Few expected Donald Trump would be in a dominant position days before the Iowa caucuses. Fewer still expected the Republican establishment would be among the mogul's deluded enablers.
As if to validate every insult ever hurled at it, the GOP elite is putting on a display of fecklessness that has to surprise even its most vociferous critics.
It is the quisling establishment. All signs are that Beltway Republicans are ready and willing to accept their new Trumpian overlord.
There is much argument about what really constitutes the establishment. The past few weeks suggest a simple acid test: If you look at Donald Trump and think, "There's a man I can deal with." If you tell yourself, "He's utterly without principle and therefore encouragingly malleable." If you wonder, "How can I keep my head down, and maybe come out OK during a Trump campaign or even a Trump administration?" Well then, you are a member of the establishment in good standing, and you've got a problem.
The Trump rationalizations emanating from the wise old hands are something to behold. We've seen Republican consultants go from trying to organize Stop Trump efforts to declaring The Donald inevitable and the best of all alternatives in the space of a couple of weeks.
Republican fixture Charlie Black told The New York Times that "you can coach Donald," and "if he got nominated, [Trump would] be scared to death." Except Trump could be on the verge of a sweep of the early states and is still as spectacularly erratic as ever. Does anyone think Trump's winning the nomination, after breaking all the rules, would humble him?
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., says he doesn't "see malice in Trump like I see with [Ted] Cruz," Trump's main competitor in the early states so far. King sounds like he believes it is Cruz, not Trump, who mocked a disabled reporter and adopted a monthslong petty, vindictive campaign against a female journalist who dared challenge him.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, now head of the Financial Services Roundtable, maintains that Trump "sounds and looks like somebody you'd meet in the heartland who's ticked off about the economy and government." If this is true, Pawlenty needs to meet a better class of people in the heartland, not heretofore known for being populated with egotistical braggarts.
Several things are going on here. One, Cruz has defied and insulted Beltway insiders. Whatever his other failings, Trump hasn't said unwelcome things at Senate GOP Conference lunches or voted the wrong way on a motion to recommit. So everything that makes Trump an unsuitable nominee can be overlooked, while Cruz is considered unacceptable.
Two, the insiders apparently don't care much about principle or substance. The phrase they repeatedly use about Trump is that he will "get something done" -- without specifying what the something is, or how he will do it.
Three, some Beltway Republicans have convinced themselves that Trump will be a better general-election candidate than Cruz. There is little evidence for this (Trump runs worse than other Republicans in general-election matchups), although one can always hope.
Four, there is a vein of cynicism running through the establishment. Some Republican professionals reportedly think Trump could effectively "rent" the party by winning the nomination and losing the general election. In this scenario, Trump would ease the way for a new Democratic president, yet do the GOP the favor of leaving its pooh-bahs to resume business as usual.
Finally, after months of Trump leading the polls, fatalism about him has set in. Nothing can be done to stop him, and the sophisticated play is to pre-emptively accept him. Perhaps Trump will sweep all before him. But no one has voted yet, and there are still vastly preferable, more conservative candidates in the field, including Cruz and Marco Rubio.
When it comes to Trump, the pungent phrase Cruz used about the establishment during the government shutdown fight is apt. It is indeed the "surrender caucus."