WASHINGTON – On Thursday, Donald Trump called Pope Francis a “pawn” of the Mexican government and accused the leader of the world’s Catholics of “disgraceful” rhetoric.
On Friday, he approvingly retold an apocryphal story about a U.S. general ordering Muslims shot with bullets dipped in pig’s blood.
On Saturday morning, he wondered on Twitter whether President Obama would have attended Justice Antonin Scalia’s funeral “if it were held in a mosque.”
And yet, on Saturday night, Trump won the South Carolina primary, affirming him as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination.
Are Republican voters really choosing as their standard-bearer a man who preaches such hatred and spews such vitriol?
No, they aren’t – at least not yet. But they may get Trump anyway.
The good news is only 32.5 percent of South Carolina Republicans voted for Trump. The bad news: Trump may not need the support of a majority of Republican voters to secure the nomination.
Five months ago, I wrote that I was so sure Trump wouldn’t win the nomination that I would eat a column – 18 inches of newsprint – if he did. I argued that he “won’t prevail in the Republican primary because voters, in the end, tend to get it right.”
Trump’s inability to rise above about 35 percent of the vote vindicates – so far – my faith in the voters. But even if that holds, I may be soliciting recipes for wood pulp anyway, because, given the three-way race emerging between Trump, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump could clinch the nomination with minority support.
The Cook Political Report, handicappers par excellence, observed over the weekend that Trump’s 35 percent “ceiling” of support could be enough to win a five-person race (including John Kasich and Ben Carson) and even enough to “squeak out a victory” in a three-way race.
Cook’s Dave Wasserman explained that 38 percent of the 2,472 Republican convention delegates are from winner-take-all contests, which means Trump can get them with a slim plurality of the vote. And in a number of the other states that award delegates proportionately, Cruz and Rubio are in danger of slipping below the 20 percent threshold required to get a share. This increases the odds that nobody will get the 1,237 needed, or that somebody will without winning a majority of votes.
The long-awaited consolidation behind a consensus alternative to Trump has finally begun. Jeb Bush has joined Chris Christie on the sidelines, and Rubio, after his sound-bite disaster in New Hampshire, appears to have returned as the consensus anti-Trump.
But Kasich remains, potentially denying Rubio a huge haul of delegates from Ohio on March 15. And while the primary map gives Cruz no plausible path (none of his strongest states is winner-take-all), Cruz can remain in the race and deny Rubio a clean shot at Trump.
On Sunday, Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos that it would be a “no-brainer” to support the nominee, even if it’s Trump. “Winning is the antidote to a lot of things,” he reasoned.
An antidote to having a nominee who, echoing one of his supporters at a rally this month, called Cruz a vulgar name? To having a nominee who said in front of thousands that he would “bomb the s–- out of” ISIS?
Perhaps the most disturbing of Trump’s latest outrages – beyond lashing out at the pope or again implying that Obama is Muslim – was his decision to validate a hateful Internet hoax.
In South Carolina on Friday, Trump was defending torture (he said the United States should “go much further” than waterboarding) when he told a story of Gen. John Pershing, who allegedly dipped bullets in pig’s blood before executing Muslim prisoners in the Philippines.
“He lined up the 50 people, and they shot 49 of those people, and the 50th person, he said, you go back to your people and you tell them what happened,” Trump proclaimed. “And for 25 years there wasn’t a problem.”
Historians and others have found no substantiation for this allegation and plenty of evidence that Pershing wasn’t that sort of man. When a Massachusetts state senator floated a version of the Pershing claim in 2003 in a flier, the Anti-Defamation League called it “incendiary and bigoted” and an “offensive caricature of Muslim beliefs.”
And now, in 2016, the front-runner for the Republican nomination floats the same vile libel, and the chairman of the RNC says it would be a “no-brainer” to support him?
The voters may yet get it right, but that doesn’t mean the Republican Party will.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.