Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives a thumbs-up while addressing the Faith and Freedom Coalition's Road to Majority Conference in Washington this month. (Cliff Owen/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Opinion writer

Remember when bucking Republican elites was how Donald Trump demonstrated backbone and independence?

That’s coming back to bite him.

A new Post/ABC News poll offers some useful clues about conservative voters’ evolving views of the presumptive GOP nominee, and how they believe co-partisans ought to treat him now that he’s risen from petty insurgent to powerful party standard-bearer.

In one particularly revealing question, the poll asked Republicans and Republican-leaning independents how they think GOP leaders should respond when Trump says something they disagree with. Should these leaders speak out, or should they avoid criticizing the party’s likely nominee?

Nearly two-thirds — 62 percent — said that party leaders should speak up and criticize Trump.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton taking a double-digit lead over Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and a higher percentage of Americans saying she's qualified to serve as president. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

At first blush, this might seem surprising. Typically, after a party nominee emerges, there’s pressure to circle the wagons and defend him, warts and all. Or at very least, to avoid weakening him. Those who do anything to hurt the party’s November chances could be branded traitors to the cause.

An earlier Post poll, conducted in May, asked parallel questions of partisans about how confident they were that their party would come together in the name of defeating the opposing candidate in November. Among both Republicans and Democrats, strong majorities (at least 8 in 10) said they believed such defensive party unity was in the offing. The responses were similar in a comparable poll question asked in May 2008.

And yet now Republicans seem to be actively rooting against wagon-circling.

There are two likely reasons for this.

For one, the candidate’s warts have grown bigger, uglier and potentially more cancerous.

Unlike predecessors John McCain and Mitt Romney, Trump has proudly and repeatedly insulted Hispanics, women, blacks, Muslims and other demographic groups that the party knows it needs to attract to have any chance of long-term survival. It’s one thing to try to spin a secretly recorded comment about the mooching “47 percent,” or an insensitive gaffe about “self-deportation”; it’s another to defend remarks that most Americans deem racist, such as Trump’s comments about a judge of Mexican heritage.

Second, and perhaps more important: Republican politicians — including, most recently, Trump himself — have turned criticizing political elites into a virtue.

And like it or not, Trump is now part of the political elite.

Personal attacks on party leadership, reluctance to toe the party line and open revolt against any top-down agenda-setting are no longer considered disloyal, even when they lead to embarrassment, dysfunction and concessions of power. The tea party insurrectionists, among others, recast these behaviors as evidence of ideological purity and independence, even bravery.

Trump has capitalized on this new measure of character. He declared that his departures from party orthodoxy and rhetoric (on trade, entitlements, immigration reform) and his unwillingness to show deference to party darlings (former presidential nominees, Fox News journalist Megyn Kelly) proved he was his own man. A maverick, even. He couldn’t be bought, co-opted or forced into the straitjacket of public civility (or political correctness, rather) despite demands and pleas from his party’s elder statesmen.

Now the tables are turning.

With Trump as party ringleader rather than piddling rebel, the GOP hierarchy has inverted. Thus far his fellow Republican politicians have for the most part avoided criticizing him overtly — going so far as hiding in elevators or feigning deafness to duck questions about him — perhaps because they wrongly believe the base demands wagon-circling. This latest Post poll, however, suggests that conservative voters are not just forgiving but encouraging of intraparty anti-Trump rebukes.

At least one down-ballot Republican politician has already realized this.

Sen. Mark Kirk (Ill.) earlier this month became the first Republican to publicly issue a Trump “undorsement” — that is, a retraction of his earlier endorsement of his party’s presumptive presidential nominee. And last week Kirk, embroiled in a tight reelection campaign, specifically touted this decision as evidence of his inability to be cowed by party elites.

“Mark Kirk bucked his party to say Donald Trump is not fit to be commander in chief,” a new ad for the senator boasts. It concludes: “Mark Kirk, courageous and independent.”

Trump for his part has been ordering fellow Republicans to fall in line — as he once proudly refused to do himself — and show some respect to their newly elevated leader.

“Just please be quiet. Don’t talk,” he admonished Republicans who’d half-heartedly admonished his Orlando comments.

But don’t be surprised if more down-ballot Republicans find it newly advantageous to recover their voices — and spines.