Donald Trump has made his last campaign stop of the season — Election 2016 is officially over.
While the Conservative Political Action Conference had started two days before, his presence and influence could be felt everywhere. From the vast main event hall, where Reince Preibus and Steve Bannon discussed “dismantling the administrative state,” to breakout groups focused on “how social media is changed constituent communication” and the “revolt of the deplorables”: Donald J. Trump was the man of the day.
A year prior, it wasn’t the case. CPAC 2016 was prismatic, separating each shade of conservative across the spectrum by idea and candidate. Kasich, Rubio, Cruz and even Gary Johnson had their moment on the grand stage to present their pitch to battle Hillary Clinton, whose nomination had been all but secured in the aftermath of Nevada’s caucus. A notable exception to this diverse presentation was Trump himself, who decided not to attend.
While shaken by the split Super Tuesday results released just a day before the conference began, attendees from colleges and capitols across the nation saw the primary as a long road yet untraveled. According to the CPAC straw poll, Donald Trump secured only 15 percent, compared to Sen. Rubio’s 30 percent and Sen. Ted Cruz’s 40 percent. Excepting the odd MAGA hat or drunk Trump supporter, the conference was united in its opposition to Donald Trump. Plans to walk out on the billionaire’s speech spread like wildfire, rumored to have at least 500 adherents (still a substantial part of the cavernous event hall).
Liaisons for the Trump campaign (nondescript among the sea of business attire, excepting their permanent scowls and Trump lapel pins) caught wind of the ploy quickly. Rather than highlight the marginal support he enjoyed among the attendees, his campaign made the choice to cancel the appearance, citing a need to be in “Witchita, Kanasas [sic] for a major rally on Saturday prior to Caucus.”
The reaction of the conference was quick and caustic.
— CPAC 2017 (@CPAC) March 4, 2016
Critics and campaigns pointed to the candidate’s retreat from criticism, while the dejected Trump supporters were left to defend their champion in absentia.
One year later, election and White House in hand, President Donald J. Trump returned to CPAC a conquering hero to claim his prize. The Conservative Political Action Conference, but an abortive battle in the long road to the White House, now sits among his spoils of war.
Trumps speech made the distinction evident. Saying it was “great to be back at CPAC,” the president said, “I wouldn’t miss a chance to talk to my friends, these are my friends.” Addressing the previous year’s retreat in passing, he said “I would have come last time, but I worried I would have been too controversial,” yet drew a clear contrast to the activists now assembled: “But you didn’t consider [my policies] too controversial.” The crowd’s standing ovation was affirmation enough for the president.
President Trump offered a clear call to action to the assembled activists and bulwark of the Republican Party’s conservative wing. The “era of empty talk is over. Now is the time for action” POTUS said, reaffirming the message of Vice President Pence and other speakers. Trump assured the crowd that “our victory was a victory and a win for conservative values,” doubtless a message to long-suffering movement conservatives.
In the spirit of CPAC, Trump concluded by offering a definition of the Republican Party and the movement he led to victory in November. Electorally victorious against the political and media elites, Trump promised “the forgotten men and women will be forgotten no longer. That is the heart of this new movement and the heart of the Republican Party.” With incredible clarity, the president of the United States declared, “The GOP will be from now on, also, the party of the American worker.”
Whether these definitions will come to define conservatism as a whole is ultimately a judgment for those in the audience of CPAC and across the country. If the shift in tone at CPAC is indicative, a significant step in that direction has been made. Regardless, the last chapter of the 2016 Election has closed, as Donald J. Trump returned to CPAC, victorious.