The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump hasn’t changed. Conservatives have. And CPAC just proved it.

Trump emphasized "conservative values" and prioritizing American interests over global interests at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post, Photo: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

The President Trump we saw Friday morning at the Conservative Political Action Conference was born six years ago on the exact same stage, when he first addressed the annual political conference.

“It's nothing different,” White House chief of staff Reince Priebus said Thursday. “If you go back and watch the tape of President Trump . . . that was the Trump agenda.”

Stephen K. Bannon added, “This is really where he got his launch, you know, with his ideas in the conservative movement.”

They're largely right. A comparison of the two speeches — along with Trump's 2013 CPAC address — does show plenty of consistencies in Trump's worldview. While he has certainly expanded upon the things he talks about, at the core of his 2011 message was the same nationalism, populism and flair for the politically dramatic that we saw today.

And, most remarkably, what seemed off-key in 2011 at CPAC suddenly seems remarkably in keeping with the conservative movement. Trump didn't really change; conservatives have changed for him.

First, the similarities.

Here's Trump in 2011: “I am also well acquainted with winning, and that's what this country needs now — winning.”

And today: “We don't win anymore. When was the last time we won? Did we win a war? Do we win anything? Do we win anything? We're going to win. We're going to win big, folks. We're going to start winning again, believe me. We're going to win.”

Here's Trump in 2011: “It's for this reason that the United States is becoming the laughingstock of the world. "

And in 2013 at CPAC: “That's what we have to do with this country. We've got to fix it. We've got to make it incredible. Right now we're a laughingstock.”

And now today: “You wonder, where did the people come from that negotiated these deals? Where did they come from?”

Trump's nationalism back in 2011 caught some off-guard at a conference that was then dominated by true-believer, small-government conservatives and Ron Paul supporters. As recently as last year, there was a movement to exclude Trump from the conference. But this year, it's the new normal for the conservative grass roots. Here's a little more of Trump's 2011 address that could just as well have come today:

The United States has become a whipping post for the rest of the world. The world is treating us without respect; they are not treating us properly. …
America today is missing quality leadership, and foreign countries have quickly realized this. …
That's an important word: free trade. Because we don't have free trade. We don't have free trade. We don't have fair trade, and I'm a fair-trade believer. I love open markets, but not when China's manipulating their currency. Not when all of these other factors are taking place.

Perhaps most tellingly, Trump in his 2011 address singled out a particular international, intergovernmental organization he thought was handing American consumers a raw deal: the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC.

With gas prices topping $4 per gallon, Trump said it would soon double, and pointed the finger squarely at the ne'er-do-wells fixing the prices of oil:

We have nobody that calls up OPEC and say that price better get lower, and it better get lower fast. We have nobody that does that. They have a free rein, they have a free rein and it's amazing. You know the other day there was a small leak in the Alaska pipeline. I said watch, OPEC will announce an increase. They did. Just a small leak. Lasted like half a day. They announced an increase. … Anyway, so you have to watch OPEC.  You have to tell OPEC, folks those prices are coming down, and they're coming down fast. And we're not going to be paying seven and eight and nine dollars, which believe me in a year or two from now, you're going to be paying that, as sure as you're sitting there, because we have nobody to speak to them.

Take out OPEC and insert a free-trade deal, NATO or the United Nations, and this could be Trump today. The reason he's not talking about OPEC probably has more to do with lower gasoline prices than anything else. But the framework is there for railing against the global approach Trump has come to even more forcefully deride as president.

If there's one difference between today's Trump and the Trump we saw then, it's that he's pragmatically adopted some of conservatives' bread-and-butter issue positions that perhaps weren't on his radar six years ago: a strong and robust military, tax reform, welfare reform, Obamacare repeal and gun rights, in particular. Trump in 2011 mentioned his opposition to Obamacare and gun control almost offhand, as he was ticking off some conservative boxes. At Friday's CPAC, though, he was careful to spread the love around to all the conservative constituencies.

And that's really the most notable aspect of how the conservative movement became the Trump movement. A lot of these conservatives weren't easy fits for a wealthy former Democrat without much religious conservative cred and with a bigger appetite for nationalism than more-traditional Republican litmus-test issues. But the conservative movement fell in love with Trump's style and decided to worry about the details later. Now, his details are theirs.

While bragging about his business success back in 2011, Trump noticed he was getting some strange looks and reactions. “A little different, right?” he said. “A little different than what you've been hearing.”

It's not so different anymore.