Taking a Stand—Sort Of—Against Trump at CPAC

Tensions over the Republican presidential front-runner are running high at the annual conservative gathering.

Senator Ben Sasse at CPAC (Gary Cameron / Reuters)

Updated March 4, 2016 12:20 p.m.

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—It looks like Donald Trump will be a no-show at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference after anti-Trump forces threatened to protest the GOP presidential candidate at the annual conservative gathering.

On Friday, the Trump campaign announced that the real estate mogul will hold a rally in Wichita, Kansas, on Saturday before jetting off to Orlando, Florida. As a result, Trump will “not be able to speak at CPAC as he has done for many consecutive years.” CPAC didn’t seem to take the news well. “Very disappointed @realDonaldTrump has decided at the last minute to drop out of #CPAC — his choice sends a clear message to conservatives,” its Twitter account scolded.

One day earlier, there had been rumblings of a revolt. “We’re gonna do a walk-out on Mr. Trumpster,” William Temple—a fixture at the conservative convention held just outside Washington, D.C., who Newsweek once described as the face of the Tea Party—said Thursday, eagerly telling anyone who would listen about his plans to defy the Donald if he showed up on Saturday when he was slated to speak.

Wearing a yellow “DON’T TREAD ON ME” flag draped around his shoulders, Temple stood out from the crowd of mostly buttoned-up Republicans walking the halls of the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center. This isn’t the first time he has organized a walkout at CPAC. Temple did the same thing last year, only then his target was Jeb Bush. What do Bush and Trump have in common? “Neither one’s conservative,” he immediately replied. “When he comes in, we’re going to let him know that we don’t want to associate with a man that makes fun of Carly Fiorina’s face, or denigrates women, or is rude and crude.”

If the walkout had taken place, it would have been a far bolder confrontation than anything attempted by the officially invited speakers at the conference so far. Barely any of the Republican leaders who spoke at CPAC on Thursday seemed willing to talk about Trump, a stark contrast to what was happening more than 2,000 miles away in Salt Lake City, Utah, where Mitt Romney delivered a blistering attack on the presidential candidate, labeling him a “fraud” and a “phony.”

You had to be listening closely to hear it, but at the very end of his CPAC speech, it certainly sounded like Senator Ben Sasse from Nebraska took aim at Trump. “What we need most of all,” the Republican senator said, listing off a litany of characteristics Americans should look for when picking a presidential candidate, “is not just someone who wants to breathe fire on Washington, but wants to breathe passion into our children for a constitutional recovery. Because that’s how we will actually make America great again.”

On social media, the senator has been far less coy. Sasse has emerged as a high-profile critic of Trump, whose catchphrase is, of course, “Make America Great Again.” Over the past weekend, Sasse penned an “open letter to Trump supporters” on Facebook, stating that while he understood their frustration over “what’s happening to our country,” he could not support Trump. At CPAC, Sasse did not seem nearly as assured.

The apparent reluctance to forcefully talk about Trump in front of a conservative crowd seemed to typify the Republican Party’s scattershot reaction to the GOP front-runner, who increasingly looks like he may be the general-election candidate. Many party elites have made no secret of their distaste for Trump, a candidate who has trampled on just about every sacred cow of conservatism. Even so, the establishment has not been able to decide how to respond to the Trump surge. Should influential conservatives go after Trump with everything they’ve got? Should they embrace him in a bid for party unity, or as a way to make sure they’re on his good side in case he wins the Oval Office? Is it better to simply sit on the sidelines? No one seems able to agree, leaving the party in a state of paralysis.

In the wake of victories for Trump in primary contests across the country, some GOP leaders are opting to publicly stand behind his candidacy. There’s Chris Christie, the New Jersey governor and failed presidential candidate, who quite literally stood behind Trump, looking awkward and uncomfortable, as the candidate delivered his Super Tuesday victory speech earlier this week. Then there are the Republicans in Congress, like Senator Jeff Sessions and congressman Chris Collins, who have started to endorse Trump.

At the same time, the anti-Trump forces are making a concerted attempt at a show of strength. The hashtag #NeverTrump has gained currency on Twitter as a way to express dissent. A major Republican donor recently cut a several-million dollar check to in an attempt to undermine Trump’s White House bid. But for all the talk of a Trump takedown, many high-profile Republicans seem stuck in limbo, reluctant to support Trump but hesitant to mount a full-throated attack.

At one point, Rick Santorum delivered an ominous message to the CPAC crowd. “There are a lot of conservatives,” Santorum warned, “who are scared. They’re scared by what’s going on right now. They’re nervous about what’s happening in this presidential race.” He even went so far as to say: “They’re seeing the conservative movement, the Republican Party potentially being torn up.” Scott Walker, too, noted the tumult: “Some of you might be confused, and, dare I say, even some upset about what’s happening in the presidential election.” That’s about as far as the former presidential candidates were willing to wade into the politics of the 2016 race.

Talk of a Republican Party crackup may prove to be overblown. The fact that Temple planned a walkout on Bush last year, and wanted to do the same for Trump, is a reminder that conservative strife is nothing new. The party has not imploded so far, despite what doomsday predictions have foretold. “The Republican Party is alive and well,” Republican Senator Thom Tillis of North Carolina said when it was his turn to take the stage. “I’ve had people come up to me over the past couple of days, ‘Well the Republican Party is in disarray; they’re all broken apart; they’re not going to come back together.’ That is hogwash.”

There was plenty of anti-Trump sentiment on display among conference participants. But many attendees who said they’d rather see another candidate win added that, if it came down to it, they’d vote Trump. “We all need to coalesce around a candidate,” said Chris Kauffman, a visitor from Minnesota wearing a leather jacket stuck with a fake knife labeled RINO. (RINO stands for “Republican In Name Only.”) Kauffman supports Ted Cruz, but says he’ll vote for Trump if it comes to that: “Everybody’s got their dog in the race right now, but when it gets down to one, we’ve got to support ‘em.”

There were also ardent Trump fans in Maryland. Mike Stevens was wearing a white “Make America Great Again” hat when he proudly told me he had voted for Trump in the Virginia primary. He mocked the idea that anyone can take down his favorite candidate. “If they’re going to cut their nose to spite their face, whatever you want to call it, that’s their business,” Stevens said, adding that it won’t make much difference. “The more they smack him, the stronger he gets.”