DENVER — Glenn Beck had traveled across the country to stop Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination. He didn’t succeed.
Pacing the stage here at the RedState Gathering, a conference for conservative activists being held this weekend, Beck acknowledged that many Republicans would vote for Trump to stop Hillary Clinton from winning the presidency.
“I know, as a recovering alcoholic, that the truth will set you free,” Beck said Friday. “This election is between two choices that suck.”
Hundreds of conservative activists and bloggers cheered. None of them booed. With fewer than 90 days to go before the election, an annual event that usually revs up Republicans had become a therapy session on the agony of 2016.
Trump was not invited; the highest-profile speakers, such as Beck and Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), were adamantly anti-Trump. Attendees debated whether the election was still winnable, whether the Republican Party was fixable, and who was to blame for a looming Clinton victory.
In their darkest moments, they couldn’t imagine how the infighting would end.
“If Trump loses, the Republican National Committee will realize that this situation’s got to change,” said Leon Wolf, the editor of the RedState website that gives the conference its name. “But 40 percent of their party enthusiastically supported this guy. How far do they dare to go in alienating these people?”
RedState, founded in 2004 by a group of conservative bloggers, evolved into a place where Republicans could have a dialogue with an active, tuned-in base. In 2009, the first RedState Gathering introduced tea-party-backed candidates, including Marco Rubio, Nikki Haley and Ted Cruz, to bloggers and reporters. In 2011, Rick Perry launched his presidential campaign there.
At the same time, RedState’s editors and users tried to police the conservative movement. In 2007, the site blocked a wave of “zany” new users who were using the site to promote the Ron Paul presidential campaign. In 2015, the site’s longtime editor, Erick Erickson, disinvited Trump from the Gathering, citing the candidate’s comment that Fox News debate co-moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever” when she grilled him during a Republican debate.
“I just don’t want someone on stage who gets a hostile question from a lady and his first inclination is to imply it was hormonal,” Erickson said.
The reporters who had packed last year’s conference wondered whether the comment about Kelly would be a pivot moment, a sign that Republican voters were abandoning Trump. It was not. In the year since, Trump had taken over the Republican Party, while RedState editors such as Wolf and Ben Howe achieved sudden cable news fame as Trump critics; Erickson founded a new site critical of Trump and briefly tried to draft a third-party conservative candidate into the race. RedState’s traffic was up for the year, but its leading voices were constantly being reminded of where the power was in the GOP.
For rank-and-file conservatives, the question was to join a rebellion or to join a possibly losing campaign for the White House. “I’m playing for the team,” said Alex Iscoe, 21, an activist who wore the lone “Make America Great Again” cap at the conference. “If the team doesn’t win, we get four more years of Obama, basically — or worse.”
All weekend, the fact that the presidential election was between Trump and Clinton hung in the air like a foul odor. The conference was sponsored by a constellation of groups, such as the Charles Koch Institute and the millennial-focused Generation Opportunity, which had long ago switched from electioneering to advocating for free-market reform. In a glitchy series of prerecorded videos, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) pivoted from a question about 2016 to a question about what he had learned from his 2012 vice-presidential run.
“The single greatest threat to national security is sitting in the Oval Office,” John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said at the end of a long indictment of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. “The second-greatest threat is coming right behind him, unless things change dramatically.”
Darryl Glenn, the Republican who is seeking to unseat Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.) in November, blamed the news media for the idea that “everything’s negative out there.” After Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.) equivocated on whether Trump could win the state — the real estate mogul trails by double digits — an audience member excitedly grabbed a microphone to remind him that “they said you couldn’t win your race, either.”
Few of the conservatives who had come to Denver were so optimistic. Steve Deace, an influential Iowa radio host who had endorsed Cruz for president, predicted that Trump would lose and then stick around to continue hurting the conservative movement.
“He’s going to get months of free media when he loses,” Deace said. “He will not go away.” Deace argued that Trump will have to kiss up to the “liberal elites whose approval he craves, and he will do it by attacking all of us.”
Cruz did not attend the conference, telling organizers that he previously committed to a family vacation. But the 45-year-old senator’s political future was never far from the RedState discussion. Asked about Cruz’s speech at the Republican National Convention, at which he was heckled for refusing to endorse Trump, Beck said he had called to thank him for doing it. Cruz, he said, had acted in the tradition of Charles Sumner, the anti-slavery senator beaten with a cane by pro-slavery Democrats, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who returned home from America to oppose the Nazis.
Kendal Unruh was more pessimistic. Elected as a Cruz delegate from Colorado, she had led an effort — “Free the Delegates” — to stop Trump at the convention.
“I don’t see myself spending the next 30 years to rebuild the party,” she said. “I know that Cruz is gearing up Carly Fiorina to run for party chair. That’s a brilliant move. But in order to that, you have to roll all those RNC members, and we’ve seen how that goes.”
Fiorina made it to Denver, introduced wryly as “that face” — a reference to how Trump had once mocked her looks. In a 30-minute speech, she promised to campaign “for down-ballot candidates” and avoided mentioning the nominee.
Not every conservative would allow himself to think that way.
“I’m a conservative before I’m a Republican,” said Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union. “It’s our philosophy that guides us, not the elephant. I’m happy to help the elephant when he’s right; I’m happy to pick up his poop when he’s got problems in the middle of the street. All of that stuff — I’ve signed up for that.”