NATIONAL HARBOR, United States â€” U.S. President Donald Trump will arrive as the conquering hero in a roomful of conservatives Friday, as he celebrates sky-high approval ratings among the right wing after his first month in office.
It seemed far from assured last year.
Trump, who once proposed single-payer health care, supported abortion, and who still threatens businesses that export jobs, took veiled shots during his presidential bid at rigid conservatism.
”This is called the Republican party, not the conservative party,” Trump said. Last year, his appearance at the conservative movement’s premiere annual event was controversial enough that Trump cancelled it.
Now he’s the featured guest at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday.
Trump will be bringing with him low approval ratings for a new president â€” just not on the right. He’s wildly popular there. A Quinnipiac survey this week gives him anemic 38 per cent approval nationwide but, among self-identified Republicans, it’s flipped around â€” 83 per cent.
Republicans viewed him as honest, level-headed, intelligent, a good leader, and someone who cares about people â€” qualities that non-Republicans and independents did not ascribe to him.
Trump’s chief of staff Reince Priebus cited several moves in his first month for cementing the bond with conservatives. He told the conference about one in particular: the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
“It established trust. It established that Donald Trump was a man of his word,” Priebus said.
So the president should expect a boisterous reception Friday. There are already snapshots at the conference of how he’s helped reshape the Republican party â€” more nationalist, economically populist, and hard-edged.
Event organizers worked to shave off the roughest of those edges.
White nationalist leader Richard Spencer was kicked out of the event Thursday. He’s the person who coined the term, “alt-right,” although one organizer in a speech Thursday sought to wiggle loose of the association by blaming unnamed leftist fascists for misusing the term.
Spencer was told to leave, despite having a ticket to attend.
The aggressive edge includes a steady series of shots at the media. Every panel participant gets at least one softball question from moderators about how unfair the mainstream media is to them.
White House strategist Steve Bannon referred repeatedly to the media as the opposition party, desperate to defend its internationalist agenda: “If you think they’re going to give you your country back without a fight, you are sadly mistaken. Every day â€” every day, it is going to be a fight.”
And so it was that a media figure who earns $29 million a year â€” Fox News’ Trump-boosting Sean Hannity â€” spent much his appearance lambasting other journalists as overpaid, corrupt, incompetent and lazy.
He tossed footballs into the crowd and asked people to grade Trump’s first month: “A-plus!” several people shouted, amid cheers. One young man in the crowd shouted jokes about media controversies involving false statements from the White House: “Alternative facts rock!”
The woman who made that phrase famous walked onto the stage to cheers: “Kelly-anne! Kelly-anne!” people chanted, as she walked out. Kellyanne Conway touched her heart as one woman shouted, “Kellyanne, you’re doing great!”
Hannity listed ways Trump has delivered for conservatives.
“Vetting (of immigrants) is conservative. The wall (with Mexico is) conservative. Repealing and replacing is conservative. The economic plan is right out of Reagan. His building a strong national defence? Taking care of our vets. Handing education back to the states. Energy independence. What part of that is not conservative?”
Event organizer Matt Schlapp replied: “How ’bout Neil Gorsuch?… I think it’s going to be a great partnership.”
That word â€” partnership â€” was among the few clues that Trump is still seen as something of an outsider. The sea of red ball caps emblazoned with his slogan, ”Make America Great Again,” vast at Trump’s inauguration, is far sparser here.
Historically, just under two-thirds of self-described Republicans call themselves conservatives. Gallup polls suggest it has bounced over the last decade between 60 and 67 per cent, and it’s right in that range now at 63 per cent.
In a speech about the movement’s history, Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College offered a qualified endorsement of some unnamed person he referred to.
”Even if he talks about himself too much,” Arnn said.
”If he’s fearless in saying he’s going to cut back that vast hedge (of bureaucracy) that has come and overcome so much of our country, and if he does that fearlessly and is not afraid of political correctness, I think that guy’s a conservative.”
Arnn shrugged his shoulders and wrapped up his speech.
Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press