Conservatives have a lot to cheer about this year.

A Republican is in the White House, and the party controls the House and Senate. And the late Supreme Court justice and conservative hero Antonin Scalia is about to be succeeded by federal Judge Neil Gorsuch, considered an ideological clone.

Yet questions remain about the state of conservatism in American politics.

Trump is a populist with liberal tendencies. Congressional Republicans have run into early roadblocks as they seek to fulfill some big promises, such as repealing Obamacare, and the GOP is still healing from the deep divisions of the 2016 campaign.

To try to sort it all out, the Washington Examiner sat down with Matt Schlapp and his wife, Mercedes Schlapp, as they prepared to host thousands of conservative activists set to descend on Washington for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference this week.

Matt Schlapp is chairman of the American Conservative Union, the group behind CPAC. Mercedes Schlapp also is a Republican operative, and together they are two of the key organizers behind the influential gathering that attracts conservative activists from across the country.

Washington Examiner: What does it mean to be conservative in 2017?

Matt Schlapp: It’s a great time to re-examine the tenets of our philosophy. What does make someone a conservative? What makes someone outside the realm of being a conservative? But I think what we were taught in 2016 is that conservatives were the defenders. And, they weren’t so much cracking open their tomes of philosophy as they were protecting their homes; literally, protecting their land, protecting this country from a progressive onslaught from eight years of Obama-nation.

And so, I think the first thing that we realized about conservatives is we still got the fight in us, and we still love the country and we don’t think God is done with America. And, we think even though the highest court in the land and cocktail parties in Washington, D.C., and New York City and Hollywood and other places snicker at our values and make fun of our values — the [former] president even said we like to cling to our religion and our guns — despite all of that, conservatives haven’t given up.

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And, I really applaud them for standing up and taking back their country. And then, the philosophical questions underneath it are really interesting, and the rise of the Trump effect on politics.

Mercedes Schlapp: If I were to take it down to a more elementary level: Matt always talks about the three-legged stool. I think it comes from the Ronald Reagan philosophy of the social conservatives, the fiscal conservatives and the national security conservatives. Some people fit into all those three categories, some only decide that they’re one of those three categories.

I find that what really blends well with conservatism is the idea of America being this exceptional country and how can we ensure that this idea of democracy and freedoms are upheld in this nation.

And, I think for conservatives especially, even in this past election, it was critical for many of them that we would have a Justice Scalia-type justice in the Supreme Court, and that was a promise that Donald Trump made to the conservatives, and I think for the most part for conservatives I think that was incredibly important, especially those focused on the fact that government and judges have become so active and it’s the idea of having conservatives push back on the liberal agenda.

Washington Examiner: What was happening with the conservative movement and the Republican Party that Trump ended up the GOP nominee, let alone the president?

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Matt Schlapp: It’s a great question. To sum it up, Republican voters and conservative voters felt like they were following the playbook of electing pro-life, pro-gun, anti-tax, small-government conservatives to Washington. But they watched as Obama divided us and got much of his agenda passed around Congress, in the courts, with the help of the courts, an activist bench.

Republicans looked impudent, and for the first time in a long time, voters across the country said, “Wait a minute, following the playbook of getting the handsome looking guy or the attractive woman who says all the right things, but they don’t sound too extreme, and sending them up there and they promise me we’ll be able to have these victories in the areas I care about, it’s just not working.”

They’re too passive and they lay down and they don’t fight hard enough. So, I think it was a repudiation of the political playbook, even when it came to getting majorities in the Congress, and they wanted to try an outsider.

Washington Examiner: Mercedes, is that about right?

Mercedes Schlapp: It’s close to perfect. Trump was very smart in picking Gov. Mike Pence, who so many of us respect, as his vice president, making an extra effort to reach out to the conservative voter, to the evangelical voter, to those people of faith. I thought it was an effective coalition that Donald Trump was able to build.

And, something that I think Republicans — and I call them the country club Republicans — lost complete sight of, those in Congress who were unable to understand the pain that so many in the working class were feeling.

Washington Examiner: How is the marriage between traditional conservatives and Trump populists going?

Matt Schlapp: Those are the two major wings [of the conservative movement], but I also think there’s another arm of this, too, which is just like your establishment Republicans who are used to being in the gears of government. As we all know, just because you’ve worked for President George W. Bush, or [George] H.W. Bush, or Ronald Reagan, doesn’t mean you’re a conservative. You could just be more of a Republican and less of a conservative.

I think the marriage between conservatives and populists is going pretty well because Donald Trump talked very clearly. There’s been no candidate in the history of politics in my lifetime who has been more clear, over and over and over again, about what he was going to do if he won. Everyone should not be surprised about what he is doing now because it’s exactly what he said at rallies and in interviews.

So the fact that he is doing the things he talked about doing keeps that marriage really strong, because nobody on the Republican, conservative side is very confused or upset about what he’s doing.

Mercedes Schlapp: I would argue just a little bit on that. I think there is a bit of a concern on the trade issue. I think that’s one of the issues that conservatives are — I don’t necessarily see them on necessarily the same page when President Trump talks about tariffs, or this protectionist type of mentality. I think that does raise a bit of a red flag when it comes to conservatives.

Matt Schlapp: Let me push back on that. I think you’re right that in each one of these topic areas, Donald Trump could take it to a place where there would be division. When it comes to trade, he’s actually talking about making it easier to do business in this country: big tax cuts, regulatory rollback. Yes, he brings up tariffs, but he hasn’t done anything in terms of tariffs, which I think would be unpopular with a lot of Republicans. So, I think you’re right, Mercy, it could get to a place where there are divisions.

But I think so far, if you’re asking me what’s the state right now? I think it’s very strong. I think people are looking at what he is doing. They might not like the way in which it’s being done, but I think they like the focus of the policy that’s coming out and they definitely like the Cabinet picks. This is by far the most conservative Cabinet. And, the selection of Neil Gorsuch is, so far, with everyone I talk to, a complete grand slam home run.

Washington Examiner: Can the conservative movement accommodate nationalism?

Mercedes Schlapp: I view it more, when you listen to President Trump’s inaugural address, goodness over 50 percent of it was patriotism. You want to call it nationalism; I think that conservatives — and Matt, you can correct me if I’m wrong — but I have the sense that so many conservatives really have felt, and I’m going to go beyond conservatives, many Americans have felt that they’re losing the country that they love.

I can tell you my father, who came to America, he came from Cuba under Fidel Castro’s regime. You ask my father, would he go back to Cuba, he says, “No, I’m a proud American.” But there is this sense in America that we are losing our grasp. That instead of coming here and assimilating to American culture and sort of bleeding this red, white and blue and understanding why America is so unique, when you look at our Constitution, our democracy, our freedoms, there is a sense that we’re losing it.

I mean, there are communities out there that are becoming very insular, who don’t necessarily understand the fundamentals of being an American. And, speaking as a Cuban-American myself, I believe that that is such a fundamental part of our nation. And so I think it was very telling when President Obama spoke in front of the United Nations and pushed forward this message of globalism, like, this is just happening so we have to accept it.

And when Hillary Clinton talked about the open border mentality, it loses the sense of what America is about. And so, I think that, when you talk about nationalism, I refer to it more as patriotism. You’re also talking about, that we have a sense of our border security in America, that we have a better understanding of how our immigration system should be working, because what we’ve seen is an immigration system out of control.

So I think this idea of America First is more popular amongst conservatives and amongst Americans than we think.

Washington Examiner: So, Matt, you would disagree with critics who say that the White House is pushing anti-immigration policies because of fears that immigrants will dilute American culture?

Matt Schlapp: Everything’s a balance, right? You can go too far on almost every topic. Mercy says patriotism, and I would go back to sovereignty. What we talk about here at the ACU a lot is the fact that sovereignty resides in the individual, and God knit the individual with rights that the individual people give consent to the government so that the government can play a role as people come together in civilized society.

So when you say populism, there’s a part of that that’s wonderful because it’s really giving homage and a genuflection to the individual, which is a beautiful thing in a democracy. Now, that can go too far, where we don’t have a philosophical construct between what’s right and what is wrong, and it’s just like, somehow, the mob rule of a majority determines everything we do, which of course I would not advocate. I don’t consider myself a populist. I consider myself a conservative.

But at the end of the day, I often say we have to check our math. We use language to try to intimidate people. We’ll call a lot of things free trade, that if we’re real honest and we’re having a martini, it’s not that free. These big global agreements that give American sovereignty away, they’re not so much free as they are big regulatory documents that cut deals in different markets on different commodities. So, I think we ought to get a lot more honest, and Donald Trump helped us with this.

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