Mitch McConnell took pains to at least look like he had the situation under control. Seventy-four years old and unfailingly polite, McConnell is the Senate majority leader, which makes him one of the most important men in the United States of America. No laws are passed without McConnell's support, and no Supreme Court judge is appointed without his approval. His characteristically blank facial expression has earned him the nickname "Tortoise" in Washington. He is the personification of the Republican establishment.
Not long ago, McConnell received a handful of concerned Republican senators in his office, lawmakers who wanted to know the party's position on Donald Trump. According to sources in Washington, McConnell tried to allay their fears, saying the kinds of things they typically say in Washington when the electorate starts complaining yet again about the political elites. He ended the meeting with a promise: If Trump truly becomes the candidate and begins endangering the reelection of Republican senators, the Republican leadership would "drop him like a hot rock," McConnell said, according to press reports.
Drop Trump? McConnell's threat says a lot about how the Republican elites ignored the Trump phenomenon for far too long, its magnitude and the threat it poses -- and how Trump's successes in the Republican primaries are fundamentally changing the American political system.
McConnell, despite the power he wields, has been backed into a corner by Trump -- and by his voters, who all but crowned the New York real estate mogul as the Republican Party's presidential candidate in last week's state primaries and caucuses.
After Trump's series of primary victories on Super Tuesday, it is no longer a question of whether he is the Republican frontrunner, but merely of whether he can still be stopped. And if so, how? "Donald Trump is a phony, a fraud," and lacks the character to be the country's commander-in-chief, said former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. "He's a con man."
Former Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay warned that a President Trump would "tear the Republican Party to shreds." Nothing seems impossible anymore, not even the breakup of the party.
There isn't much time left. If Trump wins key states like Florida or Ohio on March 15, it will take a miracle to deprive him of the nomination. Both are winner-take-all states, in contrast to other states where delegates are assigned to candidates according to a proportional system. The Republicans will concentrate all of their efforts to prevent Trump from winning the primaries in Florida and Ohio.
Trump's successes are terrifying, as is his sheer dominance of the primaries in large parts of the country. Trump won seven out of 11 states on Super Tuesday, including a number of southern states with large populations of Christian voters. Rival Ted Cruz, the son of an Evangelical Christian pastor, won three states, including the important state of Texas.
In the race for the Republican nomination for the White House, Trump now has 384 delegates, followed by Cruz with 300 delegates. Cruz, like Trump, wants to build a wall along the border with Mexico. The two candidates are locked in a bitter duel over who has the best conservative credentials.
Trump and Cruz currently represent more than two thirds of all Republican voters, a number that shows how far the base has veered away from its party. Third-place contender Marco Rubio, the establishment favorite, has accumulated 151 delegates and stands little chance of reaching the necessary majority of 1,237 delegates.
Trump's unexpected success is part of a political revolt that has taken hold in America in recent months, and is shifting all known parameters. It is an uprising borne by the white lower and middle classes, and it is directed against the liberal establishment, President Barack Obama and the political correctness of the post-modern age -- but also against a Republican Party, which the party rebels believe is part of the ailing system. Deeply religious Christians, the so-called Evangelicals, whose ancestors came from Europe and who helped create the United States, are the core of this uprising.
At the beginning of this election campaign, there were several things that were considered inalienable truths in political America. One of those was the recognition that the United States is a land of immigration, that its population is becoming more colorful, multicultural and multiethnic.
The lesson seemed clear: Those who hope to win elections must absolutely win the support of these groups of voters. The structure of the American population has changed radically. Blacks make up 12.9 percent of the population today and Hispanics more than 17 percent, with their share steadily increasing. Whites are predicted to become a minority by 2050. This democratic shift contributed significantly to President Barack Obama's election victory in 2012. His challenger, Mitt Romney, managed to win just a quarter of Latino votes. A mere 6 percent of African-Americans voted for him.
Trump has studied these numbers carefully and drawn his conclusions, albeit against all the conventional rules of Washington political advisers. His campaign targets white, overwhelmingly Christian voters, who have felt marginalized and threatened for some time. Trump calls them "the silent majority."
Some 70 percent of Americans are still Christians, and one in four US citizens, or about 80 million, are Evangelical Christians. However, only 27 million Evangelicals voted in the last presidential election, while the rest stayed home.
"Trump and Cruz both aim to energize this white, Christian core group, which is why they are not seeking compromise on issues, but have adopted harsh rhetoric instead," says David Brody, chief Washington correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN). "If one of them manages to convince only five to 10 million Evangelical non-voters to go to the polls, he'll be able to take over the Republican Party and defeat the Democrats."
Brody, 50, is following Trump and Cruz in the election campaign and has written a book about Evangelicals. Sitting in a hotel in Des Moines, Iowa, he is trying to explain what is happening in his country at the moment. In the last few years, says Broday, the mainstream Christian culture has given way to a multicultural, multiethnic and multi-religious social order. "Many white Christians now feel that they are in the minority in their own country, even though, numerically, they still constitute the majority."
'We're Talking About a Worldview'
Brody divides Evangelical voters into three groups: disgusted citizens who have turned their backs on the system and support Trump; pragmatists who primarily want a lean but efficient government and are willing to vote for more moderate candidates like Marco Rubio and John Kasich; and the core religious ideologues, who tend to support Cruz.
The latter group includes families like the Strouds. Karen and Don Stroud live in a nondescript suburb of Austin, Texas, where the houses are virtually indistinguishable. Don Stroud, 56, is an amiable businessman who runs a management company that invests in startups, and business is good. A camper and an SUV are parked in front of his house. His wife is in the kitchen, washing strawberries, and their two daughters, Beth, 17, and Nell, 19, are doing their schoolwork.
The Strouds decided to home-school their children. "We want our children to feel love for the Lord Jesus Christ and to observe his laws. He determines how we live, not the elites in Washington. We're talking about a worldview," says Stroud.
He wants the government to stay out of his life. He rejects Obama, among other arguments "because he isn't even willing to call the war we are in at the moment by its name: Islamic terrorism. But the Judeo-Christian faith is the foundation of our Western civilization." Stroud believes that the loss of these values is the "catalyst for the populist movement that has taken shape in the last five to eight years."
This protest movement seemed custom-made for Ted Cruz. He emerged from it, and it took him to Washington as a senator. For years, he has been trying to exploit the rage of families like the Strouds to ignite a political revolt. But then Trump appeared out of nowhere and thwarted the plans of both Cruz and moderate conservatives like Jeb Bush.
"Many Evangelicals are so disappointed by the political system that they are prepared to support Trump, because they believe he is authentic, even though he is not an Evangelical," says CBN reporter Brody. Last summer, Brody asked Trump whether he occasionally asked Christ for forgiveness, something Evangelicals take for granted. Trump looked at him in astonishment and said: "No."
An Unexpected Impact
The Republican leadership long believed that, because of such contradictions, Trump would pass by like one of the hurricanes that regularly plague the US East Coast. They believe that Trump's vulgar language would offend people. He has not only said things that are openly racist, but he also uttered the off-color term "pussy" on aseptic US television. He said unabashedly: "You know, it really doesn't matter what (the media) write as long as you've got a young and beautiful piece of ass." He has also said that his "fingers are long and beautiful, as, it has been well documented, are various other parts of my body."
Yet his vulgar language has had an unexpected impact: Even devout Christians are attracted by what Trump says. Many Evangelicals are willing to forgive Trump's language and his lack of a strong Christian faith, says Texas pastor Robert Jeffress, "because he is authentic and the only real outsider among all the candidates."
Though a friend of Ted Cruz, Jeffress supports Trump in the campaign. More than a week ago, Trump called him onto the stage at a rally in Texas and vowed to defend Christian values forever. It was a delayed baptism of sorts, but provided a further connection to the Evangelicals.
So far Trump's strategy of using unpolished rhetoric has worked. The turnout among Republicans has been higher in all primaries than in years previous, with Trump apparently energizing voters more than any conservative candidate since Ronald Reagan. Unlike Cruz, who remains limited to the Evangelical milieu, Trump also appeals to voters beyond the religious right, especially among blue-collar workers in rural areas and in the endless, often drab suburbs of America cities. "This isn't a campaign, this is a movement," says Republican Senator Jeff Sessions, who supports Trump.
A week ago, Trump showed how far he is willing to go to expand this movement. David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, had publicly announced his support for Trump. The Klan has a long tradition of racist acts of violence, and it is responsible for one of the darkest episodes in American history. But Trump was unwilling to distance himself from Duke, who he claimed not to know.
The incident is a prime example of Trump's manipulation of the public and his flirtation with openly neo-Nazi groups. In an interview on Bloomberg Television last August, he was asked how he felt about Duke's admiration for him, Trump replied "I don't know anything about him." When pressed about what he would do if Duke were to endorse him, he said: "I would (repudiate it) if that would make you feel any better."
The same pattern repeated itself last week. First Trump tried to skirt the question by saying "I know nothing about David Duke, okay?" But after pressure mounted, he distanced himself from the former Klan leader later that day -- but he also re-tweeted a quote from Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Trump seems to have a very selective memory when it comes to white racists. Sixteen years ago, when he first flirted with a presidential run as a candidate for the insignificant Reform Party, he eventually backed out, because, as he said, "the Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi."
But this time Trump is running, and he needs every vote he can get, including those of white nationalists, who still constitute an important voting constituency, especially in the South. In the South Carolina primary, 38 percent of his supporters said that it would have been better if the Confederate states had won the Civil War.
In the wake of Trump's series of primary victories, his rivals are now under enormous pressure. If Rubio does not win the March 15 primary in his home state of Florida, it could spell the end to the candidacy of the most moderate of the three leading Republican contenders. Then it would come down to a duel between Trump and Cruz, two men who are constantly one-upping each other with their right-wing populist rhetoric and berate each other as liars. It would be a nightmare for the Republican establishment.
In the face of this threat, hardly a day goes by in Washington when Republican Party leaders do not meet in the hope of finding a way to stop Trump. Two possible strategies are currently under discussion. The first would require the Republicans to agree on a single candidate to oppose Trump, with Cruz and Rubio as the only options. But neither of the two men is an ideal consensus candidate. Cruz's rhetoric is radical and he is despised by many of his fellow Republicans. Rubio appeals mainly to better-educated voters and city dwellers, but not to the groups Trump is targeting.
A Break-Up of the GOP?
Besides, neither of the two men has any interest in yielding to the other. Both are still young. Cruz is 45 and Rubio is 44. Neither wants to see the other in the White House; they would prefer to allow Trump to run and hope that he fails.
The other plan calls for keeping as many candidates in the running for as long as possible, in order to divide up the votes and make it impossible for Trump to secure an absolute majority of delegates.
If that happens -- if Trump has not reached the required majority of 1,237 delegates by the time the Republican Convention is held in July -- many of the delegates could decide for themselves which candidate they choose to support. In the first round of convention voting, most of the delegates are tied to the primary results in their state. But should there be a second round of voting, the delegates are no longer bound to those results, meaning they could abandon Trump.
The last time such a scenario came to pass for the Republicans was in 1948, when Thomas Dewey did not secure the necessary majority in either the first or second round of voting. But because his rivals could not agree on a single opposing candidate, Dewey won in the third round of voting without opposition. A similar scenario could transpire with Trump, Cruz and Rubio.
If this were indeed the outcome in Cleveland, even a break-up of the deeply traditional Grand Old Party would be conceivable. Influential conservative journalist Bill Kristol proposed that the Republicans might have to run as a third party, with their own candidate, as "a one-time, emergency adjustment to the unfortunate circumstance (if it happens) of a Trump nomination." Trump retorted that he too wasn't ruling out running as an Independent.
The more likely scenario is that more and more major Republican players will curry favor with Trump, as Chris Christie has already done. The New Jersey governor had hardly dropped out of the race before he publicly pledged his support for Trump. On Tuesday, Christie stood behind Trump at his Spanish colonial style estate in Palm Beach, Florida, and told astonished journalists that Trump would unite the American people and bring the Republican Party together again. Christie seemed like one of the contestants on Trump's reality TV show "The Apprentice." His self-belittlement seemed like a warning to all those who would throw in their lot with Trump.
If he does become the Republican candidate, Trump will have to live with the fact that only part of the GOP supports him. On Tuesday evening, while TV stations were still reporting on Trump's victories, a group of major Republican donors participated in a teleconference to discuss how to proceed. The group included Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard Enterprises, Todd Rickets, the owner of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, and New York hedge fund manager Paul Singer. They agreed to invest dozens of millions of dollars in a campaign against Trump.
It isn't the only anti-Trump initiative. A number of influential Republicans have already vowed not to vote for him. Under the hashtag #nevertrump, Republicans like former New Jersey Governor Christine Whitman vow to accept Hillary Clinton as president rather than support Trump. Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska announced that if Trump became the nominee, he would vote for a possible independent candidate. And journalist and Republican foreign policy expert Max Boot said: "I would sooner vote for Josef Stalin than I would vote for Donald Trump."