INDIANAPOLIS — In a result that once seemed unthinkable to many Republicans, Donald Trump became the likely GOP nominee on Tuesday as top rival Senator Ted Cruz withdrew from the race.
"We are going to win again and we are going to win again bigly," a confident Trump declared from Trump Tower in New York.
Trump cut a swath through a 17-person GOP field as opponents lambasted him for making controversial statements about Muslims, Mexicans and African-Americans, appearing to incite violence against protesters, and leveling misogynist attacks against his female critics.
He will now represent the party of Abraham Lincoln in the general election despite little connection to any leg of the party’s traditional trio of social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and national security conservatives. Implausibly, he will now lead all three groups against Hillary Clinton.
Trump won by discovering a primal desire among GOP voters for a swaggering populist who would buck orthodoxy on trade, protect entitlements, build a border wall, deport all undocumented immigrants, and implement an "America First" foreign policy that demanded allies pay for U.S. protection or go it alone.
Millions of supporters, distrustful of their party’s leaders, rallied behind him as a unique figure whose personal fortune enabled him to spurn donors and say what he wanted with impunity.
He was as ruthless in attacking his Republican opponents as anyone else. With a nod toward party unity, however, he pivoted Tuesday from attacking Cruz, who he had nicknamed “Lyin’ Ted,” to calling him a "tough, smart guy" and "one hell of a competitor" with an "amazing future."
Trump graciously acknowledged Cruz’s “whole beautiful family,” which presumably included the wife whose looks he had mocked on Twitter and the father who he had insinuated just hours earlier was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Trump’s speech came shortly after Cruz, halfway across the state, told dejected supporters that he was ending his campaign.
"From the beginning, I’ve said that I would continue on as long as there was a viable path to victory," Cruz said. "Tonight, I’m sorry to say, it appears that path has been foreclosed."
Cruz made no mention of the opponent who he had told Americans that same morning was “utterly amoral,” a “pathological liar,” a “bully” and a “narcissist” after Trump’s attack on his father. Instead, Cruz offered a flowery tribute to Ronald Reagan and conservatism that sounded like a stump speech for a future campaign.
In meekly ceding the race to Trump on Tuesday, Cruz joined a growing group of rivals who had denounced the front-runner’s candidacy in apocalyptic terms, only to soften their opposition as the general election neared.
Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal called Trump “an unserious, unstable, narcissistic egomaniac” last September. He said he would back Trump on Tuesday. Former Texas Governor Rick Perry called him a “cancer on conservatism” in a speech last July. He said he planned to support him this week as well.
Cruz’s supporters weren’t all so ready to forget, however. Some chanted “Never Trump!” as images of the near-presumptive nominee flashed on the screen. An exit poll showed 43 percent of Republican voters on Tuesday were “concerned” or “scared” about a Trump presidency rather than “excited” or “optimistic.”
“We have lost our country,” a female Cruz volunteer, crying with rage, said after he finished his speech. “We’re a country of fools who believe liars and entertainers.”
"The Republican Party has transmogrified into something it was never supposed to be," 60-year old Cruz supporter William Gebby said.
Gebby had already made up his mind on what to do in the general election if Trump secured the nomination: not vote. Several others in the room said they were grappling with what to do come November.
The national party, however, was moving on. Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus declared Trump the “presumptive nominee” on Tuesday, ignoring Ohio Governor John Kasich’s continued presence, and urged voters to unite against Hillary Clinton.
After all of Indiana's 57 delegates were awarded to Trump, NBC News' count had the real-estate tycoon at 1,055 with Cruz at 564, Marco Rubio at 172 and John Kasich at 154. A total of 1,237 delegates are required to seal the GOP nomination.
Senior Trump aides told NBC News that they had begun vetting potential vice presidential candidates, a move they had resisted until they were sure of victory.
Cruz’s withdrawal left the #NeverTrump movement, a loose alliance of conservative activists committed to stopping his candidacy, grasping for a way forward. If recent days are any indication, Republicans will face significant pressure to unite behind Trump, or at least tone down their criticism. The movement’s leading elected official, Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse, reiterated on Twitter that he would not vote for Trump in the general election.
Trump’s complete contempt for the usual rules governing politics improbably put him on the verge of accepting the party’s nomination. But the general election is another story, and there are serious questions about whether Trump will be able to repeat his gravity-defying act a second time.
The same unfiltered resentment that made him a hero to his base horrified large portions of the country outside of it. Polls show he’d be the most unpopular major party nominee in history.
An April NBC/WSJ survey found 65 percent of Americans had a negative view of him, versus just 24 percent who viewed him positively. He’s especially disliked among women, Latinos, and young voters, all groups that were critical to President Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012. Polls have shown Clinton competitive in some ordinarily deep red states, including Utah and Mississippi.
Trump faces in Clinton a candidate with her own vulnerabilities, but also one who is likely to significantly out raise his campaign, and who will be able to attack him from the left in ways Cruz never could.
In a preview of the general election, Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta questioned Trump’s fitness for office in non-partisan terms, indicating an interest in courting Republican-leaning voters frightened by his campaign.
"Fundamentally, our next president will need to do two things: keep our nation safe in a dangerous world and help working families get ahead here at home,” Podesta said in a statement. “Donald Trump is not prepared to do either. Throughout this campaign, Donald Trump has demonstrated that he’s too divisive and lacks the temperament to lead our nation and the free world. With so much at stake, Donald Trump is simply too big of a risk."
Trump pivoted to the general election as well, promising to take on Clinton over her husband’s signature NAFTA trade deal, which he has accused of pushing manufacturing jobs out of the country.
"We’re going after Hillary Clinton," Trump said. "She will not be a great president. She will not be a good president. She will be a poor president. She doesn’t understand trade."
Whether Trump succeeds or not remains to be seen, but the country and his party have already been changed by his campaign. In the next six months, we’ll learn how deep the rabbit hole goes.
This article first appeared on MSNBC