Establishment Republicans tried everything they could think of to stop Donald Trump from becoming their party’s nominee. They poured $100 million into Jeb Bush’s campaign. They aired ads saying he wasn’t a true conservative. They penned special issues of conservative magazines making the case against him. They created a hashtag. Nothing worked.

Now it’s August, Trump is officially the Republican nominee for president (certified at a uniquely unhelpful convention), and somehow the idea that someone, anyone other than Trump might represent the GOP in November refuses to die. And after an unusually bad week even for him, people are asking: Is it possible that Trump could actually pull out of the race? And what would happen if he did?

The idea seems ludicrous, it’s true. Of course, it also seems ludicrous that a presidential candidate would get into a week-long fracas with the family of a soldier who died in Iraq. So let’s take it seriously, at least for a moment.

Some in the Republican Party are reaching new levels of panic. Here's why picking a new nominee might not be the answer. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

In case you haven’t been paying attention, the last couple of days have been sublimely awful for Trump, bringing a string of damaging stories and bizarre missteps of the kind you might expect to see over the course of a few months of a failing campaign, all happening within 36 hours or so, from Trump’s inability to let his fight with the Khan family drop, to his pointed refusal to endorse Paul Ryan and John McCain, to telling Americans to pull their money out of the stock market, to revealing his blame-the-victim attitude toward sexual harassment, to his assertion that the election is being rigged against him. And then there’s my favorite story of the day, in which Trump goes to Loudoun County, Virginia, the richest county in America, tells the crowd, “you’re doing lousy over here, by the way, I hate to tell you,” then cites as evidence some factory closures that occurred hundreds of miles away (one of which was actually in North Carolina).  

And that’s only what’s happening in public. We’re getting hints that behind the scenes, things are falling apart. Yesterday John Harwood tweeted that an associate of Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort told him that Manafort is “not challenging Trump anymore. Mailing it in. Staff suicidal” (the campaign denies this). RNC chair Reince Priebus was reportedly “apoplectic” at Trump’s comments about Ryan and McCain. The New York Times reports that “Republicans now say Mr. Trump’s obstinacy in addressing perhaps the gravest crisis of his campaign may trigger drastic defections within the party, and Republican lawmakers and strategists have begun to entertain abandoning him en masse.” And here’s what Chuck Todd and Hallie Jackson report this morning:

Key Republicans close to Donald Trump’s orbit are plotting an intervention with the candidate after a disastrous 48 hours led some influential voices in the party to question whether Trump can stay at the top of the Republican ticket without catastrophic consequences for his campaign and the GOP at large.
Republican National Committee head Reince Priebus, former Republican New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich are among the Trump endorsers hoping to talk the real estate mogul into a dramatic reset of his campaign in the coming days, sources tell NBC News.

I have no idea what such a “reset” would entail, since the problem with the Trump campaign comes down to two words: Donald Trump. Is he suddenly going to become “so presidential that you people will be so bored,” as he used to say? Of course not. The most likely outcome of this rather intense period is that Trump promises to be a little more careful with his words, and Republicans go back to their baseline level of anxiety, as opposed to today’s outright panic.

But could he actually drop out of the race? The argument against it has a number of factors in its favor. First, nothing like that has ever happened before (though neither has a candidate like Trump ever been a party nominee before). Second, doing so would be an acknowledgement of defeat, which is obviously something Trump would find intolerable. Third, he’s only trailing Hillary Clinton by six points or so, which means it’s entirely possible that he could stabilize his campaign and hope for some dramatic event (an alien invasion, perhaps) that changes the dynamic of the race and allows him to win.

The argument for why he might abandon his run is less persuasive, but not dramatically so. Trump is facing a level of scrutiny and criticism unlike anything he’s ever experienced before, and it may be taking a personal toll. If he concludes he’s going to lose anyway, why not jump ship now and let somebody else take the fall? After all, that’s what he’s done in the past. All those bankruptcies his businesses have gone through? He managed in the end to convince himself that they were actually not failures, but shrewd stratagems by the world’s greatest businessman, himself. In time he might be able to tell a similar story about this race: He ran the greatest campaign in history and showed everyone what a winner he was, then stepped aside once he had made his point, deciding to return to the business world where his true magnificence could be more fully realized.

He might also spin the tale as one of betrayal: with even Republicans conspiring against him, he decided that fighting on was no longer worthwhile, and he chose to let them lose without him in the hopes that they’d learn their lesson and reform their corrupt party. It’s impossible for us to know what’s actually going through Trump’s mind, but you could imagine his unique combination of narcissistic grandiosity and rampaging insecurity pushing him in either direction.

So what would happen if Trump did actually drop out of the race after already being named the nominee? This morning, ABC’s Jonathan Karl reported that Republican Party officials are trying to determine what to do if it happens, but fortunately, the RNC bylaws have provisions regarding such a scenario. They say that if the nominee exits the race for whatever reason, the 168 members of the national committee would vote to name a replacement nominee, in a process roughly analogous to the Electoral College, with members from each state voting together.

It doesn’t sound that difficult in practical terms, except for the fact that it would virtually guarantee that Hillary Clinton would be the next president. The chaos would reinforce all her arguments that she’s the stable, sensible choice. The Republicans would have to find someone to fill Trump’s spot — and don’t think Paul Ryan would do it, because he’s not that dumb, so Mike Pence might be the default replacement. And Trump’s supporters, after being told for so long that they’re fighting against a corrupt establishment, would likely stay home in large numbers after 168 party bosses picked a nominee.

That’s the biggest reason that those in the GOP, as disgusted as they are at Trump, will probably not want to push things that far: the alternative is even more distressing. Unless they’re convinced that things will keep getting worse and Trump will drag down their majorities in the Senate and House with him — and that the election won’t turn out quite as badly if they have a pinch-hitter at the top of the ticket — they’re likely to just keep trying to convince him to clean up his act and hope that the damage doesn’t spread too far down the ballot.

It’s important to note that Trump has said nothing indicating he’s considering leaving the race. And he may well still believe he’s going to win, since after all, he’s doing great with the Hispanics, the African-Americans love him, women are totally on his side, the middle class is completely in for Trump, it’s incredible, believe me. But it’s not as though his behavior has been all that predictable up until now.

What Donald Trump is doing on the campaign trail

MANCHESTER, NH - NOVEMBER 7: Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at SNHU Arena in Manchester, NH on Monday November 07, 2016. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)