The Clinton campaign's wobbly performance over the past 72 hours has set off a rash of behind-the-scenes handwringing among professional Republicans as they confront an unnerving new possibility: What if their nominee actually wins the White House?
For months, the prevailing wisdom within GOP political circles has been that Donald Trump stands little chance to win in November — and a large number of the party's consultants, fundraisers, and operatives privately preferred it that way. Though many of them are reluctant to say so in public, they argue that a Trump presidency would fracture their party, decimate the conservative movement, and wreak havoc on the global economy (not to mention their own industry).
But now, with polls tightening and Hillary Clinton's illness temporarily sidelining her from the campaign trail, those Republicans are expressing alarm at Trump's sudden electoral viability.
"It's terrifying," said one GOP consultant, who like others spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity. "He's not qualified ... and it's a massive problem. I'm not a fan of Hillary Clinton, but at least I feel like some of those jobs that are required for president, she could do them."
"It would be terrible for America, and for the world," said another Republican strategist, referring to a prospective Trump victory. "I can't think of one good thing that would come of it."
A third Republican said that after watching the Clinton campaign's missteps in recent days, "I'm curled up in the fetal position watching The West Wing and drinking a basketful of deplorable liquor."
Fueling this quiet panic in the political class is a broad frustration with Trump's general-election staying power, and growing doubts about the Clinton campaign's ability to put him away.
In the weeks since the Democratic National Convention, national polls have narrowed, and Trump has pulled even with Clinton in some swing states (though the electoral map still presents an uphill battle for the Republican). Trump's critics fret that he's benefitting from perversely low expectations. Clinton, meanwhile, walked back comments she made at a fundraiser last week consigning "half" of Trump's supporters to a "basket of deplorables." And after a high-profile health scare, the campaign admitted Sunday that they'd mishandled the disclosure of her recent pneumonia diagnosis.
"I've heard a lot of conservatives voicing frustration, like, 'How fucking hard is this, Hillary?'" said Ben Howe, a conservative ad-maker and an outspoken Trump detractor. "That's the only reason I'm panicked these days ... I'm losing faith in Hillary's ability to win this easy-ass election."
Rick Wilson, a Florida-based GOP consultant now working on Evan McMullin's independent presidential campaign, said few of his #NeverTrump compatriots believe a case of pneumonia will sink Clinton's candidacy. But her impulse to conceal the illness — and her campaign's clumsy response once it was revealed — reinforced a core political weakness.
"There are a lot of Republicans on the 'Never Trump' side that are starting to feel very nervous," Wilson said, "because no matter how minor the next thing is there's a possibility [the Clinton campaign] is gonna screw it up by lying about something. They can't help themselves. It's genetic."
Pragmatic high-dollar donors, meanwhile, are experiencing their own form of trepidation as they survey the campaign landscape less than two months from election day.
"A lot of these guys are really pissed," said a conservative donor adviser. Over the summer, when Trump's campaign was foundering, "they thought they'd gotten a pass — but now that Clinton is going off the rails, they're like, 'Damn it, now am I gonna have to give this guy money?'"
The adviser added that most Republican donors will hedge their bets and contribute to Trump if the race is close, but he said they are generally less wary of a Clinton White House. "If she wins, they aren't going to love it, but they're not going to be facing the apocalypse either — and by apocalypse, I mean actual nuclear warfare."
Asked why they wouldn't go on record criticizing Trump, several Republicans said they were worried about professional repercussions from conservative clients. In the meantime, many of them are preparing to do something they once considered unthinkable: pulling the lever for Hillary.
"I live in a swing state," said one consultant. "If it's close, I'll vote for Hillary Clinton. I'll regret doing it. It'll be the first time on a presidential level that I'll be voting for a Democrat. But I feel like it's my obligation as an American to do it."
Another strategist in a similar situation said he recently found himself engaging in a wishful Google search: "How late can you replace a major-party nominee?"
"I think Joe Biden would be a slam dunk, right?" he mused, in a tone that sounded almost affectionate. "Wouldn't that be an amazing track for Biden's career? Saving the free world by stopping Donald Trump."
McKay Coppins is a senior writer for the BuzzFeed News politics team, and the author of The Wilderness, about the battle over the future of the Republican Party.
Contact McKay Coppins at email@example.com.
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