Det är han som har till uppgift att se till att partiets insatser under presidentvalet ligger i fas med partiets presidentkandidat.
En anledning till att Trump blivit populär bland gräsrötterna är att han aldrig tvekat att peka på det egna partiets fel och brister. Både när det gäller politiken och politikernas tendens att skärma sig från sina väljares verklighet.
Detta är bara ett av många exempel på hur Trumps politiska idéer ligger långt ifrån vad partietablissemanget vill höra från sin presidentkandidat.
Ett pågående inbördeskrig mellan Trump och partitopparna är knappast den mest optimal utgångspunkten inför en valrörelse. Inte konstigt att Hillary Clinton och demokraterna gnuggar händerna.
Priebus’s mission at the RNC has been to manufacture some luck: to rebuild a party that lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and lost power completely with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. While Republicans traded recriminations after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Priebus announced that the RNC would conduct a rigorous postmortem of all that had gone wrong and figure out how to refashion the party for the 21st century. “It wasn’t the RNC’s fault that things didn’t work out in 2012,” says Sally Bradshaw, a senior Jeb Bush adviser and a co-author of the resulting report. “But Priebus was willing to say, ‘There’s no other entity that can do this, that can take this on.’ ” The key to revival, the authors concluded, was to put a kinder, gentler gloss on the old stalwart Republican ideals (free trade, small government) while reforming immigration laws to entice nonwhite voters who were tuning the party out.
This was a comforting notion, but it hasn’t panned out. “The Jeb Bush guys wrote the autopsy,” says a frustrated Republican strategist who works with the RNC. “Then Jeb Bush ran the worst campaign in presidential history.” By obliterating Jeb, Trump redefined the Republican Party’s identity off the top of his head. And his vision of the GOP’s future is in many ways the diametrical opposite of what Priebus and the party Establishment had imagined. Many politicians, Trump told me, had privately confessed to being amazed that his policies, and his lacerating criticism of party leaders, had proved such potent electoral medicine. Trump says this was obvious, but craven Republicans wouldn’t acknowledge it. So he called bulls—. “It’s funny,” he told me, delighted by the swift triumph of his influence. “It’s like the paper clip: a very simple thing. But one guy got rich, and everyone else said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”
Priebus won added plaudits from the donor class for the autopsy, which was officially titled the Growth & Opportunity Project and released in March 2013. While lauding the GOP’s strength in Congress and statehouses, it warned that the angry, strident tone many Republicans directed toward Hispanics and other minorities threatened the party’s viability: “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” The report continued: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”
While the report was unblinking about the need to win more support from women, minorities, and young people, it betrayed no hint that Republican policies beyond immigration reform might need adjusting to attract them.
In bypassing a major course correction, the party fell into an old pattern that typically follows presidential losses. “Defeated parties almost always behave according to the dictates of their own party cultures rather than engage in a more objective analysis of how they should respond,” says Philip Klinkner, a Hamilton College political scientist and expert on party committees.
More often, parties avoid true introspection. “Republicans in particular,” says Klinkner, “focus on organizational and managerial changes and don’t talk about politics.”
Why not? Well, for one thing, politics is divisive. “Nobody wants to talk content, because that’s hard and you get yelled at on the radio by Rush Limbaugh,” says Mike Murphy, the veteran Republican strategist who ran Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise. “So instead they talk process: ‘The RNC is building a new, lithium-cooled supercomputer in the basement, and we’re going to have better microtargeting and organize everybody in America on their cell phone with go-get-’em apps.’ ”
Even so, conservatives railed against the Growth & Opportunity Project, pointing out its major policy recommendation—immigration reform—was something the GOP Establishment has sought for years, over intense grass-roots opposition.
But then came Trump, a walking exaggeration of every negative attribute the autopsy had warned against. Priebus won the Establishment’s heart—but it turned out voters loved Trump. As chairman, Priebus had a choice: resign or get behind the nominee. He chose the latter, even though it entailed addressing every outrageous comment from Trump.
“If I didn’t come along, the Republican Party had zero chance of winning the presidency,” Trump told me, sitting beside a scale model Trump airplane in his Trump Tower office.
He was explaining his own Growth & Opportunity plan. Its primary component is, of course, Trump. But there’s more to it. Just as he showed an instinct for devastating personal invective (“Lyin’ Ted”), he also seemed to intuit that standard Republican dogma no longer appeals to large swaths of the party electorate. Although it was overshadowed by his feuds and insults, he conveyed and defended a clear set of ideas that drew record numbers of Republican primary voters, even though—or more likely because—they often cut against right-wing orthodoxy: protect Social Security benefits, defend Planned Parenthood, restrict free trade, avoid foolish Middle East wars, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, build a wall. Trump believes the scale of his victory proves the strength of his proposals. “All these millions and millions of people,” he marveled, echoing Bernie Sanders. “It’s a movement.”
I asked Trump what he thought the GOP would look like in five years. “Love the question,” he replied. “Five, 10 years from now—different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry. What I want to do, I think cutting Social Security is a big mistake for the Republican Party. And I know it’s a big part of the budget. Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it [at all].” He explained the genesis of his heterodox views. “I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.” He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage.
The question everyone wonders is, what effect will this have on the party? If Trump wins, he’ll have even less incentive to toe the party line. If he loses, conservatives will spin it as a decisive verdict on all that he says and stands for. They’ll cast his nomination as an embarrassing dalliance by Republican voters who, chastened, will return to the fold. Everything will be as it was before.
But presidential elections always produce new ideas. Trump will change the Republican Party, win or lose. He chose to define himself against conservative legacy, and voters responded. Other politicians will see his success and mimic him. As he says, it’s simple—like a paper clip.