The Republican presidential primary is settling into one of history's most familiar grooves: Failing elites confront an internal rebellion by doing their absolute utmost to change nothing whatsoever.
The Donald Trump insurgency has demonstrated several things. First, there is a large constituency among Republican primary voters for outright bigotry and xenophobia; second, the commitment to traditional conservative economics among many Republican base voters is totally ephemeral.
It turns out that hardscrabble racist white people aren't actually interested in gutting Medicare, privatizing Social Security, or Olympus Mons-sized tax cuts for the rich. The perception that they were was mainly created by the canny exploitation of the culture war and wealthy conservatives purchasing the entire slate of Republican candidates every year.
Now Trump has blown the scam wide open. But instead of trying to reckon with the fact that the consensus party ideology is cracking apart before their eyes, Republican elites — led by the nose by the donor class — are plotting to deliver the presidential nomination to a nice friendly establishment figure, perhaps Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
Now, they are enabled in this by Trump himself, who just had the worst two weeks of news coverage of the entire primary. His campaign manager is literally being charged with battery, he stumbled on abortion, he got into an unbelievably petty fight over Ted Cruz's wife, and the latest polling shows him being utterly blown out of the water in the general election. Then on Tuesday night, he got creamed by Cruz in the Wisconsin primary.
All that created a sense that Trump had finally, finally doomed himself. His support would begin to melt away, and the Republican big money grandees could come together and hand the nomination to a reliable plutocrat who could enact the welfare and tax cuts 1 percenters demand. Charles Koch himself is reportedly behind Paul Ryan, should Trump enter the convention at least 100 delegates short of a first ballot victory.
These people are fooling themselves. First of all, while Trump might really have done himself in, this is about the 40th time this exact same groupthink has taken hold and it's been wrong every time so far. Moreover, whatever damage was done has barely registered in the polls. He's off his large lead only slightly in the national average, and Wisconsin wasn't a great spot for him in the first place. A bunch of states are coming up where conditions are a lot more favorable, and in the ones with recent polling (New York, Pennsylvania) he's ahead by a lot.
In short, while he might not come into the convention with enough delegates to win a first-ballot victory, conditions would have to change dramatically for Trump to fail to get a large delegate plurality — and that's leaving aside the distinct possibility that he could bounce back from his current troubles by changing the subject, perhaps with yet another round of anti-Muslim bigotry.
What's more, the second place contender (behind by 237 pledged delegates at the moment) is Ted Cruz, who is nearly as rabidly anti-establishment (and as bad a general election candidate) as Trump. It is literally mathematically impossible for John Kasich, the only sort of non-extremist left in the race, to win in a first ballot.
Primary elections have been exhaustively covered and have developed a deep democratic legitimacy. If Trump comes into the convention with a large plurality of delegates, trying to wrest the nomination from him is courting disaster. It probably wouldn't even work, as the delegates would likely get cold feet at what amounts to a massive, bald-faced election theft. Even if it did, Trump would have every reason to attempt a third-party run and split the conservative vote — and might even do better than the Republican candidate.
Trying to wrest the nomination from Cruz as well, so the billionaire donor class can hand it to one of their pets who didn't even enter the primary, is even crazier than that. It's the kind of thing that actually destroys parties. At that point the donors would be openly stamping on the expressed preference of something like nine-tenths of their own voters, and all but teeing up a presidential challenger that would beat their own candidate by 40 points.
The GOP elite, such as it is, is largely controlled by people who think a full-blown populist rebellion can be handled with a few backroom conversations and massive checks. They're about to find out the hard way that they're wrong.