How to Get Trump Elected When He’s Wrecking Everything You Built

A day in the life of Reince Priebus, reluctant GOP peacemaker.

When Donald Trump wrapped up the Republican presidential nomination on May 3 by winning Indiana and forcing Ted Cruz from the race, it fell to Reince Priebus to formally surrender on behalf of a shellshocked party Establishment. This being 2016 and the Age of Trump, Priebus, the long-serving chairman of the Republican National Committee, did so in a tweet: “@realDonaldTrump will be presumtive [sic] @GOP nominee, we all need to unite and focus on defeating @HillaryClinton #NeverClinton.” Depending on your point of view, the misspelling was either an homage to Trump’s haphazard Twitter style or the latest example of a Republican Party that can’t seem to get anything right.

Featured in Bloomberg Businessweek, May 30-June 5, 2016. Subscribe now.
Photographer: Brian Finke for Bloomberg Businessweek

Three days later, Priebus climbed onto a stage in a hotel ballroom on Capitol Hill to sit for a public interview with Politico’s Mike Allen. “This is off the record, right?” he joked, looking a bit nauseous. To Republicans still not resigned to Trump, Priebus was already a symbol of capitulation. John Kasich had just dropped out and criticized Priebus’s anointment of Trump as “completely inappropriate.” Trump, on the other hand, who had once threatened party leaders when it looked as if they might block him at a “rigged” convention, now cast himself as the magnanimous liege, bestowing forgiveness and nicknames. “I call Reince Mr. Switzerland,” he told me during a May 17 interview at his 26th-floor Trump Tower office. “He’s doing a great job as peacemaker.”

In the weeks before Trump prevailed, the political media made a sport of trying to get Priebus to concede that his party was falling to pieces, while Priebus insisted against all evidence that things were going great. Commentators on both the left and right likened him to “Baghdad Bob,” the Saddam Hussein spokesman who maintained during the U.S. invasion of Iraq that victory was imminent, even as U.S. bombs rained down around him. An April 20 interview on CNN perfectly captured Priebus’s anguish. “People assume, oh, you must be miserable. You’ve got a horrible job. But I don’t see it that way,” he offered. “I’m not pouring Baileys in my cereal.” His disavowal mainly suggested that he had contemplated pouring liquor into his cereal bowl. When he sat down onstage, Allen, noting Trump’s victory, presented him with a large bottle of Baileys. “Oh, excellent,” said Priebus. “Now, where’s the Lucky Charms?”

Priebus’s mission at the RNC has been to manufacture some luck: to rebuild a party that lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections and lost power completely with Barack Obama’s 2008 victory. While Republicans traded recriminations after Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, Priebus announced that the RNC would conduct a rigorous postmortem of all that had gone wrong and figure out how to refashion the party for the 21st century. “It wasn’t the RNC’s fault that things didn’t work out in 2012,” says Sally Bradshaw, a senior Jeb Bush adviser and a co-author of the resulting report. “But Priebus was willing to say, ‘There’s no other entity that can do this, that can take this on.’ ” The key to revival, the authors concluded, was to put a kinder, gentler gloss on the old stalwart Republican ideals (free trade, small government) while reforming immigration laws to entice nonwhite voters who were tuning the party out.

This was a comforting notion, but it hasn’t panned out. “The Jeb Bush guys wrote the autopsy,” says a frustrated Republican strategist who works with the RNC. “Then Jeb Bush ran the worst campaign in presidential history.” By obliterating Jeb, Trump redefined the Republican Party’s identity off the top of his head. And his vision of the GOP’s future is in many ways the diametrical opposite of what Priebus and the party Establishment had imagined. Many politicians, Trump told me, had privately confessed to being amazed that his policies, and his lacerating criticism of party leaders, had proved such potent electoral medicine. Trump says this was obvious, but craven Republicans wouldn’t acknowledge it. So he called bulls---. “It’s funny,” he told me, delighted by the swift triumph of his influence. “It’s like the paper clip: a very simple thing. But one guy got rich, and everyone else said, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ ”

“Reince is not the general. He’s stuck in the job of being the supply clerk to a losing presidential army”

The story Priebus would like to tell, if everyone would just shut up about Trump for a moment, is a tale of perseverance and triumph over long odds—not Trump’s tale, but his own. “The changes we’ve made are historic,” he told me, in an interview at the RNC’s Washington headquarters later in May. We were sitting in the Ronald Reagan Conference Room, which lies within the Dwight D. Eisenhower National Republican Center. Portraits of GOP luminaries line the walls and corridors. Priebus was laboring to convince me that Trump will soon join them. “I think he’s gonna win,” he kept saying. But he was getting angry. When I suggested Trump’s hostile takeover was ruining his push to modernize the party, Priebus snapped that I didn’t know what I was talking about. A moment later, he apologized: “I hardly ever get testy.” He insisted his efforts weren’t about to be wiped out by Trump—and might just save his nominee.

When Priebus took over the RNC in 2011, the job came freighted with problems: The committee was $24 million in debt. Major donors were fleeing. A top official had just been fired over a fundraiser at a bondage-themed strip club in Los Angeles. Priebus was no obvious savior for a party in crisis. At 44, he’s short, with soft features, thinning hair, and a gentle, guileless manner augmented by his Wisconsin accent—someone born to deliver prefatory remarks at Rotary luncheons.

Reince (rhymes with “pints”) Priebus was born in New Jersey, but he moved to Kenosha at age 7. By the time he was a teenager, he was an ardent Republican driving around listening to tapes of Newt Gingrich speeches. After law school, he made a failed run for the state Senate, but thrived at the insider’s game of party politics. In 2007 he became the youngest-ever chairman of the Wisconsin Republican Party, and part of a triumvirate with Paul Ryan and Scott Walker that led the GOP takeover of Wisconsin in 2010.

This brought national attention, and for Priebus, a job in Washington as RNC general counsel—under a chairman he would soon be angling to replace. Michael Steele, the flashy, telegenic, African American former Maryland lieutenant governor, had been elected after Obama’s victory. But Steele had quickly fallen out of favor for his spendthrift ways. Priebus is as flashy as a basset hound.

To the 168 members of the RNC, he represented sober yeoman competence and a chance to climb out of debt. Priebus, whose affect shrouds his ambitions, saw opportunity in a job most would consider thankless. “When I got elected chairman,” says Haley Barbour, who took over the RNC after George H.W. Bush’s blowout 1992 loss, “people would say, ‘Well, Haley, I’ll vote for you, but I don’t know why you’d want it.’ I’d tell ’em, ‘I can’t think of a better time to be chairman—there’s nowhere to go but up.’ ”

Today, Priebus is the longest-serving chairman in party history, the debt is gone, and the wealthy insiders and functionaries who comprise and donate to the committee offer glowing appraisals. “Terrific,” says Mel Sembler, the former RNC finance chairman. “An unbelievable job,” says Randy Evans, a Georgia committeeman. “He disarms you with this ‘Aw, shucks, I’m from Kenosha’ routine,” says Lewis Eisenberg, the current RNC finance chairman and a former senior adviser at KKR. “But he’s very politically astute. He’s the best fundraising chairman I’ve ever seen.”

Priebus won added plaudits from the donor class for the autopsy, which was officially titled the Growth & Opportunity Project and released in March 2013. While lauding the GOP’s strength in Congress and statehouses, it warned that the angry, strident tone many Republicans directed toward Hispanics and other minorities threatened the party’s viability: “If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e., self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence.” The report continued: “We must embrace and champion comprehensive immigration reform. If we do not, our Party’s appeal will continue to shrink to its core constituencies only.”

To Priebus, the lesson was clear. The party had to focus “on tone, inclusiveness, and engaging in [minority] communities on a full-time basis,” he told me. “You’d think, ‘Wouldn’t any competent party do that?’ Yes. But we weren’t competent.”

While press coverage focused almost exclusively on the call for immigration reform, the report mostly proposed a blizzard of technical fixes: shorten the primary calendar; move up the convention; invest in data analytics to catch up to the Democrats; control debates to shield candidates from what Republicans believed was hostile questioning by liberal moderators trying to embarrass presidential hopefuls. While the report was unblinking about the need to win more support from women, minorities, and young people, it betrayed no hint that Republican policies beyond immigration reform might need adjusting to attract them. Emphasis fell instead on such things as hiring a more ethnically diverse staff (“The RNC must hire [Asian Pacific Islander] communications directors and political directors for key states”) and injecting a dash of Hollywood glamour to impress fickle millennials (“Establish an RNC Celebrity Task Force of personalities in the entertainment industry … to attract younger voters”).

In bypassing a major course correction, the party fell into an old pattern that typically follows presidential losses. “Defeated parties almost always behave according to the dictates of their own party cultures rather than engage in a more objective analysis of how they should respond,” says Philip Klinkner, a Hamilton College political scientist and expert on party committees. Nearly every chairman attempts to make changes, and some succeed. After Adlai Stevenson’s 1956 defeat, the Democratic National Committee became a vigorous counterweight to conservative Democrats in Congress, pushing a civil rights agenda that culminated in John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. More often, parties avoid true introspection. “Republicans in particular,” says Klinkner, “focus on organizational and managerial changes and don’t talk about politics.”

Why not? Well, for one thing, politics is divisive. “Nobody wants to talk content, because that’s hard and you get yelled at on the radio by Rush Limbaugh,” says Mike Murphy, the veteran Republican strategist who ran Jeb Bush’s super PAC, Right to Rise. “So instead they talk process: ‘The RNC is building a new, lithium-cooled supercomputer in the basement, and we’re going to have better microtargeting and organize everybody in America on their cell phone with go-get-’em apps.’ ”

“I guess I’m a bit of a riverboat gambler”

Even so, conservatives railed against the Growth & Opportunity Project, pointing out its major policy recommendation—immigration reform—was something the GOP Establishment has sought for years, over intense grass-roots opposition. “It was shocking,” says Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the first senator to endorse Trump, “a kick in the teeth of decent Republicans.” Gingrich, who’s known Priebus for years and serves him as a strategic adviser, told me he thinks the recommendation was a grave error that might have sparked the anti-Establishment backlash that led to Trump. Says one Washington-based strategist: “After Romney’s loss, every major donor was just distraught and ready to bail, convinced we could never win a national election. So the autopsy was absolutely necessary from a donor maintenance standpoint. But it was public relations, nothing more. Reince never had the power to implement it.”

Early on, this wasn’t clear. The tweaks to the calendar and debates went through (although they may have helped Trump). In Washington, a consensus formed that fixing immigration was the key to the party’s revival. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, eyeing the 2016 presidential race, took up the issue in earnest. Priebus’s effort appeared to be working. “He had a convincing story of how the Republican Party could win,” says Eisenberg. “That’s what it’s all about, to win a donor’s heart.”

Immigration reform died in the House. But when Republicans won the Senate in 2014, Priebus still looked like a success. He considered stepping away. “I told him, ‘Listen, you’ve had four unbelievable years,’ ” says Georgia’s Evans. “ ‘If you stop now, you’re gonna be regarded as one of the most successful party chairmen in history. If you run [for another term], you’re going to be judged by one presidential election.’ He said, ‘You’re right.’ But he really thought we had in place all the pieces to dominate the election cycle.”

In the end, Priebus stayed. “I guess I’m a bit of a riverboat gambler,” he told me. The potential rewards were too great to pass up—for the party, but also for him. After falling out of power in 2009, the GOP won back the House, then the Senate, and needed only the White House to complete its takeover of Washington. A chairman who presided over such a feat—knocking off Hillary Clinton in the process—would become a legend.

But then came Trump, a walking exaggeration of every negative attribute the autopsy had warned against. Priebus won the Establishment’s heart—but it turned out voters loved Trump. As chairman, Priebus had a choice: resign or get behind the nominee. He chose the latter, even though it entailed addressing every outrageous comment from Trump.

Although Priebus insists, as he must, that Trump will prevail, the prospect of the chairman leading an historic Republican restoration is in serious jeopardy. “Reince is not the general,” says Murphy, the Republican strategist. “He’s stuck in the job of being the supply clerk to a losing presidential army.” To many committee members, Priebus’s sudden turn of fortune is simply bad luck. “Here you are, fine-tuning the system to deliver a victory, when the system became the enemy,” says Evans. “If the Republicans win in November, Reince will go down as one of the greatest chairmen we have ever had. If we lose, he’ll have succeeded by every metric but that one.” He paused. “Of course, that’s like saying, ‘Except for that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?’ ”

Photographer: Brian Finke for Bloomberg Businessweek

“If I didn’t come along, the Republican Party had zero chance of winning the presidency,” Trump told me, sitting beside a scale model Trump airplane in his Trump Tower office.

He was explaining his own Growth & Opportunity plan. Its primary component is, of course, Trump. But there’s more to it. Just as he showed an instinct for devastating personal invective (“Lyin’ Ted”), he also seemed to intuit that standard Republican dogma no longer appeals to large swaths of the party electorate. Although it was overshadowed by his feuds and insults, he conveyed and defended a clear set of ideas that drew record numbers of Republican primary voters, even though—or more likely because—they often cut against right-wing orthodoxy: protect Social Security benefits, defend Planned Parenthood, restrict free trade, avoid foolish Middle East wars, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, build a wall. Trump believes the scale of his victory proves the strength of his proposals. “All these millions and millions of people,” he marveled, echoing Bernie Sanders. “It’s a movement.”

To his allies, Trump’s movement signifies a decisive shift in the GOP’s identity toward his brand of nativist populism. “We had an argument in the party,” Sessions told me. “The elites wrote the autopsy. Their theory was tested in the primary election. Trump proved they were wrong.”

I asked Trump what he thought the GOP would look like in five years. “Love the question,” he replied. “Five, 10 years from now—different party. You’re going to have a worker’s party. A party of people that haven’t had a real wage increase in 18 years, that are angry. What I want to do, I think cutting Social Security is a big mistake for the Republican Party. And I know it’s a big part of the budget. Cutting it the wrong way is a big mistake, and even cutting it [at all].” He explained the genesis of his heterodox views. “I’m not sure I got there through deep analysis,” he said. “My views are what everybody else’s views are. When I give speeches, sometimes I’ll sign autographs and I’ll get to talk to people and learn a lot about the party.” He says he learned that voters were disgusted with Republican leaders and channeled their outrage. I asked, given how immigration drove his initial surge of popularity, whether he, like Sessions, had considered the RNC’s call for immigration reform to be a kick in the teeth. To my surprise, he candidly admitted that he hadn’t known about it or even followed the issue until recently. “When I made my [announcement] speech at Trump Tower, the June 16 speech,” he said, “I didn’t know about the Gang of Eight. … I just knew instinctively that our borders are a mess.”

Trump casts his break with party orthodoxy as being a matter of common sense dictated by electoral math. “I think Republicans lose because they have a harder highway in the [battleground] states,” he explained. The standard conservative message holds such limited appeal that it forces Republican nominees onto a dangerously narrow path. “If you look at the states,” Trump said, “the Democrats have a lot of cushion; the Republicans have no cushion.”

Trump Republicanism, on the other hand, in his estimation, holds broader appeal, despite the clucking of lily-livered Establishment types. “You notice my poll numbers today are starting to get much better?” he said. “I’m above Mitt Romney with the Hispanics. He was at 27 [percent in the 2012 election]. I’m 29 in the NBC poll this morning. A radio announcer, a Hispanic from New York, said, ‘I don’t know about these polls, because every listener that I have’—they call in Spanish—‘they’re all for Trump.’ ”

Trump believes his hidden appeal (most pollsters haven’t yet detected it) will make him a kind of Super Republican, endowed with the power to win states ordinary Republicans haven’t carried in decades. “I think I’m going to do great in the state of Washington,” he said. “Ted Cruz wouldn’t even try. People say, ‘You’re wrong about this,’ but I think Oregon … New Mexico … Florida, that’s my second home, right? I think I’m going to do well in the three states they always talk about: Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio. I think I’m going to do really well in Connecticut. That’s not a state that any Republican, other than me, will go to. And I may—I think perhaps this one’s a stretch, but I may do well in California. It could be tough. But it could very well be a big surprise.”

Stamping the Trump brand on the party, he seemed to believe, would have a transformative effect, as it does on all Trump acquisitions. “It’s going to make the Republican Party strong again,” he said. Finding himself in an expansive mood, Trump announced he was extending our interview. “I find this very interesting,” he said, and bellowed toward his open office door, “Bring a Coke and a water, please!”

Trump with Priebus.
Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Most Republican officials have grudgingly accepted that Trump will be their nominee. But they haven’t accepted his policies. They don’t want him to change the party. He’s the subject of a steady stream of articles that describe how Republicans are working to “shape” and “guide” his views—meaning block his ideas. On May 9, Priebus took the unusual liberty of dictating terms to Trump by telling a conservative radio host that Trump wouldn’t touch the platform, and furthermore ought to “tell people that you don’t want to rewrite—you like, you appreciate, and agree with the platform the way it is.”

I told Trump I couldn’t recall seeing a nominee so openly condescended to by his party chairman and asked if it bothered him. He thought about it for a moment. He seemed torn between wanting to curb-stomp someone over this act of impertinence and sensing that restraint was the wiser course. Finally he said, “I agree with you.” But, he added, it doesn’t matter. “I’ve never seen anybody vote for a platform. I’m less concerned about that than I am about my own views.” Trump pushed a button and asked his social media manager, Dan Scavino Jr., to bring up some charts. A moment later, Scavino hustled in and handed him a folder, from which he drew, from beneath printouts of the Drudge Report, a bright-red map of the U.S. showing how he dominates Google search ratings in all 50 states. His point was that he has the power to convey any message he likes: “I have the loudspeaker.”

Could this really compensate for the $1 billion to $2 billion a general campaign would cost? Priebus moved up the Republican convention so the nominee would have time to raise such a sum. Trump made a sour expression. “I don’t understand as a businessperson how it’s possible to spend all of this money,” he said. “We’ve got four months left, essentially.” He continued: “I’m raising money for the party, and I’ll do well. But the whole system is crazy. To spend $2 billion or $1 billion, I was saying to my people the other day, I said, ‘Explain it to me. I just won against 17 people, all governors and senators who are very successful people. I just won, and I spent $45 million. That was over a period of a year.’ ” Did he really think he would raise $1 billion? “No,” he replied. “I’d say over $500 million. I just don’t know why you need that much money.”

Although he’s taken steps to professionalize his operation, Trump gives no credence to the experts’ view that he’ll need this money to go up against a flush Clinton campaign. “They’ve been wrong so much,” he said. “Nate Silver, I watched him. It destroyed his career. He was this big guru that never missed a call. He wasn’t even close. And he actually did say a few months ago, Trump is a whole phenomenon that’s a hard thing to figure. He sort of gave up.”

At last, Trump acknowledged a young female aide hovering anxiously in the doorway to ferry him to his next meeting. He stood up and extended his hand. “Frankly,” he said, “if they didn’t have a convention and said, ‘Congratulations, Mr. Trump, you’re our nominee, go ahead and run,’ I’d be very happy.”

On July 18, Priebus will swing a gavel and open the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Soon after, tens of millions of Americans will tune in to greet the new face of the GOP: Trump. By then, most Republican officials will have fallen in line. But it’s a moment many privately dread. The GOP is slowly being strangled by demographic trends, as women, minorities, and young people—all Democratic-leaning groups—become an ever larger part of the American electorate. By most measures, Trump is a wrecking ball to the party’s dream of modernization.

Still, it’s Priebus’s job to get Trump elected. He scored a coup by persuading Eisenberg, a pillar of the GOP financial world, to lead a joint fundraising effort between Trump and the RNC. “As Trump became the presumptive nominee,” Eisenberg says, “Reince put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘We can be partners and make this work.’ ”

But the pressure to preserve all that he’s built—and his own dignity—is a heavy burden. Priebus has “had a tough, tough hand to play,” says Barbour, the former chairman. Even as Trump takes over, Priebus is trying to enforce a distinction between “Trump” and “Republican Party” that might preserve the inroads he believes he’s made in minority communities.

I was skeptical. And as I pushed Priebus to defend his rosy view of the GOP’s racial appeal, his Midwestern nice vanished. I had gone back and watched tapes of how he handled his first public controversy, which happened to involve Donald Trump. In 2011, when Trump was still in the embryonic stage of learning how to roil the national political debate, he began insisting Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. Priebus, as the new chairman, had to field awkward questions about Trump’s “birther” antics, and while he made clear his own view that Obama was born in Hawaii, he never denounced Trump and Trump never recanted. How, I asked, could his plan to moderate his party’s image possibly withstand a nominee who’s a birther and has labeled Hispanics “rapists” and “drug dealers”?

Priebus reddened and replied, with Freudian clarity, “What the RNC doesn’t do, we’re not able to muzzle people and put a sock in people’s mouth and take duct tape out and tell people what they can say and can’t say. Nor is it fair to then criticize the national committee for something that some person says somewhere around the country.” He added, “I can’t be judged based on things I don’t control.”

My question wasn’t about control, I replied, but how even a well-meaning outreach plan could survive a nominee whose message undermines it.

“I think he recognized that the tone has to be presidential. I think he gets that,” Priebus said. He insisted nonwhite voters would support Trump in greater numbers than they had Romney. “We’ve been communicating with them for two years. You’re going to have a different outcome.”

“I don’t understand why you’d assume a different outcome,” I said.

“How are you so sure that we wouldn’t?” he replied.

“Because I look at poll numbers.”

“What do you know about—you know something about voter data and outcomes and messaging and microtargeting? I mean, what kind of expert are you?”

“I know that the public face of the party saying these things has driven his own negatives up astronomically high.”

“I’m not so sure about that. Did you see the poll yesterday that he actually had better numbers with black and Hispanic voters than Mitt Romney?”

“I did.”

“What did you think of it?”

“I was surprised.”

“OK, well, then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

At this, Priebus’s deputy jumped in to announce that we were going off the record.

When he had calmed down, Priebus got back on message. “My prediction is we’re going to get a higher percentage of the Hispanic and black vote than we have gotten since 2004,” he said. “And we’re going to do it because we’ve done a better job at the RNC, and we’re also going to have a nominee who is going to pivot in tone and tenor. He understands that.”

Trump coming out of his May 12 meeting with Paul Ryan on Capitol Hill.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

On May 12, Priebus officiated a shotgun wedding between Trump and the conservative movement, represented by House Speaker Paul Ryan, who had pointedly declined to endorse Trump. By 9 a.m., the scene outside RNC headquarters was charged and surreal. TV camera crews swarmed the surrounding blocks. A protester in a giant papier mâché Trump head screamed racist invective through a bullhorn. A man in full Scottish regalia blew on a bagpipe. Immigration activists marched to the front door and tried to deliver to Priebus a cardboard coffin with the slogan, “GOP: RIP.” Up above, RNC staffers peeked through the blinds like Old West townspeople anticipating a gunfight.

Trump loved it. “One of the congressmen said he had never seen so much press at a [Capitol Hill] event in 20 years,” he told me.

The meeting was supposed to be a variation on the old Washington ritual whereby the nominee and runner-up “come together” to unify the party before the general election. Only Ryan, whose values and ideology Trump soundly defeated, wasn’t conceding. He had made a big drama about how Trump had to demonstrate fealty to the conservative cause, and evidently he thought that this would happen. (Ryan declined to be interviewed.)

It didn’t. According to a source in the room, Trump criticized Ryan’s proposed entitlement cuts as unfair and politically foolish. “From a moral standpoint, I believe in it,” Trump told Ryan. “But you also have to get elected. And there’s no way a Republican is going to beat a Democrat when the Republican is saying, ‘We’re going to cut your Social Security’ and the Democrat is saying, ‘We’re going to keep it and give you more.’ ” Afterward, both sides offered platitudes, but Ryan didn’t endorse.

Lately, Trump has softened his tone and hinted that his more extreme pronouncements are just bargaining positions. To placate skeptics such as Ryan, he put out a list of conservative jurists representative of the type he’d nominate to the Supreme Court. But he’ll go only so far. “The party,” says Gingrich, “will have to ultimately figure out how does it work with Trump, because he will be the fact. Not us. Trump. He is going to drive the system.”

The question everyone wonders is, what effect will this have on the party? If Trump wins, he’ll have even less incentive to toe the party line. If he loses, conservatives will spin it as a decisive verdict on all that he says and stands for. They’ll cast his nomination as an embarrassing dalliance by Republican voters who, chastened, will return to the fold. Everything will be as it was before.

But presidential elections always produce new ideas. Trump will change the Republican Party, win or lose. He chose to define himself against conservative legacy, and voters responded. Other politicians will see his success and mimic him. As he says, it’s simple—like a paper clip.

A Republican Party that can’t stop Trump’s nomination may be no better able to resist his influence. If you’re Priebus, that’s a grim thought, because you’ve devoted five years, hundreds of millions of dollars, and every ounce of your energy to pushing your party in the other direction.

Back at RNC headquarters, Priebus rattled off the long list of improvements he’s made once more. “My point is, given all that,” he told me, “we’ve done everything we can.”

(Corrects Lewis Eisenberg's title in the 11th paragraph.)