Four years ago, Mitt Romney was pelted by the commentating class for suggesting that enforcing laws at workplaces would lead to "self-deportation." Four years ago, Romney was lambasted for telling a New Hampshire crowd, "I like to fire people." Didn't he know that could be misconstrued as a plutocratic gaffe, the media asked? Four years ago, Romney was constantly henpecked with questions about whether he was a "true conservative" and so he pronounced himself "severely conservative." Four years ago, the conservative movement's grip on the party was not in doubt.
Four years is a long time. Everything that was a supposed liability for Mitt Romney has been adopted and amplified by Donald Trump and become an asset in the 2016 Republican primary. Trump has called immigrants criminals and rapists, and threatened to increase the height of his border wall when former Mexican President Vincente Fox balked at the idea of paying for it.
Trump is a man whose fourth act in life was built on zinging the likes of Clay Aiken, Dennis Rodman, and Joan Rivers with his catchphrase "you're fired," and who brags openly about his lifetime of greediness. Trump is a man who has no use for elite conservative ideology, and is no one's idea of a conservative, true or severe. He promises to give health care to the poor, answers questions about religious liberty by telling people the good things Planned Parenthood does, and openly praises Vladimir Putin.
Yet he wins. On Super Tuesday 2016, Trump won seven contests, and has now won 10 out of 15 overall.
Meanwhile, the favored candidate of Republican elites and professional conservatives, Marco Rubio, didn't even qualify for delegates in Alabama, Texas, or Vermont. Ted Cruz, however, won Texas and Oklahoma, and nearly kept pace in the delegate count with Trump.
No one has found a strategy to beat Trump soundly or consistently. Rubio tried an insult-comic routine as he stumped for Super Tuesday. As usual, Rubio did well with "late-deciders" in exit polls, a category which increasingly looks like a synonym for "undecided non-Trump voters." Rubio's one victory, in Minnesota, came where he pitched himself at the demographic in which he does best: highly educated voters with good incomes. Cruz has relied on a more doctrinal case against Trump, saying Trump isn't a real conservative. Cruz remains strong in the deep interior of the country, but oddly weak in the deep South.
Trump seems ready to pivot to the general election. He celebrated his Super Tuesday by saying, "I'm a unifier. I know people find that hard to believe, but I'm a unifier." He claimed, with some truth, to have grown the Republican Party, promising (less plausibly) that it was going to be bigger and "more inclusive" than before. Already, as he is approaching the status of presumptive nominee, Trump was moderating his tone.
And, unless the next two weeks brings some truly unprecedented collapse, the Republican Party is going to get behind Trump, or at least nearly everyone outside of the anvil chorus of the conservative movement will. Trump has already been endorsed by Republicans across the political spectrum, from moderate Chris Christie to ultraconservative Jeff Sessions. John McCain (who Trump insulted) has said he would support Trump if he was the party's nominee. Paul Ryan also gave indications that he would endorse Trump if Republican voters nominate him. And if Trump's ceiling continues to rise, voters in the party simply won't allow major Republican officeholders to withhold their endorsement from Hillary Clinton's rival. A serious conservative third-party challenge seems implausible. And then there's the matter that all of Trump's rivals pledged to support whoever the Republican Party selected as its nominee.
The Republicans really are gearing up to nominate one of the most polarizing figures to emerge in modern American politics. They are doing this despite the fact that he fails many supposed litmus tests for the nominee. And even when general election polling has him as one of the weaker candidates left in the Republican field. For conservatives, it is as if the law of gravity were suddenly reversed. The party once functioned according to litmus tests. These tests were often the source of the conservative commentariat's perceived power. The number of hoops Mitt Romney had to jump through in 2012 was the proof of this power. And now conservatives are about to be effectively dealt out of the Republican game for this election cycle.
This is the story of a political lifetime, if any of us can bring ourselves to believe it is really happening.