Sitting inside the Hyatt Regency hotel in Washington, D.C., Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee and top emissary of GOP officialdom, was made to answer for Donald Trump.
“He’s trying. Honestly, he is trying,” Priebus said, staring awkwardly at the floor with a pained expression on his face as Politico’s Mike Allen asked what he thought of a tweet sent out into the ether by the presidential candidate on Thursday in honor of Cinco de Mayo. It pictured Trump eating a taco bowl and giving a thumbs up. The caption read: “I love Hispanics!”
The assessment betrayed an awareness that Trump, who boasts sky-high unfavorable poll numbers, has an incredible capacity for polarizing voters. At the same time, it conveyed a hard truth: What other choice does the Republican Party have, but to grin, or grimace as the case may be, and bear it? Welcome to the GOP in the age of Trump as official standard-bearer.
When asked to comment on House Speaker Paul Ryan’s startling pronouncement less than 24 hours earlier that he is not yet ready to support Trump—a declaration The New York Times said signaled “a split among Republicans not seen in at least a half century”—Priebus said, with an air of resignation, “It’s going to take some time, in some cases, for people to work through differences.”
Let the healing begin. Now that Trump is the presumptive GOP nominee, it’s time for unity. At least that’s the message that some high-profile Republicans, like Priebus, seem eager to deliver. Of course, not everyone seems to have gotten the memo. There are the Republicans who tore up their voter ID after Ted Cruz exited the 2016 race, making it that much more likely that Trump would secure the nomination. Then there are the Republicans who say they would rather vote for Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton. But, if unity is the goal, it won’t do to dwell on discord. The challenge, for members of the Republican establishment who publicly embrace Trump, is to convince everyone else that everything is going to be just fine—that the state of the Republican Party is strong.
The difficulty of making that sell was apparent as Priebus alternated between optimistic and somber predictions of the party’s political prospects on Friday. “We’re prepared to keep the Senate, keep the House, and win the White House,” the GOP chairman told Allen early on in the conversation. Later, he conceded that winning the White House won’t be easy. “The truth is our party’s a great midterm party, but we’ve had a real hard time winning presidential elections,” he said, adding: “It’s a difficult task, but I think we’re up to it.”
To do so, the GOP chairman indicated that Trump will need to make changes. “There’s work to do. I think there’s work on tone to do,” Priebus said when asked by Allen if “Hispanics think that Donald Trump likes them.” This is after all a candidate who famously declared that Mexican immigrants are “rapists, and some, I assume, are good people.” Polling, meanwhile, indicates that Trump is extremely unpopular among Hispanics. Yet Priebus seemed frustrated by the question, perhaps because, in varying ways, it has been asked so many times already, and will undoubtedly continue to arise. “I’ve been clear about that, I’ve said that many times, this is not like breaking news,” he said, before attempting to end on a forward-looking optimistic note. “I think you’re going to see it. I think you’re going to see the change in tone,” he predicted.
At the same time, Priebus appeared to relish the fact that the very qualities that have made Trump so controversial—his blunt criticisms and willingness to brutally attack—could make him a formidable general election opponent. That is, at least in so far as he likely will not consider much, if anything, off limits. “Sometimes in our party, we get criticized because we don’t hit hard enough,” Priebus said, adding ominously: “I don’t think that Donald Trump’s going to have a hard time bringing out some of the things that are going to be very not good for Hillary Clinton.”
It’s reasonable to conclude that Trump may be the most vicious general election candidate the GOP has to offer. In the primary election, Trump’s ability to negatively define, and subsequently dispatch, opponents proved legendary. No doubt there are many Republicans who can’t wait to see that ire turn toward Clinton. But general elections are very different from primary contests. Trump can try to pivot. He can attempt to rehabilitate his image with various segments of the voting population that he has variously offended. But he is already on record saying things that are sure to haunt his campaign as the presidential race moves into its next phase. The Republican establishment may be hopeful that Trump will direct his preternatural ability to attack at Clinton in such a way that will unite conservatives and hurt her credibility with voters. But, as always, be careful what you wish for.