Once-wary conservatives unite under Trump banner
OXON HILL, USA – Donald Trump's closest advisor on Thursday, February 23, welcomed the US conservative movement's emphatic embrace of the incoming president, hailing the birth of a new "economic nationalism" in America.
"There's a new political order being formed out of this," White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told grassroots conservatives at an annual confab near the US capital.
"Whether you're a populist, a libertarian, economic nationalist, we have wide and sometimes diverging opinions but I think the center core of what we believe" remains, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference.
"We're a culture and a reason for being and I think that's what unites us."
Bannon, who stepped down from running the right-wing Breitbart website last August to head Trump's campaign, also set the tone for the road ahead, saying "every day is going to be a fight" as the president rolls out his agenda.
Conservatives convened at CPAC to hail Trump, a figure once snubbed by the movement but whose victory united and galvanized Republicans.
"It feels like a celebration here!" Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint told a cheering crowd a day ahead of a keynote address by Trump at the first major conservative get-together since his election.
The movement, which champions so-called "family values" and free market liberalism, has had some trouble coming to terms with Trump, who last year was criticized by attendees for not being conservative enough.
Once close to Democrats, the real estate tycoon has shifted rightward but continues to call for massive infrastructure investment, and his isolationist and protectionist talk has made many within the party bristle.
But his campaign director turned senior White House advisor Kellyanne Conway declared CPAC has already warmed to the Trump era.
"By tomorrow it's going to be TPAC," she quipped, arguing that Trump had "replaced this fiction of electability with this revelation of electricity and brought people in."
Many in the crowd echoed the victory cry, with young attendees seen wearing "Socialism sucks" t-shirts and "Repeal Obamacare" buttons.
"We're pleasantly surprised by what Trump has been doing," Steve Hanly, a 61-year-old pilot from Dallas, Texas, told Agence France-Presse.
The billionaire president's opening moves, including curbs on funding for aid groups that support abortion and the nomination of a conservative Supreme Court justice, convinced Hanly to trust Trump even though he is not "a true conservative."
'Better than the alternative'
Six years ago, Trump spoke for the first time at CPAC and was booed at times, although his words denouncing the political class and railing against economic rivals China and Mexico went down well.
When the president addresses the thousands of grassroots activists, he will likely be welcomed as the savior of the Republican Party, which now controls the White House and both chambers of Congress for the first time in a decade.
"I'm old enough to remember when Republicans were hopelessly lost and in the minority," said Charles Quilhot, an insurance broker living in Newport News, Virginia.
Trump's first month in office has been hectic, Quilhot acknowledged, "But it's a lot better than the alternative," the establishment Democrat Clinton.
Not long ago the populist, nationalist right wing, first embodied by rebellious Tea Party activists but embraced more recently by Trump supporters, rose to the fore in a movement once dominated by Christian conservatives.
The anti-establishment Breitbart is an official sponsor, and its journalists are ubiquitous on CPAC panels.
Alt-right not 'legitimate'
Breitbart has been accused of becoming a focal point for the so-called "alt-right," an amorphous movement that comprises white nationalists, racists, anti-Semites, and anti-immigrant Americans who in large part fell in line behind the Trump campaign.
On Thursday a known white supremacist leader, Richard Spencer, created a small scene outside CPAC's main ballroom.
"I'd rather he not be here. I don't think he has a legitimate voice," Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union that organizes CPAC, told reporters.
ACU head Dan Schneider, speaking to the conference, blasted the alt-right as "fascists," racists and anti-Semites who "spew their hatred" and have no place in the conservative movement.
Headline-grabbing guests aside, CPAC is a boot camp of sorts for young conservatives, who attend working groups and learn from veteran activists, pollsters, fundraisers, authors and strategists.
For now, Republican gratitude for defeating Clinton trumps reservations about the administration's chaotic first month, or concerns about Trump's daily barrage of contentious tweets.
"I don't care what he says, I care what he does," insisted Eric Golub, 45, a conservative from Los Angeles.
"Barack Obama had beautiful, flowery words. His results were garbage." – Rappler.com