Donald Trump is many things, but whatever he is, he’s not a Reagan Republican. Speaking in one of his trademark discursive speeches to the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday night, Trump made clear how much his politics diverged from the mold that had defined the Republican Party for generations before he took that infamous ride down an escalator in 2015 and announced he was running for president.
Even if Trump hadn’t tipped his hand when he declared early in his remarks to a mostly full ballroom of diehards in MAGA hats that “we are never going back to the party of Paul Ryan, Karl Rove, and Jeb Bush,” the rest of his speech represented a fundamental repudiation of that era of the Republican Party. But more than that, it represented a reversion toward a pre-World War II GOP, with doses of both populism and paleoconservatism.
Perhaps the most jarring change from the past was Trump’s derision regarding US aid to Ukraine, just days after the Eastern European country marked the one-year anniversary of Russia’s unprovoked invasion. For over a half-century, hawkish interventionist foreign policy — especially toward Russia — had been one of the fundamental principles of the Republican Party. Trump’s election, especially given the questions about Russia’s efforts to sway the 2016 presidential race, put this into question. But Trump’s speech, which followed harsh attacks on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy throughout the three-day conference from speakers like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), made it clear how severely the GOP had shifted toward isolationism in recent years.
In his CPAC speech, Trump compared foreign aid, such as the more than $75 billion that the Biden administration provided Ukraine, to a business investment that should be rewarded with an equity stake. “In business, you put up the money, seed money ... you end up owning the country by the time it’s over.” At another point in the speech, he suggested that US foreign aid to countries should be tied to preferential tariff treatment.
He paired this with a grim view of the United States, rooted in “the American carnage” that defined his 2017 inaugural speech, which pitted his supporters against shadowy elites — including the “Marxists” he derided in his remarks. To his supporters, he declared “I am your warrior, I am your Justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution,” as he pledged to “eradicate the ‘Deep State,’” a group that he blamed for so many of his personal ills as well as those of his supporters.
Trump’s populist appeal was not just rooted in the paranoid style of American politics that had once defined much of the right; it also included a jibe at those fiscal conservatives who have long wanted to cut entitlement spending. “We’re not going back to people that want to destroy our great Social Security system,” he said in a veiled attack at likely rival Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who backed Paul Ryan’s budgets while serving in the House of Representatives.
There were still some familiar social conservative elements in Trump’s remarks, though they were transmuted into the modern Republican coalition from the debates of yesteryear. While abortion was rarely mentioned on stage at CPAC and gay marriage seemed almost as archaic a topic of political debate as sending aid to the Contras, transgender issues provoked perhaps Trump’s most fervent applause. Trump said, if elected, he would sign a bill banning gender-affirming surgeries for minors, which he characterized as “chemical castration and genital mutilation,” and he received a standing ovation from the ballroom.
The speech felt like yet another milestone for the Republican Party, not just as the conference embraced Trumpism but as the American right embraced a more continental conservatism. Trump spoke only hours after former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s speech, and Brazilian flags could be spotted throughout the crowd, alternating in patches with the Stars and Stripes and, above all, red MAGA hats.
CPAC has increasingly embraced the global right — holding a pro-Viktor Orbán event in Hungary last year and partnering with those who minimized and denied war crimes in World War II in Japan. Not all of this is foreign to American politics — after all, the America First slogan was first used by the isolationists who railed against the United States supporting the Allies in World War II before Pearl Harbor. But this strain of politics had remained submerged on the right, popping up in Pat Buchanan’s speeches and Ron Paul’s newsletters. That’s not the case anymore. The question is just how dominant it will be in 2024 and moving forward.