What a difference a year—and a presidential victory—makes. President Donald Trump was persona non grata at last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) outside Washington D.C. He ended up bailing at the last minute from speaking at the annual event, but had he kept the appointment grass-roots conservatives were planning to walk out during the address. At the time the bombastic billionaire, a CPAC veteran known for engaging deliveries, was running for president and many conservatives shunned him, asserting that he wasn’t conservative enough. It didn’t help that he blew them off. The former chairman of the American Conservative Union (ACU), which hosts the annual event said in a news report that Trump’s cancellation was “about as strong a slap in the face as you can get.”
Fast forward to this year’s conference in National Harbor Maryland, outside of Washington D.C. Trump received a rock star ovation and, appropriately, exited the stage to the classic Rolling Stones tune “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” He took the stage to Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” Ronald Reagan was the last U.S. president to speak at CPAC in his first year in office and that was more than three and a half decades ago. Trump came out firing at the media, which occupied about half of the ballroom floor. More than 1,300 credentialed reporters, photographers and camera crew covered the event, some from student outlets and conservative organizations but the traditional mainstream media was also represented in full force. The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and the Los Angeles Times were among those present.
Trump spent a chunk of his speech trashing the establishment, charging that “fake news” outlets are “the enemy of the people.” His delivery was sprinkled with blow after blow directed at the mainstream media. “They’re very smart, they’re very cunning,” Trump said as the crowd cheered loudly. “There are some terrible dishonest people and they do a tremendous disservice to our country.” Needless to say, the targets were less than thrilled and the media sphere exploded. One mainstream newspaper called it “a declaration of war on the news media.” Another accused the president of being “totally obsessed with the media.” Yet another major paper determined that Trump used CPAC to complain about the media.
The electrified crowd sucked it up and often erupted chanting “U.S.A, U.S.A!” The president spoke about strengthening the military, protecting the southern border, trade and repealing Obamacare. “As part of my pledge to restore safety for the American people, I have also directed the defense community to develop a plan to totally obliterate ISIS,” Trump said. He also revealed that “as we speak today, immigration officers are finding gang members, drug dealers and criminal aliens and throwing them the hell out of our country. And we will not let them back in. They’re not coming back in folks.” Of interesting note is that small flags resembling Russia’s flag with Trump plastered across them, were waved by a few dozen attendees. It’s not clear if it was a prank, but a young man with a blue CPAC bag was distributing them for free in the hallway outside the ballroom where the president spoke. CPAC staff members were observed confiscating some of the flags.
Genevieve Peters, an educator who works for the Los Angeles public school district, described Trump’s speech as “phenomenal.” Peters made the trek from her home in the bastion of liberalism with a friend, who is Mexican-American, and also a big Trump supporter. The women let loose at CPAC because they assert that it’s downright dangerous to express conservative ideas where they live in Los Angeles County. “I can’t wear my ‘Make America Great Again’ hat in L.A.,” Peters said. “I’m as bold as they get and I attended campaign events all over the country, but when I got back home, everything went in the drawer.” Her favorite thing about Trump is that he’s “America first.”