Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party, beat its establishment to a pulp, then rode its creaky remnants all the way to the White House. From the very first debate in August 2015 — where because of his standing atop the polls he was placed front and center on the stage among the 10 highest-polling GOP hopefuls — Trump screeched and blathered his way into the hearts of his base, tossing off incoherent policy proposals and deploying witless vulgarity on moderators and opponents.
Surely this couldn't last, went the conventional wisdom. Surely Trump will go too far with some sexist or racist or xenophobic tweet. Surely the Republican establishment, the #NeverTrumpers, would revolt and coalesce around a suitable alternative. Those were simpler times. Now, with the dismissal of Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — particularly at the tail end of a uniquely humiliating week for both the administration and the Republican Party — the GOP establishment has left the White House entirely.
Trump dominated the most recent Republican presidential primary from wire to wire, nearly a full calendar year. Building a base more focused on collective resentment of immigrants and a loathing of "the elites" rather than any coherent policies, Trump eviscerated well-financed party favorites such as Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. Along the way, he convinced Republican voters that things like free trade and a robust NATO were passé and draining their wallets. In a direct rebuke of party leadership, Trump also doubled down on the party's vitriolic nativism, something the Republican National Committee — in its "autopsy" report following Mitt Romney's defeat in the 2012 presidential election — named as a significant factor responsible for the loss of crucial swing voters.
Priebus was the chairman of the RNC at the time that autopsy was written. It was a rather stunning self-rebuke of the party's lack of understanding for the "need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate we care about them, too," while also calling out Romney himself for his ham-fisted "self-deportation" comment about undocumented immigrants.
A little more than two years after that report, the rise of Trump began in earnest, and the autopsy was as good as dead.
As the official representative of the Republican establishment, Priebus watched the steamrolling Trump train warily. He might have pleaded for some semblance of "dignity" during the debates but Priebus doesn't appear to have ever tried to sabotage Trump's rise, and he dutifully waited until Trump was the mathematical victor before he demanded GOP officeholders pledge to support the party's candidate or lose the GOP's institutional and financial support (and perhaps, even endure a primary challenge) when re-election rolled around. Priebus, the good Republican soldier, threw plenty of punches to enforce that edict.
At the Republican National Convention, Priebus played a key part in squashing the last remnants of Republican Never Trumpism, infuriating Ted Cruz-supporting delegates and senators such as Mike Lee of Utah, who said he didn't appreciate the "groupthink" and demands to "kiss the ring" emanating from party leadership. But Priebus largely got what he wanted — even a lukewarm Trump endorsement via video from Rubio at the convention and a vague Facebook message from Cruz urging his supporters to vote for the GOP nominee. Though he never named Trump in that message, the image of Cruz volunteering at a GOP phone bank in front of Trump/Pence signs a month before the election launched at least a thousand memes.
Trump seemed to appreciate Priebus' efforts in convincing party leaders to fall in line, but following the release of an old Access Hollywood tape of Trump bragging to Billy Bush about sexually groping strangers, Priebus urged Trump to drop out of the race.
Still, when Trump stunned the world with his Electoral College victory, he rewarded Priebus by making him chief of staff. But it's clear that what little trust Trump had in Priebus was broken, and the latter never really stood a chance in the position.
Expecting Priebus to manage someone like Stephen Bannon — who through his former post as chief of Breitbart News painted GOP establishment figures such as Priebus as "globalist cuck RINOs" — would have been challenging enough. But with everyone from Ivanka Trump to Jared Kushner to Stephen Miller to Kellyanne Conway all reporting directly to the president, Priebus had all the authority of a substitute teacher.
Following Priebus' ouster, Politico painted a picture of a besieged White House chief of staff, perpetually flustered by the chaotic nature of his boss, unable to coordinate his place of business:
"He lost his cool when other West Wing staffers knew things that he didn't, and he would call people who had spoken to the president to ask them what Trump had told them. He would run from meeting to meeting trying not to miss anything. He would corner people who criticized him publicly and ask them to stop — but admit the criticisms were close to accurate.
He would rarely leave Trump's side and rush into the Oval Office when he saw others were in the room. "He would literally sprint," one West Wing official said back in the spring.
He also tried to control some of the president's media consumption to little effect." [Politico]
With Priebus out, Republican leadership in Congress no longer has an obvious conduit in the White House. Instead of a well-connected political hand like Priebus, Republican congressional leaders will now have to deal with John Kelly, the retired Marine general and current Homeland Security secretary designated as the new White House chief of staff. Considering Kelly will have his hands full cleaning the rubble out of the West Wing, to say nothing of his already existing Cabinet-level responsibilities, it wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for House Speaker Paul Ryan to have to deal with someone like Anthony Scaramucci — the communications director who seemingly never heard the phrase "off the record" until last Thursday — who already enjoys more influence with the president than Priebus could have ever hoped for.
President Trump might be historically unpopular, but his base still adores him as much as ever, even though after six months in power he hasn't built the wall or repealed ObamaCare or personally locked Hillary Clinton in prison. For the hardcore Trumpist, campaign promises pale in importance to the president's ability to stick it to the establishment, be they "coastal elites," "the media," or the people they see as milquetoast Republican Party hacks — people like Reince Priebus. As long as Trump is sticking it to "the establishment" — even in his own party — his base will stick with him.
Though a Republican remains in the Oval Office, its pretty clear the Republican Party just left the White House.