AUSTIN — Lyall “Chuck” Rodgers, who identifies himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool conservative Republican,” concedes he often shakes his head about President Trump.
“He’s on board with conservatives on a lot of issues, especially his Supreme Court nominations, but I’ll admit a lot of the rest of the time I have no idea where he’s coming from,” the retired Williamson County investments adviser said. “Is he really a conservative? I have no idea.”
On Friday, more than 250 other like-minded political activists from at least 22 states will gather in Texas’ capital city, a well-known bastion of liberalism in an otherwise mostly Red State, to ponder that same question — as conservatives try to come to grips with the Age of Trump, in what some expect could become a discussion about whether the Ronald Reagan brand of politics needs some tweaking.
Even the president’s ongoing fight with the powerful Koch political network could figure in.
The Resurgent Gathering, it is called.
“The goal is to try to find some common ground for conservatives who are not supportive of the president . . . and to have a discussion about conservative public policy,” said Erick Erickson, a national conservative voice and radio host who is leading the conference at a downtown hotel.
That discussion is scheduled to feature presentations by Republican notables with strong street cred among conservatives — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and tech exec Carly Fiorina, along with conservative Republicans from Ohio, Georgia and North Carolina. Michael Quinn Sullivan, the president and CEO of Empower Texans, a conservative organization that wields clout at the Texas Capitol, is scheduled to appear on a panel.
Even though Trump’s antics are expected to be the menu much of the time, Energy Secretary, former Texas governor and onetime presidential aspirant Rick Perry is on the program. So is Ajit Pai, the Trump-appointed chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, as well as representatives of the Koch Institute, a libertarian-oriented public policy organization founded by Charles Koch, a billionaire businessman and GOP megadonor who has drawn Trump’s ire in recent days for criticizing the president’s trade policies.
“Charles Koch of Koch Brothers, who claims to be giving away millions of dollars to politicians even though I know very few who have seen this (?), now makes the ridiculous statement that what President Trump is doing is unfair to ‘foreign workers,’” Trump wrote in a Thursday morning tweet. “He is correct, AMERICA FIRST!”
Also Thursday, the online news site Politico reported that the Republican National Committee sent a memo warning major GOP donors “not to play ball” with the powerful Koch political network, following a weekend retreat in Colorado at which Koch network officials criticized the Trump administration and hinted they would work with Democrats.
Amid that tension, the program for the Resurgent event posits this bottom line: “What policies should we, as conservatives, be championing regardless of who is in the White House? How should we try to get President Trump to stand with us on fiscal sanity and free markets? How can conservatives be heard over the noise in Washington? And can conservatives and major internet companies develop trust in the age of trolls?”
For Rodgers, the answers to those questions may reveal just how truly fractured conservatives are on many issues. And, perhaps, how the Never Trump movement may finally be coming to terms with how to best work with him as the president.
“Like Trump or not, he’s not going anywhere,” Rodgers said. “For many conservatives, we need to find a way to peacefully coexist. The Reagan days are over.”
Nationally, the conference showcases the deep divisions that still exist within the Republican Party as many conservatives contend with the Trump Era, and critics in the Never Trump faction measure whether there are ways they can support some aspects of his presidency and rejoin party regulars who are now supporting Trump — including most of Texas’ top Republican leaders — even though they strongly disagree with him on many issues.
With Trump’s new tariffs and the mushrooming federal debt as two of the most contentious issues, the schism highlights the growing divide between between the populist base of the GOP represented by Trump and the pro-business business wing that Republicans in Texas and other states have relied on for support and influence for decades.
In Texas, where the conservative movement came to dominate Republican-led state politics in the past two decades with the help of the tea party, grassroots activists concede that while Trump has been unsettling, he has also been a champion some conservative causes like court appointments, gun rights, and opposition to abortion.
Even so, said Dale Huls, a longtime conservative voice with the Clear Lake Tea Party in Houston, the core principles of conservatism have not changed, even as the politics in Washington have shifted.
“Conservatism is a principle, not a policy,” he said.
Erickson and others expected at the conference agree, but insist that a number of emerging issues over trade policy and tariffs, healthcare policy, internet privacy and access and growing federal deficits — even energy policies —are all ripe for discussion.
“This is more the beginning of a conversation that we will continue,” Erickson said. “I know we’re not going to be able to get everyone to agree on everything . . . but I would like conservatives to agree on some things.”
Some Texas conservative figures say they plan to sit out the conference because they already know where they stand on Trump and his policies.
“They can talk about whatever they want, but I don’t know who died and made any of those guys king,” said JoAnn Fleming, a prominent conservative in Texas who is executive director of Grassroots America, a tea party group based in Tyler. “Sometimes it’s difficult for me to see where the president’s going. It’s like he’s playing a multi-dimension game of chess.
“But say what you will about the president, the economy is better, and he’s making some decisions that conservatives agree with. His style is way different than anything I’ve seen, and I think we’re just going to have to get used to that.”
Mike Ward covers Texas politics, the governor and executive branch, criminal justice and ethics issues, and investigations for the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express-News and other Hearst Texas news organizations. He also co-hosts the leading Texas Take politics podcast. Reach him at Mike.Ward@Chron.com and follow him @ChronicleMike on Twitter.