On Friday morning, a bearded college student from Florida slid down a ballroom wall at the Gaylord National Resort, just south of Washington, D.C., while ignoring Fox Business anchor Lou Dobbs’ speech.
“Bro, I got the spins, I gotta sit down,” he told his pal.
He and his friends exchanged a few half-hearted high-fives in recognition of the previous night’s alcohol consumption accomplishments before, with difficulty, standing up and meandering towards the front of the standing-room-only section in hopes of catching a glimpse of President Donald Trump.
The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), a yearly gathering of conservatives has, as of Friday, played host to three Republican Presidents (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Trump), a host of vice presidents, governors, senators, representatives, conservative media darlings and policy advocates — often to the rapt attention of thousands of conservative voters and activists from around the country.
Among them, every year, is a large contingent of college conservatives, lured by the discounted ticket prices and, occasionally, funding from conservative groups to offset their costs. That gives the exhibit hall and many of the audiences for speeches a certain exuberance. It also gives the conference a long-standing reputation for being a boozy affair.
Still, despite the likely-rampant hangovers in the hall, audience members enthusiastically welcomed Trump back to CPAC on Friday morning; he’d canceled his speech at the last minute as a candidate in 2016, after a backlash from many attendees led to rumors of a mass disruption.
But this year, all is apparently forgiven.
“It’s great to be back, really,” Trump said to the audience after taking the stage to Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be an American. “I love this place. I love you people.”
“I would’ve come last year but I was worried that, at that time, I would’ve been too controversial,” he added. “We wanted border security, we wanted a strong military… but you didn’t think that was controversial.”
Of course, immigration reform that includes border security but not amnesty for undocumented workers has never precisely been an unpopular point of view at the conference — which often makes a point of providing space for unpopular, but conservative, political points of view. Despite the many libertarians who often attend, neither is a strong military a controversial statement, but 2016’s fight was a battle that Trump ultimately won at the polls, and in not just a few hearts at CPAC.
Besides, CPAC was essentially where Trump launched his political career, in a 2011 speech and with, reportedly, hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations — a fact that he acknowledged in his speech which, in true CPAC fashion, went after the so-called mainstream media to roars of applause.
“We are fighting the fake news,” Trump told the conservative audience. “It’s fake, phony, fake. A few days ago, I called the fake news ‘the enemy of the people,’ and they are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, and they just make it up.”
Trump continued to excoriate the media, even as he defended his original comments, which he said were misreported. “In covering my comments, the dishonest media did not explain that I called the fake news the enemy of the people, the fake news. They dropped the word fake!”
The audience took up the call, as shouts of “fake!” echoed through the room.
“They shouldn’t be allowed to use sources unless they use somebody’s name,” Trump said. “Let their name be put out there. A source says, ‘Donald Trump is a horrible, horrible human being,’ let them say it to my face. Let there be no more sources.”
And though the crowd cheered the First Amendment, which Trump rightly noted allows for criticism of the media without fear of government reprisals, he added, “[The media] doesn’t represent the people, it never will represent the people, and we’ve got to do something about it.”
CPAC has always been a friendly home for media critics and for conservative media outlets, many of whom don’t receive the same access — let alone respect — in other fora, and the media row abounded with credentialed reporters from the National Rifle Association (NRA), Breitbart, local talk radio anchors, and journalists working for advocacy associations. (Though, reportedly, CPAC did deny credentials to a group with ties to the online alt-right movement, MAGA3X — reportedly since their only publication outlet is Twitter.)
Still, Trump’s speech wasn’t entirely an attack on the media. He did touch on his policies, receiving standing ovations and cheers of “USA! USA!” for his statements promising to “build the wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, to improve America’s physical infrastructure, to repeal and replace Obamacare, to stop drug trafficking and for throwing “the criminals and the drug dealers” as well as would-be terrorists “the hell out of this country.”
“Basically,” he said, “all I’ve done is keep my promises.”
“The era of empty talk is over,” he swore to the crown. “It’s over. Now is the time for action. “
In addition to trumpeting his withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement — which netted him applause despite the fact that the most vocal free trade advocates have historically been Republicans — Trump promised to end all multilateral trade agreements in favor of exclusively bilateral arrangements with individual countries that can be abrogated on demand, a reversal of several decades of U.S. trade policy.
“The forgotten men and women of America will be forgotten no longer,” he added to a contingent that had already seen for sale prints of Jon McNaughton’s The Forgotten Man in the exhibit hall for several years running. “That is the future of the movement, and of the Republican party.”
“There is no such thing as a global anthem, a global currency or a global flag,” Trump said later, to wild applause. “I’m not representing the globe, I’m representing our country.”
“USA! USA!” the crowd shouted in response.
“There is one allegiance that unites us all and that is to America,” he added. “It’s the allegiance to America.”
“We are Americans, and the future belongs to us,” he swore. “The future belongs to you.”