Donald Trump’s amazing insurgent race for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination has been likened to a hostile takeover of the Grand Old Party, and with good reason.
He’s unfit for high office. He’s a policy-lite, bullying demagogue who trades in what the New York Times calls “the politics of rage.” He spouts untruths and vile slurs, stokes intolerance, disparages Mexicans, Muslims, Jews, women and others, plays coy with white supremacists, lauds war crimes, praises despots like Vladimir Putin, and wants to deport millions of people.
It’s a stomach-churning mix. In an unsavory field of Republican rivals, Trump is in a class by himself.
Despite his Super Tuesday success winning seven states, many Republicans can’t stand the thought of Trump carrying the party banner into a general election. They don’t regard him as the genuine Republican article. They fear, with cause, that Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton would defeat him. And they worry he is tearing apart the party, tainting its image and threatening its grip on Congress.
Hence the extraordinary, only-in-America spectacle playing out in the wake of Trump’s string of victories: the Republican establishment, mindful of the roughly half of dyspeptic GOP supporters who can’t stand Trump, is torn between throwing its support behind the party’s front-runner or trying to claw him down and deny him the nomination. Only an ugly Trump takedown can prevent an even uglier party takeover, many feel. No reality TV show could compete with this drama.
If the Super Tuesday shakeout left Clinton as the presumptive Democratic nominee over Bernie Sanders, it also gave Trump the edge over Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, two rivals who are even further to the right on some issues and are hardly less divisive.
Cruz got a small bounce on Tuesday, taking his home state of Texas, plus Oklahoma, but his campaign had hoped for better. Cruz, who has little support outside the Tea Party, now has an uphill path to victory and openly acknowledges that Trump will likely take the nomination unless Cruz’s rivals bow out.
Rubio, whose appeal as the feel-good face of hard-right Republicanism is broader, arguably has an easier path forward if he manages to ditch his image as a loser and win the March 15 winner-take-all Florida primary, with its 99 delegates. But that’s a big if. In recent weeks Trump has built up a wide lead in the Florida polls. If Rubio fails to bounce back after his poor showing on Tuesday and take his home state, Trump will have a commanding advantage and may well be unstoppable. Trump is also leading or competitive in delegate-rich North Carolina, Illinois, Ohio and Missouri that day.
This gives the frantic Republican establishment only a matter of days to get its act together if it wants to stop Trump. The power brokers need to rally the party’s grandees behind Rubio or Cruz, carpet-bomb Trump with attack ads, and pray for a multiple miracle. After waiting far too long to call Trump out, the GOP is now fighting the clock. But ironically, the party can’t kneecap Trump without doing itself some collateral damage. And that could prove costly.
While the polls suggest Clinton would defeat Trump, she would be vulnerable to a challenge from Rubio or Cruz. But only just narrowly. She stands to gain if efforts to derail the Trump campaign expose the party as fractious and directionless.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. Trump’s scorched-earth campaign has brought the party to this sorry pass. Democrats, in contrast, look like a party grounded in decency. The Republicans just look like a house on fire.