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.”
Rick Santorum, a former Republican presidential candidate, warned of the “Republican Party potentially being torn up,” and Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska groused about what would “actually make America great again.” (It was not Mr. Trump.)
Steve Forbes, the publisher and two-time Republican presidential candidate, summed up the mood at the event. “Parties,” he said, “don’t usually commit suicide,” suggesting the party was well on its way with Mr. Trump.
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The problem, for figures like Mr. Forbes and Mr. Romney, is that Mr. Trump’s supporters seem profoundly uninterested at the moment with the image, expectations or traditions of the Republican Party, according to interviews with more than three dozen voters, elected officials and operatives. They are, in many cases, hostile to it.
“I want to see Trump go up there and do damage to the Republican Party,” said Jeff Walls, 53, of Flowood, Miss.
From the moment Mr. Romney delivered it in a speech on Thursday from Salt Lake City, his entreaty to voters struck many in the party as high-minded and impractical: He all but begged them to vote for Mr. Trump’s rivals, thereby denying Mr. Trump enough delegates to clinch the nomination and force a contested convention this summer. Voters have not taken kindly to the recommendation, describing the request as a patronizing directive from an elite figure who thoroughly misunderstands their feelings of alienation from the political system. (Soon after, Mr. McCain endorsed his remarks.)
Conservative talk radio shows lit up Friday with incensed callers who said they were “livid,” “mad” and “on the verge of tears” as they listened to Mr. Romney scoldingly describe what he called Mr. Trump’s misogyny, vulgarity and dishonesty, and urged them to abandon him.
“The Trumpists out there,” predicted Rush Limbaugh, “are going to feel like the establishment is trying to manipulate them, sucker them, and they’re just going to dig in deeper.”
Kathy, from Sun City, Ariz., told Mr. Limbaugh she was “absolutely livid by the Romney speech. He’s condescending,” she said, adding that he sounded like a “Democrat the whole time.” Steve from Temecula, Calif., said he had a message for Mr. Romney: “The Republican electorate is not a bunch of completely ignorant fools.”
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“We know who Donald Trump is,” he added, “and we’re going to use Donald Trump to either take over the G.O.P. or blow it up.”
As Mr. Romney hopped between television stations on Friday, proclaiming his dismay over Mr. Trump’s crudeness, challenging his decency and questioning his integrity, he declared that his overtures were breaking through — though not necessarily to the audience he intended. In an interview conducted inside the headquarters of Bloomberg News in Manhattan, far from the crucial primary voting states that could decide Mr. Trump’s fate, he observed that Midtown office workers had offered their gratitude as he rode up to the studio.
“Just coming up the escalator, Mr. Romney said, people said, “ ‘Thanks for what you did yesterday.’ ”
But outside of that orbit, the response was less welcoming.
In interviews across the country, Republican voters suggested that Mr. Romney’s move was presumptuous and described him as out of touch and ineffectual. “They want to control the election because they don’t like Trump,” said Joann Hirschmann of Shelby Township, Mich., a supporter of Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. “And I can understand that. But you have to let the people speak.”
Frustrated Republicans seized on Mr. Romney’s status as a party insider who was insulated from the realities, indignities and rage of average Americans headed to the polls this year. “He’s an establishment figure,” said Faith Sheptoski-Forbush of Romulus, Mich. “So that’s what you get.”
She called Mr. Romney’s diatribe against Mr. Trump “a desperate attempt” that left her deeply disappointed in him.
“What we need is the voice of the people,” Ms. Sheptoski-Forbush said. “The voice of the people want Trump.”
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