campaign, and has been a focus of his nascent administration. It has included lambasting so-called “bad” agreements like NAFTA and slashing newer trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Traditionally, conservatives have supported free trade as part of an open-market and laissez-faire economic policy, one of the conservative economic policies most lauded by economists. However, President Trump’s vehement protectionist rhetoric has been infectious, and the 2017 CPAC reflected that.
Numerous speakers discussed pulling out of bad trade deals, and NAFTA was greeted with boos and jeers (almost as loud as those thrown at the “fake news” media) when mentioned in one of the panels. A newcomer would have assumed all conservatives feel (and have felt) as strongly about this issue as any of the other pillars of the movement. Little would one suspect that this is a completely new position for the conservatives, one that, some would argue, even negates the rest of the platform conservatives proclaim so resolutely.
Then again, last year the center of the Make America Great Again movement himself would likely not have been well-received at CPAC, as the president himself admitted in his speech on day 2 of the conference. Nonetheless, this year the conference was awash in red MAGA hats, and number 45 regalia. With few, if any, exceptions, the convention was on board with the new orange-hued face of the Republican Party.
What are the implications of this 180 on trade policy and the new names which have been catapulted to the forefront of the conservative movement? Only time will tell. The lasting effects of the Trump presidency are anyone’s guess. Whether the CPAC regulars were on board is impossible to tell, and as a government major myself this conference left me with more questions than answers, both about my own views and the movement itself.
Personal politics aside, this conference was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To hear the biggest names in the administration and in the conservative movement at this historic time in our nation’s history was invaluable. It was an experience that goes beyond the standard Hilltop buzz, and, due to the tumultuous political context of the day, one that is unlikely to be replicated at any CPAC or any other conference, convention, or ceremony in the future.