Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a point during a...

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump makes a point during a rally in Reno, Nevada, on Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2016. Credit: AP / Marcio Jose Sanchez

It’s starting.

The establishment is beginning to break.

A trickle of Republican leaders and conservative pundits are dipping their toes into Donald Trump’s waters.

Some already are knee deep.

It’s what happens when a candidate acquires an air of invincibility, which Trump now has, despite the fact that primary voting has only just begun.

I had hoped this day would never come, but now it’s here. Or almost here. I still hold out hope that a Sen. Marco Rubio, Sen. Ted Cruz, Gov. John Kasich, or some combination of the three, can find a path through. But it looks less and less likely, and, regardless, the inevitability conversation has begun about Trump.

It will grow.

It’s the old, “let’s-unite-behind-the-frontrunner” discussion that Republicans have this time of year every four years. But this time it’s different. This year, the front-runner is a demagogue, an extraordinarily reckless demagogue, who has said things that should disqualify him from the presidency. This year, the front-runner’s not a conservative but an old-fashioned New York confidence man.

Republicans are supposed to coalesce around him?

We’re a dutiful lot, we Republicans. Especially Republicans who live in places where we’re vastly outnumbered. We’ve learned to bury the hatchet with primary opponents a little faster than, perhaps, the Democrats do. And we fall into line uncomplainingly when encouraged. Most of the time.

But don’t Republicans have a duty to preserve the integrity of their brand when it’s on the line? (Note: gift to comment section scribes.) If Trump becomes the Republican nominee — if the party truly embraces his candidacy — the GOP may never be the same.

Doesn’t that matter at all?

It’s tiresome to enumerate Trump’s verbal transgressions to date. But I’ll highlight a few that speak directly to the question of his presidential fitness.

n How can America have a commander-in-chief who has disparaged an unqualified war hero for getting shot down, imprisoned and tortured?

n How can Republicans put up a candidate for commander-in-chief who has said he’ll seize oil from foreign nations and torture foreign combatants?

n How can a nation founded on religious liberty have a president who wants to ban immigrants based on their religion?

n How can Republicans, once viewed as members of the responsible party, back a candidate who ticks off another world leader with seemingly every new utterance, and who tells Americans that they’ll “really” find out who knocked down the World Trade Center buildings when he’s president?

That barely scratches the surface. I mean, here’s a guy who said, “at least [Vladimir Putin’s]a leader,” when asked about the Russian president’s penchant for killing journalists and political opponents and invading sovereign nations. I won’t even mention the hundreds of juvenile insults Trump has hurled at anyone questioning his candidacy.

This is what we may be obliged to rally around?

It’s disappointing in the extreme to see people I respect climbing aboard. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani has yet to formally endorse Trump, but he’s already “advising” him. He should know better. Conservative heavyweights like Steve Moore and Arthur Laffer are reportedly in talks with him now. An upstate Republican congressman I have long admired just endorsed Trump, as have many Western New York leaders.

Roger L. Simon of PJ Media, a respected voice, wrote a piece Tuesday entitled “The Republican Establishment Needs to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald.” “If I were a member of the Establishment, whatever that is,” he wrote, “I would quit bellyaching, embrace Donald and make him my friend.”

But here’s the thing. I don’t want Trump to be my friend. To embrace Trump is to own him, and I’m not willing to do that under any circumstances. When this latest demagogue unravels, I don’t want to have been on the wrong side of history.

I want to have stood for something when my party went mad. I know I’m not alone.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant.