OXON HILL, Md. — Donald Trump isn't at CPAC this year. He is CPAC.
The GOP front-runner may have dropped out of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, but in many ways the convention foreshadowed the rise of Trump — or someone similar — more than anyone realized until now.
The billionaire is not popular personally with the crowd here. The audience is disproportionately young and libertarian — Trump was booed last year after proposing to fight ISIS with ground forces — and many attendees this year said they plan to vote third party if he is nominated.
"Trump doesn't believe in anything," said Joshua Delano, a 34-year old libertarian from Texas. "Here we truly believe, naively sometimes."
In retrospect, though, the convention hosted by the American Conservative Union (ACU) has been a canary in the coal mine for weaknesses in conservatism that are now tearing the movement apart amid Trump's impending candidacy.
Consider one of its most infamous moments. In 2007, Mitt Romney fired up the crowd for upcoming speaker Ann Coulter, who then used her speech to call Democratic Sen. John Edwards a "f—got."
That scene is instructive now. Romney knew the risks of appearing with Coulter, who famously responded to the 9/11 terror attack with a call to "invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity."
By praising Coulter onstage, Romney lent her credibility and received authenticity in exchange.
Nine years later, Romney delivered an impassioned speech on Thursday rallying Republicans to stop Trump, who is enthusiastically backed by Coulter. But Romney's message was undermined by his decision in 2012 to accept an endorsement from Trump in person in Las Vegas despite Trump's race-baiting campaign to prove Obama was secretly born in Kenya.
Trump boasted after this week's speech that the former nominee would have "dropped to his knees" to beg for his backing.
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As it turns out, a number of conservatives have criticized CPAC for legitimizing Trump with the mainstream right by giving him prime speaking slots year after year. Trump has donated over $100,000 to the ACU, according to a Politico report this week that quoted a Rubio aide and an anti-Trump super PAC both grumbling how CPAC helped enable Trump.
But the issue is more than just Trump the man. Many of the same tensions that have played out between establishment Republicans, conservative activists and the extreme fringe over his current platform and rhetoric have also played out in CPAC over the years.
In 2014, white nationalist Matthew Heimbach infiltrated a training session with black conservative K. Carl Smith on minority outreach, at which he used his questions to hail the Confederacy and defend slavery.
Some in the audience booed, but others said afterwards they were mad not with Heimbach, but with a black female reporter who complained about the proceedings and was booed. After the event, Smith released a statement criticizing the "disruptive" woman and reassuring attendees that he and Heimbach "left as friends" after a productive conversation.
Two years later, Trump is dancing around whether to disavow KKK support and has repeatedly promoted tweets and material from white supremacist and neo-Nazis supporters. Heimbach is back in the news this week after he shoved a black protester at a Trump rally, then boasted about it in a blog post.
In 2013, CPAC organizers included a number of speakers promoting immigration reform, which at the time Republican leaders hoped would propel them to the White House by attracting Latino voters. The ACU chairman back then was Al Cardenas, a pro-reform lobbyist who would become a prominent Jeb Bush backer.
When Texas Governor Rick Perry mentioned calls to "appeal to the growing Hispanic demographic" onstage, however, the audience booed.
Three years later, Trump is running on a campaign to deport 11 million people in order to get rid of Mexican "rapists."
In 2011, CPAC organizers banned anti-sharia activist Frank Gaffney after he accused the ACU's board members of being part of a conspiracy to spread radical Islam.
Five years later, Trump is running on a ban on Muslim immigration that he credits Gaffney with inspiring and Dr. Ben Carson has spread fringe theories espoused by Gaffney warning that all Muslims are inherently suspect because of a religious edict to lie.
Gaffney's group, the Center for Security Policy, was also back on the main stage this year.
"[Obama's] not a Muslim, I believe, but he aligns with that worldview far too much," Jim Hanson, the group's vice president, said in a panel discussion Thursday.
For a long time it was a running joke among Republicans — and not without some truth — that CPAC was a festival for liberal journalists out to embarrass the GOP, who would breathlessly write up the most incendiary lines from speakers and track down the wackiest figures for interviews.
Stephen Glass, the infamous New Republic fabulist, filed a phony story in 1997 about conservative students partying at CPAC. Leftist documentarian Max Blumenthal recorded a short film at the event in 2007 that went viral. It's still an annual tradition for news cameras to swarm William Temple, the tea partier who dresses in 18th century period costume.
The implication was that there were really two CPACs, only one of which was worth taking seriously. There was the CPAC on the main stage, at which presidential contenders including Ronald Reagan extolled conservatism. Then there was the fringe CPAC, which included cranks who sponsored a booth or sat in for a little-attended panel but were hardly representative of something bigger.
The idea that someone like Paul Ryan had any connection with the professional pickup artist teaching conservatives how to find right-leaning lovers was ludicrous.
But with Trump roiling the party, the barrier has disappeared. Far from separating two worlds, it's possible CPAC and hundreds of events sent another message to Republican voters: You should trust these fringe speakers, they're on the same stage as a presidential candidate.
Today, the fringe speaker is the presidential candidate.