In a freewheeling speech with echoes of his campaign rallies, President Trump told a gathering of conservative activists Friday that the coalition of voters that narrowly put him in office represents the future of the Republican Party.
Trump gave a nod in particular to his largely white working-class supporters, calling them “the forgotten men and women of America” and reminding them that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, referred to some of them as “deplorables.”
“That is the heart of this new movement and the future of the Republican Party,” Trump said. “These are hardworking, great, great Americans. These are unbelievable people who have not been treated fairly. Hillary called them deplorable. They’re not deplorable.”
With his appearance at the Conservative Political Action Conference at National Harbor in Maryland, Trump became the first sitting president since Ronald Reagan to address the group during his first year in office.
Trump, who remains out of sync with the establishment wing of the party on trade and several other issues, was nevertheless enthusiastically embraced, a testament to how much he has pushed the GOP and the conservative movement toward an “America first” nationalism that previously existed on the fringes.
“Now you finally have a president, finally,” Trump told the group, whose annual conference he skipped last year while in the heart of his primary campaign. Later, he called his election “a win for conservative values.”
Friday’s speech amounted to a victory lap for Trump, and it was notable — more than a month after he got the keys to the White House — for how much it mimicked his campaign rallies.
The president ticked off a familiar list of promises, including pledges to “keep radical Islamic terrorists the hell out” of the country and to build a U.S.-Mexico border wall. At one point, when he mentioned Clinton, the crowd, as was often the case at his rallies, started chanting, “Lock her up!”
“The core conviction of our movement is that we are a nation that put and will put its own citizens first,” Trump said at another point, prompting the crowd to chant “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
While Trump was cheered on in suburban Maryland, other Republicans openly worried Friday about whether, in coming cycles, the party can hang onto the traditionally Democratic and independent voters Trump wooed, and they criticized him for doing little since his election to reach out beyond his core supporters.
Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton by nearly 3 million votes, and his job approval numbers are at historic lows for any president at this point in his term.
“We know historically that these sorts of populist, introverted efforts can be sustained for a couple of cycles and not much longer than that,” said John Weaver, a GOP strategist who worked on the presidential campaign of Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).
“Fearmongering and the victimization of whole swaths of people is not something you can grow,” Weaver added, referring to derogatory comments Trump has made about Mexicans, Muslims and other groups. “Tell me which groups he’s going to attract. Millennials? African Americans? Hispanics? Young women?”
Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said that the party needs to stay focused on expanding its base and that it remains to be seen how successful Trump will be at reshaping “a party of Reagan that no longer exists.”
A key, Steele said, will be what comes of Trump’s efforts to turn campaign promises into actual policy.
Trump’s fledgling administration has given conservatives plenty to cheer, including many of the president’s Cabinet selections and his pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act and pursue sweeping tax reform.
He also campaigned on dismantling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other trade pacts long championed by Republicans, and on making a massive investment in the country’s infrastructure, a goal many small-government advocates in the GOP view warily.
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