It has been a long, strange trip for Priebus, who came to Washington as GOP chairman in 2011 on a promise to reform a party in disarray. His story, in a way, is the story of the Republican Party itself: His initial wariness of Trump gave way to capitulation and then enabling. He swallowed his private qualms for the sake of the team, until his turn to be the victim of Trump’s pageant of dominance finally came—publicly disgraced, dismissed in a tweet.
“I see him as kind of a tragic figure,” said Charlie Sykes, a former conservative radio host in Milwaukee who has known Priebus for many years. “What began as a matter of duty on his part—the decision to go all-in on Trump—ended with this scorchingly obscene humiliation.”
Sykes’s pity for his friend was limited, however. “It’s sad, but it’s the result of choices he made,” said Sykes, a Never Trumper who is now an MSNBC commentator. “It’s not like he wasn’t warned.”
Ironically, Priebus’s own career in national politics began with an act of disloyalty. In 2011, he won the RNC chair by running against his own boss, then-chairman Michael Steele. Despite big wins in the 2010 midterm elections, party activists had become dissatisfied with what they viewed as Steele’s mismanagement and penchant for gaffes. Steele knew he would have challengers when he sought another term as chairman—but he didn’t expect a challenge from Priebus, his general counsel, whom he considered a teammate.
“This is the bed Reince has been making for himself since he was my general counsel,” Steele told me. “He’s a guy who’s always positioning himself for the next thing. Karma’s a bitch, ain’t it?”
Priebus’s bid for RNC chairman was premised on the idea that he could do for the party nationally what he’d done as state party chairman in Wisconsin, where he had been on the vanguard of a resurgent conservative movement. As a lawyer and party activist, he’d watched his friend Scott Walker become governor and another friend, Paul Ryan, get anointed a rising Republican star.
They called themselves the “Cheesehead Mafia.” In Washington, Ryan was the star policy wonk, one of the “young guns” remaking the party as a slick vehicle for extreme fiscal conservatism. In Madison, Walker pushed through a sudden, shocking assault on public-sector unions—then survived the left’s attempt to remove him in a hard-fought recall.
“We are not in competition with the conservative movement, we are part of the conservative movement,” Priebus said at the time. The national party, he promised, could broaden its ranks without compromising its principles—and win—just like Republicans had done in Wisconisn.
Republicans wanted more than anything to take down President Obama, and Priebus pitched himself as the man for the job. But in 2012, his first big test, the party fell short. Somehow, nobody blamed Priebus, even though one of the Romney campaign’s decisive shortcomings—an inability to compete with the Obama campaign in field organizing—had been the job of Priebus’s RNC. Priebus was a good fundraiser and party manager; most of all, he kept his constituents—the committee members across the country who elect the national chairman—happy.