Reince Priebus identifies as a Wisconsinite. So, in any competition with Donald Trump, that’s a point in favor of the political fixer from Kenosha.
Unfortunately, as chairman of the Republican Party of Wisconsin and later as chairman of the Republican National Committee, Priebus sacrificed the GOP’s honor in order to foist economic royalism on the state where the party was founded in 1854. His ugly alliance with the billionaire Koch brothers and other out-of-state campaign donors, and his unquestioning support for their preferred candidates (especially Gov. Scott Walker) invited an era of austerity and mismanagement to a state where just a few years earlier Wisconsinites were able to count on both Democrats and Republicans to govern responsibly.
Priebus has always been a win-at-any-cost political mercenary who willingly sacrifices the common good in order to serve his own ambition and that of his partisan allies. No one did more to create a Republican Party that was ripe for takeover by Donald Trump than Reince Priebus. So it made sense that they would end up together in the swamp that Trump has made of the West Wing.
Priebus’ ignominy is immeasurable. He will be remembered as a destructive force in American politics who made his party into a cruel and unusual parody of itself, and in so doing made his country more divided, more desperate and more uncertain about its future.
But at least Priebus was loyal, which is more than can be said for Donald Trump.
When Trump left Priebus on the tarmac at Andrews Air Force Base last Friday afternoon, after elbowing his embattled chief of staff out of the motorcade and out of the White House, the president abandoned the man who did more than anyone else to make him president.
The 2016 campaign was surreal on more levels than any national contest since 1964 — the year that the Republican Party began a process of surrendering to its worst impulses.
It was under Priebus that the GOP degenerated to such an extent that South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham would declare: “my party has gone bat-s**t crazy.”
If Trump was the engineer on the crazy train, Priebus was the conductor.
Priebus served Trump despite the fact that he knew full well that the billionaire was headed in the wrong direction. After overseeing the party’s defeat in the 2012 presidential election, Priebus acknowledged that his party needed to become more welcoming to women, people of color, immigrants and young voters. Yet, when Trump came along, Priebus did nothing to resist the party’s degeneration into a xenophobic, racially insensitive, hate-mongering mess.
Under Priebus, a Republican Party that had already veered far from its historical moorings went off the deep end. The party that put Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower in the White House was Trumped.
Those who see politics as nothing more than a power grab will imagine that Trump’s presidency vindicates his politics. But that’s a strikingly irresponsible argument.
Trump did not win by any traditional democratic measure. Fifty-four percent of Americans did not vote for the billionaire. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, beat him by almost 3 million votes.
Trump actually won a lower percentage of the national vote as the Republican nominee in 2016 than Mitt Romney did in 2012 — the year when Priebus acknowledged that the Republican Party was out of touch with women, people of color and the young.
It’s true that narrow wins in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania gave Trump an Electoral College victory, but he arrived at the White House door with no mandate from the American people.
Priebus, the most electorally experienced member of Trump’s inner circle, had an absolute duty to explain this reality to the president — and to try to shape policies that united rather than divided the nation.
Tragically, the chief of staff did nothing of the sort. He rubbed salt in the wounds, going on television to claim that “we have a mandate to perform the things that he promised.”
No. The clear majority of Americans rejected Trump and things that he promised on Nov. 8, 2016. The United States did not unite in support of the Republican nominee, it divided in opposition — allowing Trump (and Priebus) to prevail on the margins.
If there was a mandate from the 2016 election, it was to try to find a patch of common ground. Yet Priebus was such a rigid partisan that, even as the wheels started coming off, he kept claiming that nonexistent mandate.
When Democrats and Republicans in Congress were dismissing Trump’s budget plan as a nonstarter, Priebus appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” to announce: “(We) expect a massive increase in military spending. We expect money for border security in this bill. And it ought to be. Because the president won overwhelmingly.”
The president did not win overwhelmingly. But Priebus, who knew the truth as well as anyone in Washington, kept lying to himself, to the president he was supposed to serve, and to the American people.
It did not work.
Trump’s agenda stalled, despite the fact that Republicans control both houses of the U.S. Congress. When Trump hired Priebus, the expectation was that the former chairman of the Republican National Committee would hold Republicans together to achieve what was supposed to be the highest priority of the party: repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act.
That didn’t happen.
The blame for the party’s legislative fits and starts does not rest with Priebus. It rests with Trump. He’s a lousy president.
But Trump never blames himself. So someone had to go. The odd thing is that the president got rid of the guy who did more than anyone else to make him president.
That’s disloyal, to be sure.
But if Reince Priebus wanted loyalty and dutiful leadership, he would not have made the GOP a host for what former White House counsel John Dean refers to as “conservatism without conscience.” He would not have forged a Republican Party that valued victory over duty. And he would not have enthusiastically embraced the candidacy of a charlatan like Donald Trump.
John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. firstname.lastname@example.org and @NicholsUprising
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