When President Trump ships him off to a re-education camp, along with the rest of the displaced hierarchy of old GOP institutions, the one thing Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus will have going for him is a head start on self-criticism and denunciation.
As the Republican primary rages on, Priebus’s position on the race is somewhere on the far end of a scale that begins at “delicate” and ends with “precarious.” He is currently presiding over a GOP whose leading presidential candidate, billionaire Donald Trump, is running on a promise to burn the party establishment to the ground and spit on the ashes.
At this point, just seeing a photo of Trump must be triggering every fight-or-flight response neuron in his brain, but Priebus understands that he can neither attack Trump nor run away from him. Any overt indication that the RNC opposes Trump’s nomination will only further inflame Trump’s supporters and provide him with more proof that the GOP old boy network is out to get him.
So, Priebus appears on shows like ABC’s This Week, and admits that one of the biggest problems in American politics is…well…institutions like the one he’s currently running. “People are just sick and tired of politics in general, sick and tired of Washington, DC and, I think, just actually sick and tired of both parties,” he said.” I think it's just a general feeling out there that's real. I wouldn't deny it.”
Nevertheless, he promised that whoever voters choose as the nominee, his flawed and hated party apparatus will be there. “It's our job to support that nominee and we will,” he said.
It’s probably Priebus’s only real choice, said Washington Post columnist and Georgetown University professor E.J. Dionne, who recently published a history of the modern conservative movement, Where the Right Went Wrong: Conservatism from Goldwater to the Tea Party and Beyond.
“I think Priebus’s best option is to say he’ll be nice to Trump and privately pray he loses,” Dionne said.
When it comes to the remaining institutions of the Republican establishment, he said, “Trump has them over a barrel. He has basically said that he will bolt and run as a third party candidate if he loses and they don’t want to give him an excuse to do that.”
A large part of the reason why Priebus can’t forestall a Trump rebellion is that the Republican “establishment” ain’t what it used to be, and he knows it.
The GOP as a whole, Dionne said, is divided into movement conservatives, traditionalists, and other sub-groups. Even more important to the influence of the RNC could be what Dionne calls the “radical split” in the money that funds political campaigns. Today, the Koch brothers and other large donors, whose priorities may or may not align with the RNC’s, can change the trajectory of a House or Senate race on their own.
As a result, the RNC doesn’t have either the raw financial power or the moral authority with a majority of its members to either anoint a favored candidate or sink one that poses a threat.
So Priebus is reduced to promising that if Trump is nominated, the remaining elements of the old establishment will back him even though – as ABC’s George Stephanopoulos reminded him Sunday – members of that old guard think a Trump nomination would destroy the party.
“You know what? Winning is the antidote to a lot of things,” Priebus said. “And so the name of the game is winning in November. If we win in November, all those armchair quarterbacks will fall in line and they'll obviously be pretty pleased, I think, if we win in November.”
What Priebus leaves out is that it’s a long leap from the securing nomination in July to a general election victory in November, and it’s in precisely that little interregnum – known as the general election – when the party would have to “fall in line.”
And, according to Dionne, even if Priebus can hang on to the old guard, he might face mass desertions anyway from other elements of the party unwilling to form ranks behind Trump.
“As Trump goes on, more and more conservatives see positions they disagree with,” he said. “There are a whole lot of issues on which the economic populist side of Trump is antithetical to what conservatives believe.”
If the billionaire former reality television star is the eventual nominee, Dionne says he sees “two streams of defections” from the Party.
“Stream one will be the few remaining moderate Republicans,” he said. “There will also be a stream of ideological conservatives who don’t believe Trump is a real conservative.”
For now, Priebus has little choice but to watch, and hope that as Trump leads the Republican Party toward the edge of a cliff, a critical mass of voters – with no obvious prompting from the RNC – will realize where they’re headed and abandon Trump before it’s too late.