As the Conservative Political Action Conference comes to town, the Right — conservative activists, commentators, talk-radio hosts and Republican politicians — should keep actual conservatism at the front and center of their minds.

The set of beliefs and principals that animate conservatism is at risk of being obscured — perhaps even displaced — by vulgar provocation, tribal rather than principled opposition to the Left, the demands of entertainment and partisan fealty to a Republican president.

If these elements take over and drown out conservative philosophy, ideas, and policies, they will inflict harm not only on conservatism but on the Right in general and on the Republican Party and President Trump in particular. And that would be bad for the country.

CPAC’s agenda demonstrates the battle over the future of the movement. On one hand, there’s Milwaukee Sheriff David Clarke, the black Democrat and Fox News regular whose schtick is an almost comical law-and-order toughness. On another panel, Hillsdale College’s erudite president, Larry Arnn, whose beliefs spring from serious philosophical soil and are nourished by constant intellectual inquiry, speaks on “the Roots of Conservatism.”

One panel title discusses college “snowflakes,” while another analyzes various indices that measure human flourishing. Milo Yiannopoulos, a libertine professional provocateur, was slated as a principal speaker to discuss campus free speech. But he was disinvited and now attorney Casey Mattox of the non-profit public-interest law firm, Alliance Defending Freedom, will speak on the topic.

A big tent is great. But the volume and bombast of the entertainers and liberal bashers could crowd out conservatism. This isn’t a CPAC problem, but a problem that the entire Right must guard against.

Battling the Left is necessary work for conservatism, but it can’t become its heart. The appeal of celebrities willing to tear mercilessly into the Left is clear, but also dangerous, especially as some of those chosen to do so never bothered to ground themselves in real conservatism. If conservatism defines itself mainly as being against the Left, if it pulls up its philosophical roots and does not adhere to its real values, it could doom itself to radicalism.

“[A]ll experience hath shewn,” the Declaration of Independence states, “that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

That is, custom, tradition and established institutions are there for a reason. These things can be corrupted and sometimes need to be smashed. But as our wars in Iraq and Libya have shown, smashing established evils often invites new and worse evils.

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The conservative resistance to gender theory, to reshaping culture through unchecked immigration, and to common core education are, or at least ought to be, rooted in something besides a dislike of the Left. It needs to be rooted in the idea that timeless institutions, venerable cultures and previous generations contain wisdom that is not necessarily obvious on the surface, particularly in an increasingly deracinated culture.

Conservatism, at some level, needs to be about conserving.

Lord Acton’s maxim that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” is an insight grounded in centuries of experience, that lies at the foundation of government.

Limited government is a central principle of conservatism in acknowledgment of this wisdom. An unshackled government will abuse its power and trample the natural rights of the individual.

Conservatives can be forgiven for delighting in the sight of Congress, the White House and most governorships in GOP hands. But if they respond by wanting “our” politicians to have more power, they are abandoning the idea of limited government.

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Conservatism is needed to restrain overreaching executives of no matter what political or ideological stripe. Trump, like any other president — certainly President Barack Obama before him — needs conservatism to temper him.

These are days, with the Left in la la land and Republicans with so much power, when conservatism will be easy to forget. But these are also days when, more than ever, it needs to be remembered.

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