Last summer, I was talking politics with someone I know fairly well. I asked him who he was supporting for President. When he said Donald Trump, I burst out laughing in his face. I certainly did not mean to do that, but it was a visceral reaction. I thought he was joking and could not fathom anyone seriously supporting that guy. This is someone I generally respect and did not mean to show any disrespect to his views. His answer just really took me by surprise.
Like most people who follow politics, I thought Trump was a joke candidate back then. I figured he wanted some publicity for his reality TV show. He had no serious political experience. He expressed no serious policy plans, he did not even have a serious campaign staff, fundraising strategy, or much of any State organization. Although he had high name recognition, he had extremely high negative ratings. Many election seasons see candidates like this in the early months, well before the primaries start. They get attention for a few weeks based mostly on outrageous statements or an interesting life story, but then the press and voters move on to more serious candidates. Almost everyone, including myself, thought Trump would fall into this category.
Based on this pattern, most candidates followed the antics for months, waiting for the moment when his campaign imploded. No candidate wanted to engage with Trump as the level of argument would simply make both of them look unpresidential. Voters would then move to some third candidate. As a result, Trump did not go away.
Now, after winning three of the four early contests and dominating Super Tuesday, Trump has proven that he can turn his poll numbers into electoral wins. Few experienced pols saw this coming and most of them are now apoplectic. We now see many Republican heavyweights, like former nominee Mitt Romney denouncing Trump. Behind the scenes, party leaders are looking for ways to push Trump out of the way before the convention. The problem is that all the party rules are designed to give the front runner an increased advantage in order to prevent some debilitating convention fight. Even though Trump may have 30%-40% support within the party, he can continue to win 60%-70% of the vote and easily win the nomination because the party remains deeply divided as to who should oppose him.
Establishment Republicans fear a Trump candidacy for many reasons. He is a loose canon. He often says what is on his mind with very little filter. He tends to alienate many voters and groups by saying and acting in ways that seem borderline racist, that characterize whole ethnic and religious groups and un-American, and which seem to promote some ideas more in keeping with a fascist dictator than an elected leader of a free society. Republicans fear not only losing the White House, but also being tied to this reputation, that could affect Congressional elections and future elections for many years. Part of the problem is that many of these unpalatable ideas have been supported by others in the Party for years, albeit expressed in a more filtered and politically correct way. It therefore becomes easier for Democrats to paint all Republicans as Trump-lite. The party simply cannot afford to alienate women, Hispanics, homosexuals, religious minorities and others, and still remain a major party in the 21st century.
The thought of Trump's antics taking down the party, allowing the election of Hillary Clinton and a Democratic Congress, is a fear only second to Trump actually winning the Presidency. Trump has the ability to bring new voters to the polls and seems to do very well among some independent voters. Against a Democratic opponent who also has high negatives it is possible that Trump could win the general election. Because Trump does not seem to have any real guiding principle except to do whatever is most expedient at the moment, there are real questions about what a Trump Presidency would be like. Would he create a Constitutional crisis by ignoring Congress and directing the executive branch to do whatever he wanted? Would he start a war because some foreign power simply annoyed him a little too much? Would he follow the conservative policies he has espoused recently, or revert back to many of his liberal positions he espoused a decade ago? No one seems to know exactly what a Trump Presidency would mean.
Historically, Republicans are in a difficult position. One reason they still hearken back to Ronald Reagan as a political hero is that the last two Republican Presidencies have been disasters. Both took office in a period of relative economic success and peace. Both started multiple wars and saw the country fall into serious recession, only to be bailed out by Democrats who replaced them. A third Republican disaster in the White House may cause voters to associate the Republican brand with failure. A Trump Presidency could be the Republican's third strike.
Despite the recent attacks, I don't think there is a good way to stop Trump at this point. Unless his electoral support drops off in a major way, Trump will have a majority of delegates at the convention. Even if he does not, having a plurality and being denied the nomination in a convention fight is a recipe for losing in November. Some Republicans may prefer that loss though to damaging the Republican brand for a generation to come.