Heading into last week’s CPAC, the annual gathering of conservative activists, there was a palpable sense that the conservative movement faced a significant challenge because of the success of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. I admit, I am far from being pro-Trump and see the long-term damage that he can inflict on the party. However, my time at CPAC proved to be a pleasant surprise, as the signs of unity among the conservatives and the movement itself were evident.
The first thing that stood out to me was the sheer lack of Trump supporters among the thousands of CPAC attendees. There were few people sporting his campaign gear or saying that they wanted to “make America great again.” Sure, I met one man, Carl (more on Carl later), who felt that Trump was his man and I saw other people sporting Trump paraphernalia, but that was the extent of the limited support. In fact, there were signs of open rejection of Trump. One man, an African American who had just completed four years in Afghanistan with the U.S. Army, was walking around the conference carrying a sign that read, “Veterans against Trump.”
During the Townhall Debate Watch Party in the main ballroom (attended by a few thousand), it was clear who the crowd liked and did not like. When Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio landed punches and/or discussed their vision for America, the crowd went wild. When Donald Trump lobbed an insult and other forms of juvenile behavior, the crowd mercilessly booed him. Rubio fans clapped for Cruz and Cruz fans applauded Rubio. Among conservatives, both Cruz and Rubio were candidates that they could rally behind if they could get the nomination. There were few signs of animosity among them or toward one another’s candidates.
A particularly important facet of CPAC was not the discussions happening inside the lecture halls, but the ones that were happening outside of them. Sure, the panel discussions featuring notable conservative thinkers were valuable. However, the true grassroots activists were engaging in the free exchange of ideas about how to win and promote the conservative cause. After CPAC, these people will return home to be the tip of the spear of our efforts to take back the White House and maintain (or expand) our majority in Congress. Most will put in long hours of organizing and volunteering on local campaigns, which can be a thankless task. This election cycle, they know this fight will be harder, especially if Trump is the nominee.
Across CPAC, attendees openly discussed how Trump was harming the Republican Party and its ability to grow. The Republican brand of conservative and fiscally restrained stewardship was being turned into a caricature that turned off crucial general election voting blocs. To put it more simply, Trump’s positions created an association that will negatively impact other Republican office seekers in November. Voters are not going to think that Republicans are tiny handed vulgarity-spewing con artists, but they will believe us to be xenophobic, anti-immigrant and unfriendly to minorities. None of these things are true, but they are part of the stereotype that is taking hold in the public consciousness.
Is it any wonder that Mitt Romney is reportedly looking into seeking the GOP presidential nomination from the Republican National Convention floor? Like other Republican activists, Governor Romney cares about the future of the Republican Party and knows that Donald Trump would destroy it like one of his now closed casinos in Atlantic City.
This is where Carl comes into play. Carl, who was in his late 60s, was attending his first CPAC. We struck up a friendly conversation on a bench outside one of the convention center’s restaurants. He told me that he only became active in politics in the late 80s and that even though Trump was a mean guy who lacked the judgment and temperament to be president, nonetheless he was enthusiastically supporting him. Why? To Carl, politicians, particularly the so-called establishment, had “screwed” him over time and time again. “All they do is take from me.” Carl said. He continued explaining his Trump backing. It was his way of saying that he wants to burn the whole system to the ground.
So I then asked Carl what he thought about the reports that Romney was exploring entering the race from the convention floor. His hand tightened into a fist and he became visibly agitated. Carl explained how if Romney did that, “the people would revolt,” and attempt to stop him using any means necessary. He viewed that as “the establishment throwing out the expressed will of the people.” To Carl, it would be the sin that twisted the knife in his back. His words were similar to those of the few other Trump supporters that I came across. They were mad as hell and they were not going to take it anymore.
Donald Trump has claimed he is a unifying candidate. Many pundits have reacted by rolling their eyes and chuckling. However, Trump is right when he says this. He has united the conservative movement against him. It is why two out of every three votes cast were cast against Trump. It is why we conservatives worry about the damage that he is doing to the Republican Party.
At CPAC, activists showed that they reject Donald Trump and that they are ready to fight to hold onto the House and Senate in November.
Now, the question is whether or not this unity will all be for naught. Has Trump’s candidacy made it impossible for Republicans to win in November?
Evan Siegfried, a Republican strategist and columnist, is president of Somm Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter at @evansiegfried