With his near-sweep of Tuesday's primaries, Donald Trump is now in firm command of the Republican race for president, and although it's still possible for Ted Cruz to overtake him, it's looking increasingly likely that Trump will be the Republican nominee for president. Which leaves most Americans (and most of the world) in a state of abject horror, and presents Republican politicians, strategists, and party activists with a dilemma: What do they do?
The time for figuring out how Trump can be stopped from taking over the party is nearly gone. There are essentially three paths left open, none of which are appetizing. The question is merely which brand of poison the party wants to swallow. But each has its pluses and minuses, so let's investigate:
1. Rally behind Trump. This is the path of least resistance, and it may be the least bad of the options. Yes, many Republicans have said they'd never support him, or at least condemned him in strong terms; they'll now be confronted with their hypocrisy. But as I've argued repeatedly, Trump is going to become a different candidate once the general election comes. Perhaps in the process of appealing to a broader electorate, he'll also become less bombastic and more serious, and it won't seem so awful to stand by his side.
And from an ideological standpoint, there's a powerful logic to it. If you're a conservative, even if you think Trump would be a terrible president and an inconsistent ally (almost certainly true on both counts), he'd at least do what you want some of the time, which is better than what you'd get with Hillary Clinton as president.
The trouble is that while Trump has the support of a plurality of Republicans, that isn't anywhere near a majority of the electorate as a whole. So Republicans may decide that it's better to do their part and try to convince the public that a Trump presidency really would be great. If they succeed, at least they'd get to fill the executive branch with Republicans.
2. Try to take the nomination from Trump at the convention. Trump may get to the necessary 1,237 delegates he needs to secure the nomination outright, but at the moment it's anything but a sure thing. If he doesn't, it would bring Republicans to a contested convention, which is likely to be a nightmare no matter what the final result. If it comes to that, the anti-Trump forces will try to find a leader to unite behind, but it won't be easy. If it's Ted Cruz or John Kasich, it would be hard to take the nomination from Trump on the grounds that he didn't win a majority of the delegates, then give it to someone who won even fewer. But giving it to someone who didn't run at all could be even worse.
Just imagine how Trump's supporters will react if the very establishment they've rebelled against snatches the nomination from their champion and gives it to some low-energy weakling. All their rage and frustration would come pouring out, perhaps literally on the heads of their tormentors. Trump has already said "I think you'd have riots" if such a thing occurred, and you can bet he'd be encouraging them.
And keep in mind that conservative talk radio hosts will spend the months between now and then getting their audiences riled up about what a despicable crime it would be to take the nomination away from Trump and hand it to some establishment stooge (they're already getting started). So Trump's supporters would be ready for a fight as soon as they got to Cleveland.
The whole chaotic mess would be broadcast live on TV, making the party look even less responsible and sane than it does now. Then even if the establishment prevailed, chances are strong that many of Trump's supporters would simply stay home on Election Day out of frustration, increasing the chances that Hillary Clinton gets elected.
3. Mount a third-party bid. This is the most outlandish of the possibilities, yet some people are actively exploring it. There's a meeting of prominent conservative activists happening Thursday to discuss whether and how to go about it, and some donors have already hired consultants to assemble a roadmap to a third-party campaign. The biggest practical problem is getting on the ballot in all 50 states, which requires lots of signatures before deadlines that are coming up soon. But more important from Republicans' standpoint is that such an effort is almost guaranteed to fail.
If you had a conservative third-party candidate, he or she would face Trump, taking some portion of Republican voters, and (probably) Hillary Clinton, holding nearly all Democratic voters. A unified Democratic Party facing a Republican Party split in two means the Democrat would win.
Now it may be that some Republicans are so worried about what a Trump presidency would do to the GOP over the long term that they see Hillary Clinton in the White House as a preferable outcome. But I'm guessing there aren't too many of them. Which is why the first option — swallow your pride, hold your nose, and get behind Trump — is the one most Republicans are probably going to take.