WASHINGTON – Here, Republicans, is how your party’s likely nominee, Donald Trump, spends his Sunday morning.
At 6:13 a.m., he retweets a quote by the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” When confronted later with its provenance, Trump says: “What difference does it make whether it’s Mussolini or somebody else? It’s certainly a very interesting quote.”
At 9:08 a.m. he is on CNN, where he repeatedly declines to disavow the support he has been getting from white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, saying he would need to “do research” before taking a position on hate groups’ support for him.
At 9:14 a.m. he is seen on NBC stations telling “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that a judge in a case against Trump may need to be removed – because the judge is Hispanic. The judge can’t be fair to Trump “because of the wall and because of everything that’s going on with Mexico and all of that,” the candidate says.
By late morning, Stuart Stevens, who was a top adviser to Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012, had heard enough. “It’s becoming obvious that supporting or not supporting [Trump] isn’t a political choice,” he tweeted. “It’s a moral choice. The man is evil.”
“To support Trump is to support the hate and racism he embodies. That is simply an intolerable moral position for any political party,” Stevens elaborated Monday in the Daily Beast. “If Trump wins the nomination, politicians who support him will be acquiescing to, if not actively aiding, his hate.”
The Republican strategist said that losing the presidential election wouldn’t be as bad as “the shame of pretending that an evil man was not evil and a hater really didn’t mean what he said. We hold elections every two years, and there is always the chance to regain lost offices. But there is no mechanism to regain one’s dignity and sense of decency once squandered. That defeat is permanent. To support Trump is to support a bigot. It’s really that simple.”
As Trump continues his march to the nomination, Republican politicians, operatives, donors and voters face a time of choosing: Will they support the nominee? Or will they support decency? Stevens is correct: It’s a moral choice. Those who would support Trump can’t deny that they are tolerating and supporting his bigotry.
Stevens tells me he wants to see a third-party challenge that would give conservatives an alternative to Trump. “When people are playing the race card like Trump is playing, it’s not complicated to see it,” said Stevens, a Mississippian.
I have for months urged Republicans to call Trump the bigot and racist he is, and I’ve noted his similarities in style and substance to Mussolini. But Republicans failed to unify against Trump when it could have made a difference, and now they have a likely nominee who: approvingly quotes Mussolini; tries to discredit a federal judge by invoking ethnicity; reacts to a demonstrator by saying “I’d like to punch him in the face”; taunts other protesters by asking, “Are you from Mexico?”; declares that he is going to change free-speech laws to make it easier for him to sue news organizations; and refuses requests by the Anti-Defamation League and others to distance himself from white supremacists. (After declining Jake Tapper’s invitations to do that on CNN Sunday, Trump issued a tweet repeating an earlier disavowal of David Duke, but he said nothing about the hate groups supporting him.)
Now it’s time for Republican leaders to take sides – and the divisions are telling.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., chose one side Sunday, becoming the first senator to endorse Trump. No surprise: Sessions is an immigration hard-liner, and he came to the Senate after his nomination to be a federal judge had been voted down over accusations of racism and hostility to the Voting Rights Act.
Ben Sasse, R-Neb., a young, conservative freshman senator, took the other side. He posted a letter to Trump supporters Sunday night on Facebook decrying Trump’s “relentless focus” on “dividing Americans” and saying a candidate who “refuses to condemn the KKK cannot lead a conservative movement in America.” Sasse wrote that if “Donald Trump ends up as the GOP nominee, conservatives will need to find a third option.”
Such a third-party candidacy wouldn’t succeed. But it could accelerate the demise of Trump, whose hate-filled campaign would be doomed in a general election anyway. And it would provide Republicans with something valuable: an alternative to bigotry.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.