It has been observed often that this year’s CPAC conference reflects the accommodation of the conservative movement to a new Republican president who has been less than orthodox in his views. But the precise terms of that accommodation were not clear until Trump himself addressed the conference today: Conservatives must give up their philosophical principles in exchange for policies they favor and the popular support they crave.
Amazingly, Trump spoke for an extended period to an exclusively conservative audience and never used the terms liberty or limited government or free enterprise. He used the word freedom exactly twice. Once was in a reference to the TPP agreement being a threat to “our economic freedom,” a characterization that — until recently — few mainstream conservatives would support. The other was in boasting about his election win:
The victory and the win were something that really was dedicated to a country and people that believe in freedom, security and the rule of law. Our victory…
… was a victory and the win for conservative values.
That was also the speech’s only clear reference, explicitly or implicitly, to the brand of conservative values that have dominated the discourse at CPAC for decades.
Trump did offer a lot of crowd-pleasing lines, roughly divided equally between attacks on common enemies like the non-conservative elements of the news media, and promises to pursue specific policies most conservatives like, from defense spending increases to tax cuts to deregulation to aggressive exploitation of fossil fuels.
But invariably Trump framed his policies not with the traditional memes of movement conservatism, but as expressions of his one clear guiding principle: nationalism. Or, as he put it: “The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that will put its own citizens first.”
While patriotism, of course, is a common touchstone for American conservatives (and for liberals, though conservatives often have trouble acknowledging it), nationalism disassociated from the idea that America distinctively stands for universal values — e.g., freedom or “liberty” or limited government — is not a value Republicans have traditionally embraced. Presumably many of the same people who cheered Trump at CPAC also cheered George W. Bush when he used to talk about freedom and democracy being America’s gift to the world, a gift worth fighting to defend and extend — rhetoric Ronald Reagan also used throughout his career (otherwise his favorite rhetorical reference to America as “a shining city on a hill” is nonsensical).
The idea that Trump isn’t asking conservatives to change that much simply is not true. He’s asking them to acknowledge that discarding their most cherished positions in order to vanquish their foes and achieve their immediate goals is absolutely necessary, with his electoral victory after the defeat of more conventional leaders like McCain and Romney being the proof. And thus he represents the eternal temptation of right-bent political thinkers and actors everywhere and at every time to overcome their scruples and embrace “populist” demagogues.
As Trump ended his speech and the room was filled with his odd campaign anthem, the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” for the first time I saw the song as entirely appropriate. Conservatives cannot elect a president who talks only or mostly of freedom and capitalism or of those Western values that transcend the nation-state. But they can win with Trump, so they’ll get what they need, at the mere expense of their principles, if not their souls.