Donald J. Trump has been pouring tens of thousands of dollars into the coffers of the American Conservative Union (ACU), the sponsor of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). But the financial bribes went for nothing, as Trump cancelled his CPAC speech last Saturday amid reports that hundreds of conservatives were preparing to turn their backs and walk out on the billionaire businessman’s remarks.
The reason for the threatened walkout was apparent in the results of the CPAC straw poll, a survey of CPAC participants, showing Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) in first place with 40 percent, Senator Marco Rubio second with 30 percent, and Trump getting only 15 percent.
Trump’s massive financial investment in the ACU and its chairman, lobbyist Matt Schlapp, didn’t pay off in the end.
However, if Trump divides the Republican Party this fall, leading to a Democratic presidential victory, part of the blame will clearly lie with Schlapp and his predecessor Al Cardenas, who cultivated Trump as a major donor to the ACU and made him out to be a legitimate conservative candidate. Cardenas is now a lobbyist with the law firm of Squire Patton Boggs and Cardenas Partners.
CPAC is considered the major gathering for conservatives in the United States and draws thousands from around the country, and even the world. Ronald Reagan spoke to the group before and after he was president. A Reagan dinner featuring a major conservative speaker is now held at every CPAC to highlight the former president’s support for the organization and Reagan’s status in the conservative movement.
This year’s CPAC poll found that 66 percent of the participants consider themselves classical Reagan conservatives, as opposed to libertarian conservatives (28 percent) and Trump-like populist conservatives (6 percent).
Trump’s abrupt withdrawal from CPAC—which made news across the country—was a major embarrassment for ACU chairman Schlapp, who has been appearing on various cable news programs over the last several months to tout Trump as a legitimate conservative and even a “plausible” president of the United States. “American Conservative Union leader defends Donald Trump” is how The Washington Post described some of Schlapp’s comments in defense of Trump against charges of racism. “I actually know Donald Trump,” Schlapp claimed, a statement we now know was based on visits to Trump Tower in New York City and meetings with Trump and his political aides.
But that personal relationship didn’t seem to matter much with the conservative audience at CPAC, who were looking for someone like Reagan, with conservative views on foreign policy, economic affairs and social policy. Trump just didn’t measure up.
As Accuracy in Media (AIM) had previously reported in a column on the buying of the conservative movement, Trump had given $50,000 to the ACU, part of an obvious process to make the billionaire look acceptable to conservatives and grant him some much-needed conservative credentials. It was Schlapp, according to the publication Politico, who had personally collected that $50,000 check from Trump for the ACU. Another $100,000 for the ACU was obtained from Trump by previous ACU chairman Cardenas.
“For Trump, the alliance [with the ACU] provided valuable entry into conservative circles as he was just beginning to increase his political profile,” Politico reported. “And, since he launched his campaign, the group and its officials had been among the few high-profile conservatives who have regularly vouched for him.”
In other words, the ACU sold Trump to conservatives as one of them.
However, Politico reported that “some ACU insiders” were upset “about how ACU leadership had gone out on a limb for Trump early, even as the relationship played into problematic narratives for both sides.”
Politico said that Schlapp, who is also a Capitol Hill lobbyist, had been invited to meet with the Trump campaign’s staff at its headquarters inside Manhattan’s Trump Tower. Schlapp and ACU executive director Dan Schneider went to Trump Tower on two separate occasions, the publication said. It is not clear if the substance of these discussions was reported back to the board of the ACU.
The ACU had declared Trump “an American patriot” in 2013, when he addressed CPAC. “Donald Trump is an American patriot and success story with a massive following among small government conservatives,” said then-ACU Chairman Cardenas.
It looked like a case of money changing hands in return for some glowing remarks designed to make Trump look like a conservative.
Trump’s speech to CPAC in 2011 was described by CNN as setting off “a long chain of events that would lead to his status as the Republican Party presidential front-runner just four years later.”
So ACU has played a key role in the “extreme makeover” that transformed Trump from a liberal Democrat into a conservative Republican.
Cardenas successor Matt Schlapp is an example of the “revolving door” between the government and politics. He has worked for Koch Industries and served in the George W. Bush administration before starting his own lobbying firm with his wife, Mercedes. She, too, assumed a significant role in last week’s CPAC activities and has achieved a degree of media prominence as a Fox News contributor during the campaign.
As we previously noted, Schlapp’s service in the George W. Bush administration must have made him feel uncomfortable when Trump, at a GOP debate, accused Bush of deliberately lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
While currying favor with the ACU through a total of $150,000 in donations, Trump gave at least $100,000 to the Clinton Foundation. His Donald J. Trump Foundation gave $20,000 to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a major gay rights group described by Peter LaBarbera of Americans for Truth as pushing for “the acceptance of homosexual, bisexual and gender-confused identities and behaviors to K-12 students—including ‘Gay-Straight Alliances,’ de facto LGBT propaganda clubs, in schools.”
Trump’s support for gay rights is beginning to get some media attention. The left-wing cable network MSNBC has run a story wondering if Trump is 2016’s most gay-friendly Republican.
In a 2000 interview with the homosexual magazine, The Advocate, Trump supported adding homosexuality to the Civil Rights Act and attacked conservative writer and former GOP presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. “I used to like Pat. I was on Crossfire with him,” he said, referring to the CNN show Buchanan once co-hosted. “I thought he was a nice guy. Then I read the things he had written about Hitler, Jews, blacks, gays, and Mexicans. I mean, I think it’s disgusting. That speech he made at the ’92 Republican convention was a disaster. He wants to divide Americans. Clearly, he has a love affair with Adolf Hitler, and that’s sick. Buchanan actually said gay people had chosen ‘satan[ism] and suicide.’ Now he says he welcomes gay people into his campaign. The guy is a hypocrite.”
Buchanan, however, doesn’t hold a grudge, as he has become one of Trump’s strongest supporters in the conservative media. “He is a messenger from Middle America,” Buchanan wrote about Trump. “And the message he is delivering to the establishment is: We want an end to your policies and we want an end to you.” Buchanan concluded, “If the elites think they can not only deny Trump the nomination, but turn back this revolution and re-establish themselves in the esteem of the people, they delude themselves.”
Trump has generated a cult-like following, and has even asked his backers to swear their support by raising their right hands in a pledge of support. “Supernatural powers are behind Trump, as well as the American people who are for the first time in decades hearing the voice who resonates with them,” says columnist Kelleigh Nelson at the website NewswithViews.com. Paul Walter, senior editor of the pro-Trump website, says, “I love Trump, who I believe is a decent man with a heart of gold. I know without a shadow of a doubt that he is the only one who can save what’s left of my beloved America.” Walter has censored columnists for the site who have pointed out Trump’s erratic and strange beliefs, such as support for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
Walter has also said, “Mr. Trump is the only hope for America. I hope that all his planes, helicopters, automobiles are guarded around the clock not only with cameras but also with trusted personnel to make sure nothing is planted on them. I would also recommend when it comes to grocery shopping that the groceries come from different places all the time, never the same place twice in a row. Not to be paranoid of course, but one cannot be too careful. We live in dangerous times and what’s at stake is our beloved America, the only hope for the free world.”
Supernatural or not, conservative journalist Fred Barnes told CPAC that many traditional Reagan-type conservatives just won’t support Trump for president if he is the Republican nominee. The problem, he said, goes far beyond the harshness of Trump’s rhetoric and approach. It’s that Trump “doesn’t know much” about the issues, Barnes said. “He can’t explain how he would replace Obamacare. On foreign policy, he’s completely at sea. He wants to be Vladimir Putin’s pal. He wants to be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. And on and on and on. There are so many issues on which Trump finds a ton of objections by people in the conservative orbit and the Republican Party.”
Barnes said conservatives will run their own third party conservative candidate if Trump gets the GOP presidential nomination. In that case, he said, the Republican vote will split and Hillary Clinton will win the presidency.
CPAC could very well end up in the rubble or the ash heap, unless new and truly conservative leadership for the ACU is found, and an inquiry is launched into how the ACU ended up in Trump’s back pocket.