Because this election cycle has wrecked so many seeming verities, it seems like a fool's errand to say anything with 100 percent confidence. But one can say with some confidence that Republicans have three options in the presidential race: win with Donald Trump, win by modifying Trumpism, or lose. A few thoughts on each option follow.
Win with Trump: Despite the current pundit pack mentality, Trump still does have a chance of winning the White House. After an absolutely terrible month, with attacks coming from the media, Democrats, and even many Republicans, Trump lags 6.8 points behind Hillary Clinton in the RCP average. In late June 2008, John McCain was about 7 points behind Barack Obama--and McCain had a much more unified GOP behind him. It's true that McCain lost, but Republicans hadn't given up the presidency in June 2008. Moreover, polls in many crucial states (including Pennsylvania, Ohio, Colorado, and Florida) often have a margin-of-error race between Trump and Clinton. This suggests that, if the Trump campaign takes its game to the next level and the party unifies, there's a chance that Trump could close the gap.
However, that's could. A number of steps would be required for that to happen. The Trump campaign would need to show more discipline, improve its fundraising numbers, and do more to reach out to members of institutional conservatism. More would have to be done to convince voters of Trump's sobriety and good judgement. Moreover, more members of the conservative and Republican establishments would have to make some peace with Trump. This doesn't mean that they would have to endorse him. But it does mean that the rhetoric would have to be taken down a notch. There could be no crusade to blacklist those who support Trump; such blacklists not only seem to run contrary to the intellectual modesty championed by traditional conservatism but also seem better suited to middle-school cliques than a serious national political party. Both pro- and anti-Trumpers would have to let bygones be bygones in order to focus on the future.
Win by modifying Trumpism: Adapting some elements of Trumpism or populism seems perhaps the only way for an anti-Trump coup in Cleveland or an anti-Trump third-party candidacy to lead to anything but electoral disaster in November. Replacing Donald Trump with some other candidate at the Republican National Convention would seem very likely to split the party. Whether one likes him or not, Trump did get a commanding plurality in the primary--at about 45 percent only a little less than John McCain received in the 2008 primary. He might not have gotten to a majority of primary votes (something Barack Obama also failed to do in the 2008 primary), but he did get to a majority of delegates. The only way this coup could have a chance of not gift-wrapping the election for Hillary Clinton would be for the eventual nominee to acknowledge that Trump's campaign had a point--about the struggles of the working class, the need for reform, and the importance of restored competence in governance. Echo-chamber myths to the contrary, a conservative could adapt some elements of Trump's campaign without betraying conventional conservatism. Making concrete pledges to cut guest-worker programs or to oppose TPP, for instance, could win over many of Trump's supporters, and neither commitment is outside the realm of conservative tradition or basic human decency. Reaching out to Trump's prominent endorsers and assuring them that they have a place at the table would also be part of healing the wounds of a coup.
Similar points apply to a third-party candidacy. In order to be anything other than a spoiler, a third-party candidate would need to be able to win some traditional lean-Democratic states, such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. Addressing some populist concerns seems a plausible route to making those states competitive. (Conversely, running on more marginal tax-cuts, more guest workers, and more trade compacts like TPP seems likely to keep a third-party candidate from having a chance in the swing states.)
In order for this strategy to work, anti-Trump forces would have to keep their focus on coalition-building rather than punishing their enemies on the right. An emphasis in some quarters on mocking Trump and his supporters harmed anti-Trump efforts in the primary season (forthrightly addressing some of his supporters' concerns would have done far more to deflate Trump than another tiresome joke about the size of his hands),* and that emphasis would also hurt anti-Trump efforts in the general.
Lose: This option would require the least amount of work (though, considering the weaknesses of Hillary Clinton as a candidate, it still does require some effort). Some on the right might conclude that surrendering to Hillary Clinton might be the best in the long term.
However, Republicans and conservatives who support a Clinton victory should not kid themselves. Those on the right who endorse Hillary Clinton are endorsing the candidate who has pledged the most obsequious fealty to left-wing ideology of any candidate in living memory. Whereas George HW Bush trumpeted a "kinder, gentler" version of Reaganite conservatism, Hillary Clinton is running far to the left of Barack Obama in 2008. She has pledged to expand executive power even further. In her judicial appointments and staffing of the federal leviathan, Clinton will likely put in place advocates of cultural-politics radicalism. On judges, it is unclear whether a Republican will end up appointing constitutional conservatives, but it is almost certain that Clinton would appoint left-wing ideologues. A Supreme Court stacked with radicals could prevent or hamstring both conservative and moderate governance for decades. Clinton seems likely to follow in Barack Obama's footsteps and try to federalize and polarize countless issues through the strategic deployment of the federal bureaucracy; under a Clinton presidency, expect more measures like the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which would make the federal government the de facto zoning board for all but the wealthiest communities. In foreign policy, the Obama administration has either embraced, or has proven ineffective at challenging, those forces wreaking havoc with the international system, and it's unclear that Clinton has learned from these debacles. Her "homebrew" server is but a taste of the secrecy and recklessness awaiting us in a Clinton presidency.
Our current constitutional sclerosis could very well deepen under a Clinton presidency. As in recent years, we could see a Democratic president make more expansive claims for executive power out of frustration with a recalcitrant Republican Congress. Out of partisanship, the president's Democratic and media allies would provide political cover, Republicans would fume, and constitutional norms would further wither. (That possibility assumes that the GOP does not go full Reservoir Dogs and utterly obliterate its congressional majorities in November. In that case, the election of 2016 could be equivalent to the UK parliamentary election of 1945, when the Labour party used the huge majorities it gained to socialize much of the British economy and change the trajectory of British politics for generations.)
All this does not mean that Republicans or conservatives have to vote for Donald Trump. But it does make clear what Republicans who endorse Hillary Clinton are signing on to. It might also remind conservatives of the importance of rallying behind some candidate in order to give a non-Leftist viewpoint a real shot at the White House.
*Ted Cruz understood this fact, and that is part of the reason why he came closer than any of Trump's other opponents to victory.