NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – Donald Trump has just finished a speech at the country’s biggest annual gathering of conservatives, and outside in the hallway a group of young men are debating where they agree and disagree with the president.
There’s disagreement about his use of executive orders; his trade policies; his handling of the travel ban; his habit of using the presidential bully pulpit to pressure private businesses; his views on foreign military adventurism; and aspects of his style.
But there’s unity around the enemy.
The left, the cultural elites, and oh, yes, the mainstream media — one young libertarian man notes that, even if he dislikes aspects of Trumpism, it’s fun to watch him infuriate these people: “The triggering is hilarious. We love that.”
Trump didn’t disappoint Friday. He clobbered the press about a dozen times in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference. Later in the day, his staff blocked CNN and The New York Times from attending a briefing.
One convention regular used to be so turned off by Trump he was planning to lead a walkout at last year’s conference — prompting Trump to cancel himself. Last year, William Temple disliked the way Trump insulted Carly Fiorina and Ted Cruz.
This year, he doesn’t flinch when asked how he feels about the president’s first month in office: “Oh, delighted. Despite how the press would like to say it’s messed up and they don’t know what they’re doing.”
The retired Tea Party devotee attends the annual event in 18th century revolutionary-era clothing. He’s asked to compare Trump to the most recent first-year president who addressed the conference — Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 delivered a speech bursting with free-market optimism.
“They’re not the same. We need a man who’s gonna slap the media around.”
He also wants to slap around the so-called RINOs — Republicans In Name Only. After winning the House of Representatives back in 2010, the Senate in 2014, and the White House in 2016, Temple said: “We’ve got it all. So now the only thing we’ve gotta do is kick the RINOs in the butt.”
Trump’s speech to the conference was sprinkled with references to ideals of the movement he now leads, like gun rights. It referred to trade deals, and got modest applause. It steered clear of hot-button social issues, like abortion.
But it included eight references to the “media,” eight more to “news,” six to the press, and three more to reports and reporters.
It began with a joke. Trump took the stage and asked people to sit down lest “the dishonest media … say, ‘He didn’t get a standing ovation.'” He quickly got serious — telling journalists to stop using anonymous sources.
He took it a step further: “They are the enemy of the people.” But he softened it with a qualifier: “I’m not against the press… I am only against the fake news, media or press. Fake, fake.”
Later in the day, his staff blocked from a briefing news outlets that reported on an FBI probe into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia — which the White House disputes. It sought to debunk those stories in a briefing Friday, with officials requesting anonymity — on the same day their boss urged the press to stop using anonymous sources.
Not all Republicans like the hard-edged tactics.
One young conservative attending the conference wears a retro button featuring Reagan, the president who made CPAC a marquee political event. Reagan’s 1981 speech was cheerful; it quoted conservative thinkers; toasted freedom at home and abroad; and made a point of not insulting political opponents.
In fact, to make the point that it was better to learn from others’ mistakes, than to criticize them, Reagan quoted the poet T.S. Eliot: “Only by acceptance of the past will you alter its meaning.”
Young Zachary Zupan, 20, is longing for the next Reagan.
He voted for a third-party conservative because he was worried about Trump. What he feared was that Trump’s style would become associated with the right wing; he’d govern like a lefty; and the entire conservative movement would be unfairly tarred.
He’s relieved by Trump’s early moves, like naming Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He was also fine with the travel ban, in general, but said it was badly implemented. Now he’s hoping for the best.
But there’s something else Zupan wants: to see his movement articulate a more unifying message, with a positive vision, in addition to attacking others.
“I think the conservative movement right now is largely undefined. We haven’t decided what it is that unifies us,” said the Vermont native.
“And that’s why it’s sort of defined by opposition to the left. And that’s not sufficient for any constructive political movement. Even though there is a lot in the left that needs to be resisted. So I’m curious to see where it’s going to go under Trump.”