The more subdued Donald Trump who showed up at last Thursday's debate was seemingly eager to coast on his front-runner status without risking any political damage by indulging in his usual pastimes of making controversial remarks and aggressively belittling his opponents. But this new "kinder, gentler" phase of the Trump campaign lasted less than 24 hours before the candidate plunged the Republican race back into turmoil. Trump's abrupt cancellation of a planned Chicago rally on Friday in the face of a large contingent of protestors, his subsequent verbal defense of supporters who engaged in violent acts against his critics, and the attempt of one anti-Trump activist to rush the stage during a Saturday morning speech in Ohio—to which Trump later responded by accusing the man of terrorist connections—added up to one particularly unsettling weekend of the campaign, inspiring a variety of political analysts and thinkers on the left and right alike to condemn Trump as a uniquely malignant force in American politics whose pursuit of power must be stopped for the very sake of the nation.
It is safe to assume that the majority of Republican leaders are privately aghast at the prospect of a Trump nomination. Apart from highly dubious assertions that he expands the traditional appeal of the GOP to independents and Democrats, Trump brings nothing to the party table. He is neither consistently loyal to conservative principles nor devoted to the Republican Party as an institution. His political rhetoric, business record, and decades of media pronouncements are rife with potential attack-ad fodder. He leads no larger faction within the party that can demand deference from its elected officials. He is, by all evidence, the most unpopular major political figure in the eyes of American voters, and he inspires especially intense antipathy among several key groups—racial minorities, young people, single women—whose electoral participation is undependable but whose energetic mobilization in November would be particularly beneficial to the Democratic opposition. It is reasonable to expect that a Trump candidacy would produce a potentially cataclysmic Republican defeat, with damaging consequences enduring for years to come.
And yet luck smiles on Trump. For, in an unlikely twist, his chief rival in the nomination race is Senator Ted Cruz of Texas—the one Republican politician whom party elites detest more than any other (Trump included). The undoubtedly-strong instinct of many Republicans to denounce Trump, to call for all right-thinking party members to unite in order to ensure his defeat, is stayed by the consideration that such an effort at this stage in the race would primarily benefit Cruz.
Over the weekend, the nomination race provided quantitative evidence to bear on this matter in the form of the District of Columbia Republican caucus. DC is, of course, overwhelmingly Democratic, and its relatively modest population of registered Republicans is mostly composed of political professionals: congressional staffers, campaign operatives, think tank fellows, and the like. About 2,800 of them turned out on Saturday to register their presidential preferences, producing a narrow victory for Marco Rubio—still the favorite of Republican politicos if not Republican voters—over fellow "establishment" type John Kasich. Unsurprisingly, Trump finished far behind the two leading candidates, gaining less than 14 percent of the vote—his worst showing by far in any primary or caucus in an English-speaking state or territory.
He still placed ahead of Cruz.
For the majority of Republican elites, the presidential primary process—up to and including the convention itself—is not currently dedicated to the lone purpose of preventing the unique national catastrophe of a Trump nomination, but has instead evolved into a frantic exercise in steering the prize away from Trump and Cruz alike. Single-minded efforts to minimize Trump's delegate count at any cost might have the unwelcome consequences of opening a window for Cruz to claim an overall delegate plurality, if not a majority—a particularly troublesome development from the perspective of party leaders, who would have much less pretext to deny the leading candidate the nomination at the convention if it were Cruz, not Trump, who wound up with the most delegates.
What does this mean for the Republican contest from this point forward? If the polls are accurate, Marco Rubio is likely to lose his home state of Florida by an ample margin on Tuesday, which would make it nearly impossible for him to avoid folding his campaign. Assuming that John Kasich does well enough on his own home turf of Ohio that same day to justify soldiering on, Kasich would then become the only non-insurgent in a three-candidate contest—and thus the lone remaining factor keeping either Trump or Cruz from assembling a majority of delegates. Republican regulars would likely provide Kasich with the necessary resources to stay in the race for the long term, rendering him a stalking horse—now there's a newly-relevant entry in the American political lexicon!—for an eventual establishment-approved nominee to be chosen at the convention itself.
It's a pretty crazy scheme that just might work. But let's be clear: this plan is not merely dedicated to the cause of averting a national crisis by stopping a uniquely destructive individual from capturing the banner of a major party. It is also a scramble by desperate Republican leaders to seize control of a nomination process heretofore dominated by a mass electorate that has repeatedly registered a preference for not one but two candidates whom most party elites view as thoroughly, and equally, unacceptable.