William Temple led the calls for a walkout in 2016 when candidate Donald Trump was scheduled to address the Conservative Political Action Conference and claimed victory when Mr. Trump bailed on his speech over a dispute with CPAC organizers.
He was by no means alone.
Mr. Trump, who made some less-than-memorable CPAC appearances earlier this decade and earned a measly 3.5 percent support in the 2015 CPAC presidential straw poll, was by 2016 the mother of all lightning rods, with the conservative activists gathered in suburban Maryland desperately searching for an alternative presidential candidate.
Three years later, all is forgiven. CPAC thrives off its connections to Mr. Trump, with White House and administration guests peppering the speaker’s list. The president’s appearances serve as the anchor of the three-day gathering.
Mr. Temple now talks of Mr. Trump in terms of comparisons to Winston Churchill and Gen. George Patton.
“I love the guy,” said Mr. Temple, who is Washington-famous for being a CPAC mainstay, attending in Colonial garb.
“I think, ‘Who do I know has this much energy? Who has accomplished this many of his promises in less than two years?’ I’m saying, ‘Why would we ever elect a professional politician to anything?’ ” Mr. Temple told The Washington Times.
What is most stunning is the quick turnaround.
While some never-Trumpers remain, and perhaps some have faded away, most have been converted and show the zeal that comes with such conversions.
His supporters now say Republicans need to bend to Mr. Trump’s brand of populist-nationalism or get left in the dust.
“If you’re a never-Trumper, then the spectacle of Trump’s CPAC is going to convince you that your forlorn party of wars, open borders, big donors and Wall Street has finally come to an end,” said radio host John Fredericks, who was Virginia chairman for Mr. Trump’s campaign in 2016. “This is the new CPAC, and this is the new Republican Party, and it’s America First, and we’re never going back.”
CPAC-goers say part of their reticence in those days was based on the president’s past, with proclamations of support for gun control and abortion rights, coupled with a brash businessman’s personality and a scorched-earth approach to politics.
When Mr. Trump turned against conservative favorites such as Sen. Ted Cruz, his chief rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, his approach enraged activists. Now that it is trained on liberals, they are thrilled.
“I love Ted Cruz, and I have always been behind Ted Cruz — he is a conservative giant,” Ann Eubank said. “He would not have been able to do what Donald Trump has done simply because Ted Cruz would not have acted that way.”
Ms. Eubank was a Cruz delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention. She said Mr. Trump worried her as an “unknown entity,” that his positions during the primaries were often sketchy “and his personality kind of rubbed the Cruz people the wrong way.”
But she said Mr. Trump has “popped” the Washington bubble and dived into issues that other Republicans have avoided or failed to make headway on, such as immigration.
“I’ve met him three times now … and what you see on TV is not what you see in person,” she said.
Part of the friction between Mr. Trump and CPAC in 2016 was his penchant for writing his own rulebook. The other candidates who appeared agreed to answer questions on stage. Mr. Trump’s campaign said that was a no-go.
“I think their point was, it’s time to just let us do our thing — come out and give a big rally speech,” said Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, which hosts the annual event. “I said I can’t really do that. … I can’t do that with any integrity after I’ve told everybody else.”
But Mr. Schlapp said he never raised the issue personally to Mr. Trump and that everyone moved past it almost immediately.
“For whatever reason, we had never gotten into a situation where there’s crossed words, and of course since that point now he’s the president of the United States,” he said. “I’m complimented that he considers me someone he can rely on as an outside ally.”
At first, Mr. Trump and the grassroots were wedded in something of a shotgun marriage, with a common opponent in Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Yet conservatives are now past the point of simply tolerating Mr. Trump in order to see him appoint friendly Supreme Court justices.
“Trump has a 93 percent job approval rating with these folks now,” said pollster Jim McLaughlin, who has helped conduct the annual CPAC straw poll. “It’s his party now. He owns the Republican Party, he owns the conservative movement.”
He said the big change has been success. Conservatives credit Mr. Trump for fighting on issues important to them such as taxes, border security and terrorism — and he said they don’t blame him for shortcomings such as Congress’ failure to repeal Obamacare.
“They blame the Republicans in Congress. … They’ll blame John McCain — they actually remember that,” Mr. McLaughlin said of the late senator’s scuttling of the Obamacare repeal. “What [the president] has done is he’s kept true to the principles and the issues that mattered most to conservatives, and they’re rewarding him for it.”
The love CPAC shows Mr. Trump tops anything the Bush presidents ever received and rivals the affection shown for conservative movement demigod Ronald Reagan.
“It may have been a marriage of convenience, but it was a marriage that worked,” said Charlie Gerow, the ACU’s first vice chairman. “There are still some conservatives like myself that have concerns or misgivings over trade policy and tariffs, but everything else is firing on all four cylinders and working out well for America.”
Mr. Trump is slated to speak to CPAC on Saturday, and his address will be the highlight for most attendees.
That was decidedly not the case in 2011, when he made his first appearance, earning a mix of boos and cheers from the crowd after informing them that then-Rep. Ron Paul, a favorite of the libertarian-leaning crowd and a regular straw poll winner, had “zero” chance of being elected president.
Plans for that initial appearance, which partly helped launch Mr. Trump’s foray into politics, were hatched by a group of pro-gay conservatives who were looking to make a splash at the event, said Chris Barron, a former top executive with the group GOProud.
Some social conservatives boycotted CPAC in 2010 after organizers allowed GOProud to be a co-sponsor of the event, and the tension lingered into 2011.
“It had been pretty nasty and divisive, and we were sitting around GOProud offices trying to come up with an idea for something for CPAC that would be fun, that would get people excited — something to kind of put the ugliness of the months-before fight behind us,” Mr. Barron said.
He said that unlike the left, which boasts a deep roster of celebrity supporters from Hollywood, there were comparatively fewer such big names on the right.
“And then I said, well, I mean we’ve got Trump. And I was talking to [GOProud co-founder] Jimmy LaSalvia at the time and I said, ‘Why don’t we invite Trump?’ And Jimmy’s like, ‘OK sure, why not?’ ” he recalled. “Trump was an unquestioned superstar. Everybody knew who Donald Trump was. And this was also at the height of the popularity of ‘The Apprentice.’ “
Mr. Barron said when he arrived, the scene was an absolute Trumpian spectacle.
“It was like Michael Jackson landed at an airport in Tokyo,” he said. “I mean, just throngs and throngs of people hooting and hollering and pictures and people trying to get a glimpse of Trump.”
Still, Mr. Barron also recalled that the bombastic businessman was nervous and “a little tightly wound” before his speech.
He ended up reveling in the back-and-forth with the crowd.
“You could tell he was loving it,” Mr. Barron said. “Little did I know at the time — that’s just Trump, you know? We’ve seen it so often now on the campaign trail that we take it for granted, but it was a political speech unlike any political speech I had seen before.”
Five years later, heading into the 2016 campaign, Mr. Barron was initially a supporter of Sen. Rand Paul, Ron Paul’s son. After Mr. Trump’s flirtation with a run in 2012, Mr. Barron was convinced he would sit it out again.
“Obviously, I was incredibly wrong about that,” he said. “He ended up being the candidate who caused conservatives to question the way we’ve always done things, to question the orthodoxy. … In a way, Trump let all the monkeys out of the zoo.”
The appreciation of Mr. Trump is not universal.
Some frustrated Republicans have taken a look at this year’s CPAC lineup, which includes online personalities such as Diamond and Silk and TV host Judge Jeanine Pirro, and decided to steer clear.
One of them, Heath Mayo, has taken the lead in organizing a rival set of gatherings dubbed “#PrinciplesFirst,” where activists hope to spark a debate about where the conservative movement is headed.
“This all started out as a small meet-up over drinks with some of my buddies who were frustrated with the fact that personalities and hot rhetoric had sort of drowned out the conservative principles that used to be the focus of the conference,” Mr. Mayo said in an email.
Mr. Mayo attended CPAC throughout college and as recently as 2015, “but it’s morphed into something that a lot of conservatives don’t really recognize anymore,” he said.
Mr. Barron said he is not sure what anti-Trump conservatives are talking about when they long for the former days of CPAC.
“The good old days of CPAC involved gay conservative groups getting banned from participating,” he said. “They involved a completely and totally top-down Republican Party that was completely unresponsive to its own base.”
Mr. Schlapp said CPAC isn’t simply about “owning the libs” or serving as a cheerleading squad for Mr. Trump.
“It’s usually conversational debates, some disagreements, interesting perspectives — it’s much more conversational than it is fiery rhetoric from the podium,” he said. “That’s intentional to try to engage the country in a conversation about what these principles are.”
As far as Mr. Trump goes, he said, conservatives writ large who might have been on the fence have liked what they have seen from the president.
“My view was, as a group I thought we could influence him, to encourage him to do what we thought was the right thing and get his buy-in,” said Mr. Schlapp, who is married to White House communications adviser Mercedes Schlapp. “I’m not saying we’re the ones who did that, but if we had a small role in making him realize that when he does the right things we’ll have his back, we’ll defend him, fight to the death for these things, then we did the right thing.”
• David Sherfinski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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