During the 2016 primaries, conservative commentator Ben Shapiro blasted Donald Trump for lacking conservative bona fides. He was one of the most outspoken “Never-Trumpers,” but at Thursday’s CPAC, he seemed to change his tune.
“I didn’t think that President Trump would actually give us some of the most conservative governance of my lifetime, and he actually has in the past few months,” he said.Rshill7/YouTube
Like Shapiro, 20-year-old Emily Middleton supported Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the primaries but approved of Trump’s performance during his first year in office.
Shapiro and Middleton joined a chorus of CPAC attendees and activists who praised Trump’s performance during his initial year as president and seemed to signify how conservatives rallied around Trump after a divisive primary season in 2016.
Trump, who said during his speech that he “proved” he’s a conservative, provoked standing ovations while touting his actions on Jerusalem, building a southern border wall, and standing for the national anthem.
Those were just a few of the issues Trump pushed during his first year in office. Toward the end of last year, he signed a massive tax reform bill that slashed corporate tax rates and prompted businesses to distribute greater benefits to their employees.
Almost all of the attendees IJR spoke to praised Trump’s performance during his first year in office, and many singled out tax reform as a demonstrative issue.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job, especially with the tax cuts,” 20-year-old Donnie Varga told IJR. Varga, a student at Miami University in Ohio, said he thought the president would fulfill his signature campaign promise and “Make America Great Again.”
“I think he’s done a great job,” author and CRTV host Deneen Borelli said, citing the economy and tax cuts. “Americans are going to see more money in their paychecks.”
After the passage, many companies cited the tax reform while announcing bonuses, raises, and additional benefits for employees.
“I think he’s doing amazing,” 21-year-old Teresa Taborga told IJR, citing tax cuts. Singer and activist Joy Villa told IJR that Trump’s first year was “incredible” and noted the low level of African-American unemployment.
Middleton said her family personally benefited from Trump’s tax package. She described her Trump vote, however, as a “game-day decision.” She previously worked as a field director for Cruz during the Republican primaries in 2016 and hopes Cruz runs against Trump in 2020.
Many seemed impressed with Trump’s first year in office, arguing that he was able to get so much accomplished in such a short time. Trump, during his speech, similarly claimed he had the most successful first year in the history of the U.S. presidency.
When asked about Trump’s performance, 76-year-old Bonnie Keller told IJR that it was “pretty good with what he’s got to go through.”
Keller lamented what she described as Democrats’ absolute refusal to work with Trump. “You can’t get anything done hardly,” she said, noting that Democrats took a “vow” to oppose anything Trump does.
Frederick Peterson, a retired Marine from Virginia who praised Trump’s handling of the armed forces, told IJR that Trump’s performance was “remarkable” given what he suggested was intense media criticism.
“The media has so stepped out of their vital role in a democracy to become advocates rather than reporters and sharers of news and information,” Peterson said.
Activists Offer Concern, Mixed Opinions About Trump’s Behavior
The audience applauded when a clip played of American Conservative Union (ACU) president Matt Schlapp saying Americans didn’t elect Trump as a perfect person, but because he would be a fighter.
But as some CPAC attendees indicated, Trump might have taken that fighting ethos too far for some conservatives’ tastes.
“Sometimes, I wish that he was a little more careful in the way he speaks,” 20-year-old Grace Prewitt told IJR on Thursday.
Prewitt said she thought Trump did a “good job” during his first year but could hurt his own cause with the things he says.
“I think it’s important what you convey to people. It conveys a lot about your character and then it can blur things that maybe are good that you’re fighting for and you’re doing,” she added.
“I just wish he spoke more eloquently, but I do like what he’s doing,” 18-year-old Jimmy Byers similarly told IJR.
Byers said he had mixed feelings about Trump’s first year in office and said the president’s catchphrases, like “believe me,” rubbed him “the wrong way.”
“I think if he just sticks to his policies and tries to get stuff done, he’ll have a very successful presidency,” Varga also told IJR.
In the past year, Trump riled up the media and liberals alike for his comments about media figures, immigrants, and North Korea. In particular, Trump caught intense backlash after he implied that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was short and fat:
Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me “old,” when I would NEVER call him “short and fat?” Oh well, I try so hard to be his friend – and maybe someday that will happen!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2017
“He has free speech as much as everyone does,” Taborga told IJR. “But Twitter … I wish he could do that differently.”
But while many have decried Trump’s impact on America’s global standing, Nigel Farage — the controversial British politician behind the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” from the European Union — said Trump improved the United States’ standing in the world.
“It’s the way that he’s conducted himself when he’s been abroad,” Farage told IJR. When IJR asked about Trump’s Twitter diplomacy, Farage simply responded: “You know what, he became president through Twitter. It ain’t going to change.”
Activists’ complaints went beyond Twitter, however, and extended to responses to Trump’s other public remarks. When asked about their complaints with Trump’s performance, some activists pointed to his response to the violent and racially charged protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year.
Many in the media suggested Trump drew a moral equivalence between left-wing protesters and white supremacists. Trump especially got backlash after he said there were “fine” people who weren’t white supremacists but were marching alongside them.
“I think just some of the rhetoric he uses could have been maybe a little bit better,” Varga also said before mentioning Charlottesville. “He probably could have done a better job with that.”
Dan Bongino, a former Secret Service agent and frequent Fox News guest, told IJR that he liked Trump’s manner of expression.
“Put the style aside for a second — I get it,” he said. “I’m a Queens guy, I like his style. Some don’t. I get it … Substance alone, what’s your beef?”
Sandra Lacelle, a Washington state resident in her 50s, similarly said Trump’s tweeting didn’t bother her. “He’s just doing it because certain people hate it, and that’s fine, that’s good. I don’t mind if he plays with people a little bit,” she told IJR.
And despite numerous allegations that Trump lied continuously while in office, activists portrayed him as a promise-keeper.
Avi Follman, 29, told IJR he thought Trump was “probably the most truthful politician we’ve seen in the history of this country.” Follman was impressed that Trump was able to succeed as he did amid “deep state” actors in the government.
Ben Oppold, a 20-year-old who initially supported Cruz, told IJR it was “phenomenal” how Trump kept his promises in his first year.
“He sticks to his word. And I really think that’s the biggest thing. We haven’t had a president in a long time that has stuck to their campaign promises,” Oppold said.
Activists: Trump Reinvigorating the Conservative Movement
The first year seemed to cement conservatives’ confidence in him and, according to activists like Borelli, reinvigorated the movement.
“I think people are re-energized and invigorated now because the president not only talks the talk that Americans want to hear … but he also acts on it as well,” she told IJR.
Former Fox News host Eric Bolling similarly told IJR that Trump “energized” the movement. “I took a lot of heat for being the pro-Trump voice,” Bolling said, noting that he predicted Trump’s victory when he famously came down his Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy.
During his speech at CPAC, Trump himself said his first year “proved” he was a conservative.
But many conservatives like Shapiro discounted Trump’s conservative credentials leading up to the election.
Middleton said that although Trump didn’t run as a “true conservative,” she was happy she voted for him and highlighted his nomination of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, seen by many as a conservative pick.
IJR spoke with several people who said Trump positively influenced the movement.
While Follman, who lives in a Hasidic community in New York City, told IJR that he liked Trump’s religious liberty efforts — decried by liberals and seen as taking a sharp turn to the right — he seemed ambiguous on whether Trump was a true conservative.
He thought Trump positively influenced the movement and didn’t think he was trying to control others lives like, he said, liberals and traditional conservatives did.
“I really don’t care what other people do in their bedroom, but don’t force your beliefs on myself,” Follman said after explaining that Trump lets people live how they want.
Noting conservatives’ difficulties in years prior, Follman said people in the movement felt “lost.” He further suggested that Trump helped the movement by taking a bold stance against the media.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham told a crowd of CPAC attendees that Trump represented a more “populist” and “forward-looking” conservatism, to which congressional Republicans started to get closer.Sam Dorman/IJR
During the 2016 campaign, Trump differed with conservative intellectuals in their support for more liberal trade. Trump has claimed that while he supports free trade, he wants to put “America first” and root out bad trade deals for the United States.
“I feel like he’s like putting more patriotism in everyone’s minds,” 20-year-old Tabitha Jackson told IJR. “He has a lot of people excited about America again.”
Jackson also touted Trump’s record on ISIS and tax cuts and suggested that Trump fulfilled more of his promises than other politicians did theirs.
Follman similarly said that he didn’t care how much Diet Coke he drank or how much ice cream he ate but rather focused on the fact that he was fulfilling his promises.
Villa, who garnered attention for her conservative-leaning dresses, similarly touted Trump’s “America First” message.
“We have to be nationalist. We have to say ‘yeah, America first,'” she told IJR.
Trump’s Immigration Proposal Draws Criticism
Even though activists largely approved of Trump’s first year, some disagreed with him offering, as part of a deal with Democrats, amnesty to more than 1.8 million “Dreamers.”
“I’m not sure if I embrace his immigration policy. I think that’s offering way more than was needed,” Virginia Fuller, a Floridian running for Sen. Bill Nelson’s seat, told IJR.
Fuller complained about Trump’s amnesty offer and the number of people he was willing to let in the country. Fuller is in her 50s and came to the United States as a Dutch immigrant.
“I think it’s absurd that people have illegally crossed the border and then claim[ed] citizenship,” she said when asked about recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Fuller echoed others, however, when she said she was “impressed” by Trump’s first year in office and noted how he kept so many of his campaign promises.
Villa, who is part Hispanic and black, said she was “pro-legal immigration” and asked why the United States should “foot the bill” for other immigrants. She said the nation could destroy itself by letting in a flood of immigrants and suggested Americans should take care of their neighbors first.
Bongino, whose wife is an immigrant, suggested granting DACA recipients amnesty was illogical since it put them ahead of other people who took so much time to attain citizenship.
During his first year, Trump called for significant changes to the nation’s immigration policy and specifically called for an end to chain migration, something Villa said gave her excitement.
IJR found disagreement on other issues besides immigration.
Jordan Evans, a 27-year-old transgender individual, claimed to have conservative beliefs but vehemently disagreed with Trump’s agenda on transgender issues.
“I am harsh on the president,” Evans — who claimed to be the only openly elected transgender Republican — told IJR. “I feel like he’s really failed the LGBTQ community.”
Citing Trump’s transgender ban and actions on school bathrooms, Evans said that “it’s hard to paint him as an ally right now.”
Oppold told IJR that while he liked Trump’s tax reform package, he was disappointed the president didn’t follow that legislation by cutting spending.
But despite their points of disagreement, conservatives seemed to mostly agree with Trump’s agenda and praise his job performance.
“He really is fulfilling the message of ‘Make America Great Again,'” Jackson said.