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Explaining Trump's New Type Of Conservatism At CPAC


This morning, President Donald Trump will be addressing a gathering of conservatives that once wanted little to do with him. Now, though, President Trump himself represents the conservative movement. Vice President Mike Pence said as much last night when he addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference going on outside Washington.


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Men and women of the conservative movement, this is our time. And I promise you, the president and I will work our hearts out to make America safe again, to make America prosperous again.

GREENE: Chris Buskirk is in town from Phoenix, Ariz., for this conference. He is publisher and senior editor of the publication American Greatness and also a frequent guest on our program. Chris, thanks for coming back in.

CHRIS BUSKIRK: Oh, it's my pleasure, David. Good to talk to you.

GREENE: Good to talk to you, as well. So does Donald Trump represent the conservative movement?

BUSKIRK: In part, he does. But he represents, I think, something totally different in many ways and also more important, which is - I think he's trying to represent the American people, which I think is above and is a higher goal than just the back and forth between right and left. I know that's a contrary view. People are probably rolling their eyes hearing me say that. But I - you know, I take Trump's rhetoric seriously when he talks about, you know, working for you and working for American citizens, trying to make America great again.

GREENE: It just strikes me, Chris - because, I mean, you're suggesting that he is above right and left and is really bringing this country together. His poll numbers - his approval ratings have actually dropped pretty significantly since the election. I mean, is he off to a bad start in that regard?

BUSKIRK: Yeah. I don't think he's above right or left. He's certainly a man of the right but not in the conventional sense. I mean, one of the things that was most noteworthy about Donald Trump in the campaign is that he was willing to go the opposite direction on things like free trade and some other significant policies where he broke with the orthodoxy. And you know what? He found out that the base, Republican voters, were willing to say, yeah, I think that's right. And I think that we are in the process of a political reformation in this country that may challenge our post-World War II notions of what it means to be left and right.

GREENE: I mean, the conservative movement - people involved in it were so passionate about their values and their beliefs. I mean, this is no small thing if you're saying this new president is taking that movement in an entirely new direction.

BUSKIRK: You know, he is taking it in a new direction. It's not wholly new, of course. There are important themes and principles underlying it that have been consistent. But those - that is the key there - is it's those principles, those foundational ideas that are the key. The criticism that I've had - I think that a lot of rank-and-file voters have had who don't live in New York, don't live in D.C. - is that conservatism sacrifices principle for policy.

In other words, they said, well, no matter what time of the day it is, it's always a good idea to be lowering taxes. And I'm - fine, that may be a very good policy. But they substituted these policy ideas for principle. And this is where Donald Trump is trying to get back to what it means to be an American citizen. How do you give back to the country?

How do we put the country first, as opposed to this narrow divide over a particular set of policies that were originally crafted to deal with a set of problems in the late '70s and the early '80s? And, unfortunately, what I call Conservatism, Inc. never updated those policies and forgot the principles underlying them. And that's absolutely critical to understanding this political moment.

GREENE: What about people who are wandering the halls of that hotel? Do you sense an enthusiasm for something new, skepticism? How would you describe things there?

BUSKIRK: I sense a lot of enthusiasm. One of the things that has struck me about CPAC this year is how many new people there are. CPAC has had this sort of cadre of people who go year in and year out, of course. It tends to skew younger. A lot of college students go there. And CPAC was a place that Donald Trump did not go last year. If you recall from the main stage, Senator Ted Cruz taunted...

GREENE: Cruz got the straw-poll vote and won the backing of the movement. Yeah.

BUSKIRK: He got the straw-poll vote, and he taunted then-candidate Trump, saying, you know, are you afraid to come back to CPAC this year? And Donald Trump made the comment, you know, I can't make it this year. But I'll come back next year when I'm president.

GREENE: (Laughter) Guess the prediction turned out to be true.

BUSKIRK: Promise kept, I guess.

GREENE: Well, it's - what is his biggest challenge as he takes the stage there today?

BUSKIRK: The biggest challenge, I think, is not the challenge of rallying the crowd, though that's part of it. And I think he'll do a very good job of doing that, as we've seen Steve Bannon speak yesterday, Reince Priebus speak.

GREENE: His chief strategist, yeah.

BUSKIRK: And Reince Priebus, chief of staff speak yesterday - and then Vice President Pence. The theme is going to be promises kept. This is to say, I meant the things I said on the campaign trail. I'm working on fulfilling those promises. That's the theme. It's a friendly crowd.

This is not the crowd of the past five or six CPACs, which has had a very libertarian, Ron Paul bent to it. I think what he wants to do is speak almost past this crowd, who are going to eat up what he says, and speak to the country more broadly and say, yeah, this is conservatism. But this is something that I'm working on for the country.

GREENE: OK. Chris Buskirk runs the American Greatness publication in Phoenix, Ariz. Thanks so much, Chris.

BUSKIRK: Thanks, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.