If you want to understand the havoc Donald Trump is wreaking in the GOP, just consider the pain he has inflicted on three Republican stalwarts from Wisconsin: Scott Walker, Paul Ryan and Reince Priebus.
Not long ago, this trio was hailed as the vanguard of an emboldened national party that clobbered Democrats in midterm elections and redefined how far conservatives could go in blue and purple states.
But today that party is having a manic, Trump-fueled identity crisis, and all three have been ensnared in the struggle.
Walker was the star governor and presidential prospect derailed by Trump.
Priebus is the party chairman whose big plans for Republican outreach, especially to Hispanics, have been trampled on by Trump.
And Ryan is the House speaker whose goal of crafting a post-Obama governing blueprint for his party’s next nominee may be foiled or ignored by Trump.
Walker, Priebus and Ryan represent a recent brand of Republicanism that’s in some ways the inverse of Trump-ism: upbeat and approachable in style (where Trump is crude and intimidating); and deeply conservative in ideology (where Trump is neither ideological nor all that conservative).
In Wisconsin, they symbolized an especially effective marriage of tea party and establishment. It’s a level of party unity Walker thought he could offer as presidential candidate, and that Ryan’s speakership was meant to salvage or restore in Congress.
But Trump has exposed and widened the gap between the party’s leaders and its voters and tested whether GOP elites have any answers for the political rage and economic frustration of their working-class base.
“There was a problem that none of them either contemplated or if they did contemplate, didn’t appreciate how deep it was,” longtime conservative insider David Keene says of party leaders. “And that was the growing anger out there.”
Walker, Ryan and Priebus all illustrate the struggle of leading Republicans and conservatives to cope with that anger and the candidate it fueled.
Take Walker, who was overshadowed and overtaken by Trump. When he withdrew, he called on his former rivals to unite against Trump. It never happened. When the governor kicked off a huge conservative gathering outside Washington, D.C., last week — as open warfare in the party erupted over Trump — he stayed out of the fray, never mentioning Trump’s name.
Take Ryan, who has twice broken his self-imposed silence on the GOP race to scold Trump. Officially neutral, Ryan is emerging as a kind of symbolic (if reluctant) Republican counterweight to Trump. In an improbable but not unthinkable scenario, he could be someone delegates turn to if no candidate can win a majority at the GOP convention.
Take Priebus. He and Ryan will take turns chairing the convention at which their party will crown Trump or spurn him, possibly tearing itself apart in the process.
Keene, a Wisconsinite who has led both the American Conservative Union and the National Rifle Association, says Trump poses at least two problems for leading Republicans like Walker, Ryan and Priebus.
“One, if (Trump) were to succeed, he wouldn’t give a good damn about any of them or their party. That’s concern number one,” says Keene. “Concern number two is all of these guys came up in many ways together and they are all center-right politicians with a fairly cohesive view of what government and the party should be. And they have to go to bed at night thinking if Donald Trump were to win the presidency, would he do any of the things they think a Republican president should do?”
As a former campaign staffer put it, Walker was the “canary in the coal mine” this cycle, his rapid demise an early warning about the shifting political ground and the power of the Trump phenomenon.
Walker’s mild-mannered demeanor proved entirely out of step with grass roots anger and impatience. His profile as a career politician undermined his appeal as a Washington outsider.
And two attributes he and others thought would buoy his candidacy turned out to be worth very little. One was a seemingly broad acceptability to different factions of the party, which was no match for the intensity of Trump’s support. The other was Walker’s “full-spectrum” conservatism, the fact that there was hardly any issue on which he departed from right-wing orthodoxy.
It turned out that ideological purity is not what GOP voters prized, with many of them struggling in the aftermath of a devastating recession.
“I think what we’ve seen here is the rise of Republican populism at the expense of ideology,” says GOP pollster Gene Ulm. “We saw it a little bit in 2010. We mistook it for ideology. We saw it again in ’14. That’s the new era. Look at Trump’s voters: lower middle class, struggling, non-pay raise voters, just as disgruntled with Wall Street as the Democrats are … angry with the Republican establishment as much as anything else.”
It’s not just Walker who has been “Trumped.” It’s striking how closely linked Priebus and Ryan now are to Trump’s political fate.
When Priebus made it his goal early on to forestall a third-party bid by Trump, it’s hard to imagine he expected Trump to come this close to the nomination. The chairman has succeeded in keeping a certain level of peace so far with the front-runner.
“We don’t take sides (in this race), regardless of what you may think or read,” Priebus said.
In the final year of the longest tenure in RNC history, Priebus could see his party suffer in dramatic ways from the Trump phenomenon.
One is by waging a civil war over Trump, ensuring one side of that fight will walk away in disgust and leaving the party’s future under a massive cloud. Two is if a Trump nomination leads the party to a crushing defeat in November, dragging down GOP candidates for other offices. Three is whatever long-term damage Trump does to the party’s demographic imperative to expand its support among nonwhite voters, especially Latinos — an explicit goal of the 2012 post-mortem commissioned by Priebus.
But Ryan’s case may be the most illuminating. He has criticized Trump for proposing to ban the entry of Muslims into the U.S. and for doing too little to disavow support from white supremacists. Trump sent a shot across Ryan’s bow when he said last week that if the two don’t get along, the speaker “is going to have to pay a big price.” Ryan said that made him laugh out loud.
He and Trump have some glaring policy differences, including immigration, trade and entitlements. Ryan is an institutionalist and his party’s most powerful Washington politician. He views himself as a “happy warrior” who preaches tolerance and inclusion. He’s an ardent member of the conservative movement. He is in some respects the party’s “anti-Trump.”
After this year, Ryan could end up as the chief congressional partner — or foil — to a President Trump (if you assume Trump is electable). He could find himself on the wrong side of an angry GOP base. Or he could find himself left to lead a party that is in tatters or in seismic transformation.