Who can beat Trump? Not Rubio. Not Cruz. Not the GOP.

Republicans cowered before him. Now it's too late.

No stopping him now.
(Image credit: AP Photo/John Minchillo)

The conservative movement is in an angry mood. They want Marco Rubio as their standard bearer very badly. They are vowing to fight Donald Trump's nomination all the way to the convention. Because Trump is a Democrat in disguise, they say. He's a demagogue, injecting bilious poison into the body politic. For the good of the country, for the soul of their movement, for the very survival of the principles which impelled them into politics, he must be opposed relentlessly. People are quoting Hannah Arendt these days; the stakes are that high.

While the movement is reaching for pickaxes and putting on war paint, its putative leader Marco Rubio is distressingly nonchalant. Asked about why he isn't attacking Trump, Rubio replied: "I didn't run for office to tear up other Republicans." Not exactly the desperation of a man who thinks the Republic is about to be lost to barbarous populism.

While Rubio may believe he can delay and defer the fight forever, the rest of the party beyond the conservative movement seems to be giving up.

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Ted Cruz has had a very awkward time transitioning from Donald's pal to his chief critic. "I like Donald Trump. He's a friend of mine. I'm grateful that he's in the race," he said last year. He told donors that his strategy has been to "bear hug" Trump and a debate audience that he would hire Donald Trump to build a wall on the southern border. His attempt to smear Trump as embodying "New York values" seems to have worked in Iowa and nowhere else. Ever since, Cruz has been flummoxed by lawsuits from his "friend" challenging his eligibility to run for president.

Now, Jeb Bush's voters seem to be defecting to Trump. More terrifying, it seems the Republican donor class is ready to parlay with Trump. The white flags are going up. Instead of a brave battle:

The donors cite the lack of success of the few super PAC attacks that have already targeted Trump as evidence that such attacks have not ― and cannot ― halt his momentum. And they worry that, if they fund higher-profile attacks, they could come under attack from Trump, who this week fired a warning shot at one of the few major donors to the anti-Trump efforts, Marlene Ricketts, tweeting that her family "better be careful, they have a lot to hide!" [Politico]

The reaction of the Republican money-men fits the historic pattern when traditional aristocrats abandon the old order they can no longer dominate anymore. Flight, not fight. The will to stop Donald Trump is just not there.

Every non-Trump campaign has been working on a theory that the last non-Trump standing will win automatically. But that's not what we're seeing so far. As with Jeb Bush's former supporters, as candidates defect, some go to Trump. How many people who now side with anti-establishment Ted Cruz really prefer Marco Rubio to Donald Trump? How many will prefer Marco Rubio to Trump after another week of anti-Rubio attack ads and mailers from the Cruz campaign? The GOP is hanging onto bizarre theories that three or more candidates will graciously drop out soon, or that Trump's poor performance among late deciders means he will begin losing states in the next two weeks where he has big double-digit leads.

There are lots of explanations for the rise of Donald Trump. I've been referring them to readers for months. Donald Trump is the return of the repressed. He's the sign that immigration politics are soon to dominate the political discourse. He is the tribune of the forgotten man and the working class who have been left behind by globalization. He is the chastisement that the Republican elites have merited through their total disregard for the economic interests of their core voters.

But one of the most obvious explanations for the rise of Donald Trump is that nobody fought him. Nobody responded to him in kind. When Donald Trump made fun of Jeb Bush's wife, Jeb Bush should have said how much he'd enjoy caving in the face of a degenerate casino owner. When Donald Trump said Rand Paul didn't belong on the stage, Paul should have replied that Trump was a disloyal interloper who would leave his followers hanging just as he left Atlantic City in shambles. When Trump hogged all the free media, the Republican donor class should have bought media and re-defined Trump.

But nobody in the GOP did it. The leadership of the party broke apart like balsa-wood and plate-glass, the collapsing set of an action movie. Trump looks like a hero smashing through a corrupt establishment. What else could the establishment be, but corrupt, if it never bothered to defend its right to rule?

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Michael Brendan Dougherty

Michael Brendan Dougherty is senior correspondent at TheWeek.com. He is the founder and editor of The Slurve, a newsletter about baseball. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, ESPN Magazine, Slate and The American Conservative.