“The media narrative you guys are spinning isn’t specific enough—we have exactly one clown in the car,” says a top Republican official, referring to Trump. “So why did it explode?” the official added. “Because we have something in the Republican Party that the Democrats don’t have to deal with: a multibillion-dollar business in TV, political punditry and books and talk radio—we built up a ton of personalities, people that you guys in the media think are off the radar have been quietly gaining power. A whole slew of folks think they can, and should, run the party.”
It’s an important point that came through in nearly all our interviews: 2016 isn’t so much about Trump or Bush as it is about a crisis in the Republican Party, which hasn’t had powerful political leadership since the George W. Bush-Karl Rove machine crashed after dispatching John Kerry in 2004. Even Republican control of both houses of Congress since last year’s midterm elections hasn’t tamed the party’s internal feuding—Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Speaker John Boehner can hardly control their own caucuses never mind impose a code of conduct on unruly presidential hopefuls.
Behind the scenes Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus, a canny operative from Wisconsin, and party elders like his predecessor Haley Barbour have tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to keep the crowded field from turning into a Trump-incited mob. After Trump’s people leaked news of the chairman’s gentle request that the “Apprentice” star play nicer with fellow Republicans, Priebus tried another tack, advising several other campaigns to ignore Trump’s more outrageous statements and to “not engage him” insult-for-insult, according to a Republican operative close to several campaigns.