When Donald Trump came to Denver for the Western Conservative Summit in the summer of 2016, the then-presidential candidate, was just emerging from a primary he was never expected to win. He may not have fired up all 2,000 of the Summit’s attendees to jump on board the Trump Train that year, but they sure liked him more than the protestors who gathered outside.
The organizers of the Summit have been trying to get him to come back ever since, complete with an all-out #GetTrumpToTheSummit twitter campaign in 2017. This year, they got close — at least in name, bringing Donald Trump Jr. to Denver on Friday evening as one of the Summit’s keynote speakers.
“I think grassroots conservatives are very hungry to connect with the Trump presidency as much as they can,” says Jeff Hunt, the director of Colorado Christian University conservative think tank the Centennial Institute, which organizes the Summit annually. Hunt noted that Trump has only been back to Colorado once since his inauguration, to give the Air Force Academy’s commencement speech in May. “Donald Trump Jr. has probably resulted in more ticket sales than anything else for the Summit. The base loves him.”
Meanwhile, Hunt tweeted an email sent from the White House, a regretful note praising the Centennial Institute for its work to “protect religious freedom and the First Amendment,” which is this year’s theme.
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Hunt painted the Summit as a rosy and noble cross-coalitional gathering of religiously and ideologically diverse people: “Jewish leaders and Muslim leaders talking about religious freedom in conversation with illegal immigration and immigration reform...and so it's kind of a broad, big tent that's very exciting to watch. What I love is it kind of exposes people to other aspects of the conservative movement.” And, of course, he added, “we will talk about Jesus.”
Some of the religious-freedom-themed highlights: a big focus on Jack Phillips, the defendant in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case; a discussion of a case in Wisconsin in which “the Left attacked a conservative judge for helping to start a Christian school”; a workshop that teaches participants how to “separate fake news from the deeper religious currents of Europe." As Hunt took great pains to point out, the Summit will include different religious perspectives, including from Dr. M Zhudi Jasser, a Muslim conservative leader.
But then there are speakers like Brigitte Gabriel, who earned a spot on the Southern Poverty Law Center's hatewatch list for her anti-Muslim hate group ACT for America; David Horowitz, who runs an organization that vows to do "battle" with the enemy left; and Frank Gaffney, whom the Southern Poverty Law Center calls "one of the nation's most notorious Islamaphobes." Then there's Ken Starr, the lawyer best known for investigating the Monica Lewinsky scandal, but who also negotiated a deal that let Jeffrey Epstein continue a billionaire leisure lifestyle after his 2008 charges for violating scores of underage girls.They'll appear next to the likes of conservative leaders Senator Cory Gardner, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and Princeton Law professor Robert George. A broad tent of defenders of religious freedom and family values, indeed.
According to Hunt, the Summit is geared toward “grassroots conservatives” as opposed to high-profile donors and “intellectual elites”: “We want the average person that lives in Englewood or Arvada or Aurora to be able to interact with major conservative thought leaders in our country. This creates a center of gravity for our state. ... This is about reaching the average Coloradan that sees these people on TV and wants to interact with them.”
Of course, not all conservatives support Donald Trump or his ilk. But Hunt expects few objections to high-profile speakers with Trump connections and controversial histories.
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Hunt says the liberal renaissance in Colorado is banding conservatives together. “Democrats in many western states have created an alliance with social libertarians that have allowed them to be victorious, Colorado being the best example,” he says. “The biggest challenge we face is a legislature that's driving a very progressive agenda and a governor that's doing the same.
"Really, what conservatives are geared toward is taking on the progressive shift that's taken place in Colorado," Hunt explains. Apparently, part of that resistance is letting the evangelical rulebook of family and faith slide just a little for the sake of accommodating (or embracing) the scandal-ridden current White House.
"He appealed to many of the things we care so deeply about. ... I think he's one of the greatest presidents we're ever going to have in our lifetime," Hunt said.
The Western Conservative Summit will be held on Friday and Saturday at the Colorado Convention Center. More information can be found on its website.