Donald Trump - Michigan

A crowd cheered for Donald J. Trump to take the stage Friday during a campaign rally at Macomb Community College in Warren, Mich. Credit Richard Perry/The New York Times

By Michael Barbaro, Ashley Parker and Jonathan Martin
March 4, 2016

From Michigan to Louisiana to California on Friday, rank-and-file Republicans expressed mystification, dismissal and contempt regarding the instructions that their party’s most high-profile leaders were urgently handing down to them: Reject and defeat Donald J. Trump.

Their angry reactions, in the 24 hours since Mitt Romney and John McCain urged millions of voters to cooperate in a grand strategy to undermine Mr. Trump’s candidacy, have captured the seemingly inexorable force of a movement that still puzzles the Republican elite and now threatens to unravel the party they hold dear.

In interviews, even lifelong Republicans who cast a ballot for Mr. Romney four years ago rebelled against his message and plan. “I personally am disgusted by it — I think it’s disgraceful,” said Lola Butler, 71, a retiree from Mandeville, La., who voted for Mr. Romney in 2012. “You’re telling me who to vote for and who not to vote for? Please.”

“There’s nothing short of Trump shooting my daughter in the street and my grandchildren — there is nothing and nobody that’s going to dissuade me from voting for Trump,” Ms. Butler said.

A fellow Louisiana Republican, Mindy Nettles, 33, accused the party of “using Romney as a puppet” to protect itself from Mr. Trump because its leaders could not control him. “He has a mind of his own,” she said. “He can think.”

The furious campaign now underway to stop Mr. Trump and the equally forceful rebellion against it captured the essence of the party’s breakdown over the past several weeks: Its most prominent guardians, misunderstanding their own voters, antagonize them as they try to reason with them, driving them even more energetically to Mr. Trump’s side.

As Mr. Romney amplified his pleas on Friday, Mr. Trump snubbed a major meeting of Republican activists and leaders after rumblings that protesters were prepared to demonstrate against him there, in the latest sign of Mr. Trump’s break from the apparatus of the party whose nomination he is marching toward.

As polls showed Mr. Trump likely to capture the Louisiana primary on Saturday, the biggest prize among states holding contests this weekend, the party establishment in Washington seemed seized by anxiety and despair. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, a long-running gathering of traditional conservatives, attendees feared that they were witnessing an event that has not occurred in more than a century: the breaking apart of a major American political party.

They spoke ruefully of “fidelity” lost and “values” forgone. They conceded a strange new feeling of powerlessness in the face of Mr. Trump’s ascendance. And they mourned for a 162-year-old party that is starting to seem unrecognizable to them.

Robert Walker, a former Pennsylvania congressman, lamented that the nomination of Mr. Trump, with his profane style and ideological flexibility, “would rebrand the party in ways that would take us a long time to recover from.”

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