Books about 2016 presidential candidates are seen during the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., on March 3, 2016. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)


NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Dominic Moore did not realize how fast the Republican primary had spun out of control until he discovered that his father — his own father! — was voting for Donald Trump.

“It’s awful,” said Moore, 20, a student at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. He and some friends at the Conservative Political Action Conference had just grabbed the special “Against Trump” edition of National Review, and held it up for a photo next to a rickety cardboard cut-out of Trump in his “Make America Great Again” hat.

“My dad grew up blue collar and nobody in politics spoke to him, so that’s why he believes in Trump,” explained Moore. “But I think he’s a con artist. He’s trying to sell the conservative movement down the river.”

It was not unusual for CPAC to coincide with a gutting loss for the conservative movement. In 2008, the conference was held right after Super Tuesday losses effectively locked up Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) nomination; Mitt Romney, who had packaged himself as the movement’s candidate, conceded defeat from the CPAC stage.

But the McCain-Romney fight did not threaten the cohesion of the Republican Party itself. Donald Trump did, bringing something nationalistic and alien to Republican politics. In 2015’s CPAC presidential straw poll, just 3.5 percent of attendees voted for Trump, seen then as a joke who would show up and free-associate from the stage. (“I love you people. You’re conservative. You work. You love the country.”) On Thursday, as Romney gave a nationally televised indictment of Trump and pleaded for conservatives to vote strategically, CPAC carried on in a state of disbelief.

Trump, the front-runner, was more shocking to CPAC than he’d been to any group of primary voters. The Gaylord National Resort had been taken over by the usual high-minded groups. The Heritage Foundation offered hot popcorn and internships; the reform group Right on Crime looked for converts; the grass-roots organizers of Turning Point attracted students with a dance party, then pitched them on organizing. The young people who’d come out of this movement could not imagine supporting Trump.

“I think there have been a lot of folks who put a lot of work in, and he’ll decimate the party,” said Eugene Craig, 25, a black Republican activist from Maryland. “He fractures it maybe beyond repair. I’d rather just sit the presidential election out.”

Some of the activists gathering in Maryland chose to study Trump as a phenomenon. American Majority, a grass-roots group that holds an annual student training session on the day before CPAC, adapted the Trump movement into its story of how disrupters — the Obama campaign, the Tea Party, the Occupy movement — alter reality.

“He’s been trying to hire our peers in this organizing universe,” said Matt Robbin, the president of American Majority. “He is absolutely an alien, a parasitic invader to this political universe. Everybody seems to recognize it now, belatedly.”

And on the first official day of CPAC, Trump’s name was hardly mentioned onstage. His challengers would not start to arrive until Friday — Trump himself would arrive for an undesirable Saturday morning slot, which was inspiring rumors of a walk-out or protest. But a succession of legislators and presidential also-rans found ways to talk around the elephant in the room.

“I didn’t run for office a year and a half ago because of Donald Trump,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), the first national Republican legislator to pledge never to support the mogul even if he became the nominee. “The purpose of CPAC is to talk about what American conservatism is, and what unites us. We all know that Donald Trump is not a conservative.”

Occasionally, CPAC’s speakers suggested that any Republican nominee needed to win, to stop Hillary Clinton. And occasionally, they told the audience to consider what a nameless candidate had proven about the electorate — that “straight talk,” in the words of the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre, was a winner.

“There are a lot of conservatives here today, and all across this country, who are scared,” said former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. “They are scared about what’s going on right now. They’re concerned about what’s happening in this presidential race. They’re seeing the Republican Party potentially being torn up. They’re nervous as all heck about what they’re going to do. Well, now you know how the American public has been feeling over the past 10, 20, 30 years.”

Trump sympathizers, and Trump fans, were outnumbered but not invisible. They skewed older than the College Republican fans of Rubio or Cruz. When pressed, some of them, like 65-year-old Michael Pemberton, could not say that Trump was a conservative. But they didn’t prioritize ideology the way that the average, youthful, idealist at CPAC did. Trump, explained Pemberton, was a “brawler.”

That was not enough for some loyal conservatives. David Ramadan, a former Republican state delegate from Virginia, said he would oppose Trump even after a nomination if only to save the party’s brand.

“If he loses, in six months we can say: That wasn’t us,” Ramadan said of fellow Republicans. “If he wins, we have to answer for him for a decade.”

The tension between the conservative movement and the electoral ambitions of the GOP roiled CPAC into the late evening. An hour before a debate-watching party in CPAC’s main ballroom, Fox News host Sean Hannity tossed footballs into the crowd, showed off his impersonations of Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh, and declared that he was disappointed in what Romney did.

“If your candidate doesn’t win, that some of you are going to be angry and emotional that your guy lost,” said Hannity. “And some of you will go on radio and say, I can’t vote for that guy.”

Over some boos — “You guys have really been hitting the sauce, haven’t you!” — Hannity argued that Romney had done the dirty work of the Republican establishment.

“I wish he would have been as strong against Barack Hussein Obama as he was today,” said Hannity. “I don’t like them spreading lies about the KKK.”

The crowd, dominated by young Rubio supporters, stayed restless. Hannity started hurling footballs into the audience, then passed his microphone to the young conservative host Guy Benson for a final pre-debate panel.

“How many of you are in the #NeverTrump camp?” asked Benson.

Half of the arms in the audience shot up.

“That’s going to be a problem,” said Benson.