When Donald Trump first spoke at the largest annual gathering of conservative grassroots activists, he was loudly booed for taking a shot at one of their heroes.
The room erupted in jeers when Trump, in 2011, told the conservative political action conference (CPAC) that prominent libertarian Ron Paul “can not get elected”, partly because Congress was in recess.
Six years later, Trump will appear as the Republican president at the conservative confab that mixes policy, paranoia and partying in equal measures.
By day, it draws college students and ardent activists to speeches from elected officials and panels on topics such as If Heaven Has a Gate, a Wall and Extreme Vetting, Why Can’t America?
By night, the college kids, many of whom at past conferences have been passionate libertarian supporters of Ron and Rand Paul, start drinking and can go to parties where top Republican operative Grover Norquist tends bar, or a disgraced congressman can be spotted lounging in a hot tub.
The four-day event has been held in recent years at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, a huge complex featuring a new casino that is placed just outside Washington on the Potomac river. While the location is geographically outside the Beltway, it is physically as convenient as possible to Alexandria, Virginia, the DC suburb that is the heart of the conservative political establishment.
CPAC, though, has never been a place for country club, establishment Republicans. It was founded by the nascent conservative movement in the 1970s in a successful effort to move the Republican party to the right.
In recent years, it flatly refused to extend speaking invitations to Chris Christie, who was perceived as insufficiently conservative, and prevented a gay conservative group from sponsoring the event.
In 2015, some attendees pointedly walked out when former Florida governor Jeb Bush spoke, believing that the son and brother of two Republican presidents was insufficiently conservative.
But the event has always flirted with the weirder fringes of the conservative moment. As far back as 2007, Ann Coulter called John Edwards a “faggot” from the stage, and in 2013, Sarah Palin appeared on stage slurping from a Big Gulp.
Yet there was always an effort to keep the event within the mainstream. Fringe figures such as Frank Gaffney and Pamela Geller were denied platforms and, as a result, the conservative website Breitbart, which caters to the “alt-right”, sponsored an event in 2013 and 2014 called The Uninvited held in a nearby hotel.
Gaffney, in particular, had been banned for his allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to infiltrate CPAC. The Uninvited did feature plenty of speakers who appeared at the main conference, such as Senator Ted Cruz. It wasn’t an all-out rival, simply a revised version – with extra hot sauce.
In 2017, though, there is no need for the Uninvited; Breitbart is taking the main stage.
Despite the controversy surrounding the revoked invitation of former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannipoulos to speak, the site’s former editor and current senior White House aide, Steve Bannon, has a prime speaking slot.
Gaffney – whose controversial research at the Center for Security Policy was cited by Trump as justification for his Muslim ban – is back at the conference speaking about “the vulnerability of the electric grid”.
Seven Breitbart employees will appear either as panelists or as interviewers. And, of course, the biggest speaker is Trump.
In contrast, neither Ron nor Rand Paul, who won five of the conference’s last seven presidential straw polls, will appear, and more establishment Republican figures will be thin on the ground as well. Neither Paul Ryan nor Mitch McConnell will speak, and the only sitting US senator to appear will be Ted Cruz.
But, it is a sign this is now Donald Trump’s CPAC. As the real estate developer said of Ron Paul in 2011, “I think he’s a good guy but honestly he has just zero chance of being elected. You have to win an election.” Trump won that election, and this will be first time that the conservative movement under Trump will be on full display.