The CPAC conference is an alien spectacle for a Brit. Unlike our own sterile, lobbyist-filled Autumn borefests, the four-day gathering is packed with actual activists. Sessions discuss political, economic and philosophical ideas. In political speeches, the elected talk to the audience, rather than aiming for a 10-second news soundbite. In many ways, it’s pretty refreshing.
And yet…a dark cloud hangs over the Gaylord Center. In a year in which the Republicans should be gearing up to take on an easily beatable Hillary Clinton, the name Donald J Trump dominates almost every conversation.
Not in a good way either. It feels a bit as if everyone here has woken up mid-way through a nightmare in which they’ve been collectively sleepwalking: nobody quite knows how they got here, or how to get home. But almost all agree Trump’s nomination threatens to plunge the party into civil war, and hand Hillary the White House. Delegates muse about desperate ploys to stop what looks inevitable. Many talk about some form of super Cruz-Rubio-Kasich agreement to try to halt The Donald, but it seems more in hope than expectation.
There has been a huge debate over whether Trump is or is not a conservative. If one defines a conservative as someone supported by other conservatives here, then Donald is not one. Perhaps its selection bias, but I’d estimate only around 5% of delegates are backing him here, identifiable not least from the ‘Make America Great Again’ hats. The opposition though is fierce. National Review is rallying the troops to oppose him and most of the speakers I’ve seen on stage have attacked, implicitly or explicitly, Trump’s crony capitalism, flip-flopping and rudeness (though as yet, no further comment on his hand size).
But the overwhelming emotion here is one of exasperation. And one can understand why. For if the Trump supporters I’ve spoken to are representative, then the conservative attempt to halt the Donald wave is going to fail.
“For me, voting Trump is just a big F-you to the establishment,” one told me. “And I love the fact he’s not dependent on any special interests for his campaign finance”. This was echoed by two other delegates in the main hall. Washington is perceived as corrupt, and someone with a bombastic and frank approach needed to shake things up. For these three at least, their vote is a calculated gamble. “Why not then an anti-establishment conservative candidate, such as Cruz?” I asked. “I’m not that conservative,” was the reply. “But aren’t you worried by his stances on a range of issues – not least economic issues. He’s clearly a crony capitalist?” I said. “Yes,” one said, “but if he gets the wall done that will be a good enough achievement for me. And all this other stuff, he’ll either calm down in office or we have Congress still to stop him.”
That to me seemed the rub. For many, this is about shaking things up, and those intent on putting a metaphorical bomb under DC could not give a damn about Trump’s lack of ideological purity or allegations about his tax returns, business activities or relationships with liberal Democrats. Whilst conservative favourites such as Rubio and Cruz dazzled the crowds here with that sort of critique, with Cruz winning the coveted annual straw poll, neither they nor the conservatives they preach to appear to have any real idea how to end this nightmare.