For the past 20 years, Dr. Matthew E. Bunson has been active in the area of Catholic social communications and education, including writing, editing, and teaching on a variety of topics related to Church history, the papacy, the saints and Catholic culture. He is faculty chair at Catholic Distance University, a senior fellow of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology, and the author or co-author of over 50 books including: The Encyclopedia of Catholic History, The Pope Encyclopedia, We Have a Pope! Benedict XVI, The Saints Encyclopedia and best-selling biographies of St. Damien of Molokai and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.
As the old adage proclaims, what a difference a year makes.
In 2016, then Republican candidate Donald Trump skipped the influential annual gathering of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference organized by the American Conservative Union that was founded in 1964 and is ranked as the nation’s premiere conservative organization. Exactly one year later, Trump arrived at CPAC not only as an eagerly anticipated speaker but as President of the United States. He, Vice President Pence and their key White House staff dominated the headlines at CPAC and demonstrated unquestionably that the banner of the movement flies very prominently over 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
The four day conference held just outside of Washington, D.C. from February 22-25 brought together the thought leaders and celebrities of the conservative movement to reflect on the unique political and cultural opportunities that the 2016 election handed them. More than a decade has passed since the last such moment, and the sense of excitement was palpable, even if it was tinged slightly by quiet anxiety over how the disparate elements of this new political movement will work together. There was also an unsurprising focus on the mainstream media that declared a communications war on Trump last year and has little interest in a cease-fire let alone a modus vivendi.
Encouragement and rallying the conservative resources against the media were clear tasks for the speakers, and they did not disappoint, especially when it came to the appearances from the key figures in the White House. Several were especially noteworthy: Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus (who appeared together) and President Trump.
White House counselor Conway set the tone from the start by stressing the unusual but historic quality of Trump’s candidacy and election. “You know,” she said, “every great movement and which the conservative movement is, of course, every great movement ends up being a little bit sclerotic and dusty after a time and I think they need new fusion of energy. And in the case of Candidate Trump and President-elect and Nominee Trump, he went right to the grassroots and brought you along. He made people feel from the beginning, they were part of this movement.”
To speak about the unprecedented movement that Trump harnessed and led to victory last year, the President’s senior advisor Steve Bannon and his chief-of-staff Reince Priebus made a joint appearance for a conversation moderated by the ACU’s head Matt Schlapp who asked a key question:
There are those folks that consider themselves, you know, classical liberals or conservatives or Reagan conservatives. There are other folks that consider themselves libertarians. There are other folks that are part of this new Trump movement. And Trump brought a lot of new people. There's probably in this -- people in this crowd that wouldn't have been in this crowd before. So there's a lot of diversity here. We all know it when we're at the bar at the end of the day. And can this Trump movement be combined with what's happening at CPAC and other conservative movements for 50 years? Can this be brought together? And is – this is going to save the country?
Bannon noted that cooperation for common goals will be essential:
You know, I've said that there's a new political order that's being formed out of this. And it's still being formed. But if you look at the wide degree of opinions in this room -- whether you're a populist; whether you're a limited government conservative; whether you're libertarian; whether you're an economic nationalist -- we have wide and sometimes divergent opinions. But I think we – the center core of what we believe, that we're a nation with an economy, not an economy just in some global marketplace with open borders, but we are a nation with a culture and a – and a reason for being. And I think that is what unites us and I think that is what is going to unite this movement going forward.
While very different personalities and coming at the conservative movement from slightly different directions, Bannon and Priebus showed that there is a common front philosophically emerging from the White House, centered on economic growth, trade, tax reform, national security (including immigration as a major component) and what Bannon termed “deconstructing the administrative state.” Priebus described what all of this will mean:
Number one, we're not talking about a change over a four year period. We're talking about a change of potentially 40 years of law, number one. But more important than that – more important to that, it established trust. It established that President Trump is a man of his word. We always knew that. But when he said here's 20 names on a piece of paper back in July, remember and he said I'm going to pick my judge out of these 20 people that are on this piece of paper and he did it, that's number one. Because Neil Gorsuch represents a conservative -- represents the type of judge that has the vision of Donald Trump and it fulfills the promise that he made to all of you and to all Americans across the country. Second thing, deregulation, what hasn't been talked about a lot is that President Trump signed an order that puts in place a constant deregulatory form within the federal government. And what it says is, for every regulation presented for passage that Cabinet secretary has to identify two that person would eliminate. And that's a big deal. And then lastly, immigration; protecting the sovereignty of the United States, putting a wall on the southern border, making sure that criminals are not part of our process.
In his raucous appearance, the president took those points even further, but he also mentioned again that any coalition must take into account the role of faith in his election and his agenda:
We all salute with pride, the same American flag, and we all are equal -- totally equal in the eyes of almighty God, we're equal…And I want to thank, by the way, the Evangelical community, the Christian community. Communities of faith, rabbis and priests and pastors, ministers, because the support for me was a record, as you know, not only in terms of numbers of people, but percentage of those numbers that voted for Trump…and I will not disappoint you. As long as we have faith in each other and trust in God, then there is no goal at all beyond our reach. There is no dream too large, no task too great, we are Americans and the future belongs to us.
What does this mean for Catholics?
The first weeks of the Trump Administration have seemed to be a wild ride at times that has left many observers almost breathless at its frenetic pace and the politically brutal welcome it received from the secular media. Leaks, stories of chaos and incompetence and open rage and hostility have marked much if not most of the mainstream coverage as many media outlets have tried to bury the new president and staff even before they had a chance to get their bearings in the nations’ capital. There were missteps politically to be sure – for example the roll-out for the executive order on immigration – but there was also a fairly lengthy list of orders and actions that fulfilled some of the key promises made to Catholics and the pro-life Movement. These included, of course, the restoration of the Mexico City Policy prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for non-governmental organizations that promote abortion, the nomination of what is generally expected to be a worthy successor to the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and a decision not to continue the Obama Administration directives promoting transgender issues.
As has been noted previously, Trump has surrounded himself with advisors who are manifestly pro-life. Many of them are Catholics, including Bannon and Conway. The Administration still has far to go in fulfilling a comprehensive pro-life agenda, but CPAC marked an occasion to reiterate some of the underlying principles from which Trump and his advisors function. From that perspective, Catholics wanting a look at the political road map the administration will follow for the next few months found CPAC a valuable experience. The task, of course, remains the same one since election night: expect and encourage this president and his staff to remain faithful to his promises and do everything possible to build the Culture of Life. As the president himself observed, “The era of empty talk is over. It's over. Now is the time for action.”