Given all the conservative thinkers who’ve lately been making proud, quixotic #nevertrump declarations, I expected to find a sense of crisis and conflict at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference, the country’s pre-eminent right-wing confab. I was ready for the rending of garments and the drawing of lines in the proverbial sand. Instead, even as the rise of Donald Trump has split Republican politicians and conservative movement leaders, among their putative followers, a strange, subdued sense of business as usual prevailed. The National Review was giving out T-shirts emblazoned with its “Against Trump” cover, but I didn’t see anyone wearing them. If anything, CPAC demonstrated afresh how much distance there is between conservative intellectuals and the right’s activist foot soldiers.
Grace Germany, age 79, is traveling around the country volunteering for Ted Cruz, but she thought it was a mistake to be too harsh in criticizing Trump. “He has broadened our party,” she told me. “Isn’t that what people want? And then we’re going to blast them? What are we going to do, narrow our party to a bunch of social crazies?” (I was surprised to hear a Cruz supporter be so dismissive of the religious right, but Germany says she leans libertarian.) Should Trump be nominated, “I would help him, definitely,” said Germany. “And I would have to look at the good side of him. And the good side is the man’s been a very successful American.”
CPAC itself doesn’t seem eager to air the conflict in the conservative ranks. Even as a Thursday New York Times headline screamed, “Open Warfare: G.O.P. Leaders vs. Trump,” the GOP leaders at CPAC hardly mentioned him. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum didn’t say his name once. Neither did Ben Sasse, the Nebraska Republican senator who has made headlines for his anti-Trump stance. Speaking in Utah on Thursday, Mitt Romney blasted Trump as “phony, a fraud. His promises are as worthless as a degree from Trump University.” But onstage at CPAC, Romney’s former running mate, Paul Ryan, had an anodyne dialogue about conservative approaches to poverty reduction. It’s surreal, this silence about the biggest issue in conservatism at a huge conservative convention. It’s also evidence that the movement, such as it is, is far from ready to unite against Trump.
That’s partly because many people in the conservative grassroots love him. Susan Najvar, a grandmother from southern Texas and a fan of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, used to support Cruz, but says she was disappointed in 2014, when he joined Glenn Beck in bringing clothes and toys to migrant children at the Mexican border. “We said, ‘That’s it,’ ” she told me. Now she’s a passionate Trump backer. “Where we live, those people down there are so fed up, they don’t know what do,” she says. She describes her community being transformed by immigration: “We go into Wal-Mart and they’re speaking Spanish. And we turn around, my husband and I, and say, ‘We’re in China!’ ”
Meanwhile, some CPAC attendees who abhor Trump are nevertheless prepared to vote for him in the general election. William Temple, a Georgia pastor who parades around CPAC in Revolutionary War garb, plans to lead a walkout when Trump takes the stage of the convention on Saturday. He calls him a “Mussolini-like figure,” and holds out hope that Cruz could still prevail electorally. “God still has a plan,” Temple told me. “And if he wants Ted Cruz, heaven and earth won’t stop Ted Cruz.” Trump, he says, “could have a heart attack tomorrow. Who knows?”
Yet absent an act of God, Temple doesn’t want to see Trump lose the nomination at a brokered convention. “That would result in a rebellion,” he says. If Trump is ultimately the nominee, he can count on Temple’s vote, even if he does seem like a fascist. “If Trump is my only choice, I will hold my nose like I did when I voted for Romney and I voted for McCain,” he says. It’s as if Trump, for all his fascist tendencies, is really just another RINO, not all that different from Jeb Bush, who Temple protested at last year’s CPAC.
Others see Trump as a threat of a much higher order, and are determined not to vote for him no matter what; often, it’s hard for them even to speak to Trump sympathizers. “I’ve walked by a few people that, six months ago, we might have had a 20-minute conversation in the hallway, and now there’s barely a nod,” says the conservative radio host Steve Deace, who recently wrote a column titled “Why I Will #NeverTrump.” “That’s what happens when you rally behind a personality instead of your principles.” Perhaps some people at CPAC aren’t talking to each other about Trump because they’re no longer talking to each other at all.