NATIONAL HARBOR, MARYLAND — Scott Walker whipped out a pocket Constitution and raised it like a preacher holding a Bible. The former Wisconsin governor and erstwhile Republican presidential candidate was the main draw at what could best be described as a buttoned-up pep rally inside a modest ballroom. “We appreciate you fighting for freedom,” Walker told the crowd at the end of the event, “War Stories From Some of the Biggest Battles in the Fight for Freedom.”
Wednesday night, CPAC eve: Benghazi and socialism and late-term abortion. Marginal tax rates and Covington Catholic and “all this Green-New-Deal-type-stuff,” as Walker’s wingman, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp put it. Wandering the halls you’d pass red and pink MAGA hats, Ben Shapiro buttons, a Trump-stamped yarmulke, a wide-brimmed garden hat with a red “45” on the dome, baggy blazers, camo, khakis.
“We’re trying to give people more control of their own lives to set their own destiny, and that’s the true path to freedom and prosperity,” Walker tells Rolling Stone, after posing for his last round of fan selfies in the empty ballroom.
He’s fresh in from Wisconsin to emcee a set of four curated speeches Thursday morning under the rubric “What Makes America Great.” He might squeeze in a Fox News hit. He left office in January and has no security or body man to help him weave through the masses other than his son, Matt. He missed Michael Cohen’s Trump-implicating testimony before the House Oversight Committee.
“Not having seen it, I can’t comment on the content of what he said, other than the fact that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that today’s the day they put it on the agenda,” Walker says, pointing to the president’s nuclear summit with Kim Jong-un in Vietnam.
If you have a theory as to why X is really happening, CPAC is for you. The annual “conservative Super Bowl” is a three-day marathon wherein facts and conspiracies “compete in the marketplace of ideas,” as Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) put it when describing his Tuesday tweet suggesting Cohen has mistresses that could be imminently revealed. (Gaetz is also scheduled to speak at CPAC).
It’s a place where Schlapp, with his trademark used car salesman smile, feels emboldened to suggest that embattled Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam may have personally been involved in an abortion.
It’s a place where, no matter what new document Robert Mueller finds, people like Joseph Belnome, a 43-year-old former Macy’s manager from Belleville, New Jersey, remain convinced that the Russia investigation is a sham.
“It’s a made-up hoax because Hillary lost and they needed something to go after Trump for, to impeach him,” Belnome says. “Today in Congress, you’re seeing that unfold. As soon as Democrats took power, they’re not trying to legislate stuff to help Americans. They’re going after Trump. They’re laying the foundation for an impeachment trial. I mean, it’s just bullshit.”
This is Belnome’s first CPAC. On Wednesday night, he strolled into Walker’s event in stonewashed jeans and a blazer over a T-shirt depicting former Trump adviser Roger Stone as James Bond. He says he bought it a few weeks ago for $20 bucks in the driveway of Stone’s house in southern Florida — he happened to be vacationing in nearby Miami during the televised FBI raid; Stone’s allies have been selling merch to kickstart his legal defense fund.
“Anybody who’s connected to Trump is a target to get to Trump,” Belnome says. “Maybe Paul Manafort didn’t pay taxes or whatever it was, but none of that has to do with Trump.” (Belnome boasts that he has a second Stone shirt at home.)
Walker, too, sees partisan politics at play in the investigations surrounding Trump and his inner circle.
“I actually think if Democrats are foolish enough to push for impeachment, it’ll be the beginning of the reelection of the president,” Walker says. (Walker, himself, famously survived a recall attempt in June 2012.)
“Having worked in state government, I haven’t looked into any of the nuances out there,” Walker offers when asked if he believes the president has committed impeachable offenses. “When they were grumbling about some of his comments a year-plus ago — the press conference with the leader of Russia — it seemed to be more about semantics than anything else. You may not like what was said or agree with the general perception out there, but a lot of these things seem to be more politically driven than substantive.”
Does he feel Trump is poised to win reelection in 2020?
“If it’s an election based on results, not based on spin, sure,” Walker says. “There are some people, even amongst Republicans — occasionally myself included — who wish the president might say a word or two different here or there, even a tweet different. But when it comes to substance, this president, I think, overwhelmingly has been successful in policy, and probably more so than anyone in my lifetime has delivered on the promises, even.”
Schlapp, when speaking earlier in the night, denigrated Wednesday’s House hearing as a “kangaroo court.” He said conservatives need new “online warriors” to combat the left and called progressives “yellow” after Walker’s extended metaphor likening liberalism to the taxi industry and conservatism to start-ups like Uber and Lyft. Walker nodded to the difference between Independence Day and April 15th, or, “dependence” day. (His pocket Constitution is also a Declaration of Independence.)
CPAC will get underway Thursday morning with a prayer, the presentation of colors, the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, for which all are expected to rise.