“We’re liable to wake up one morning, and Donald, if he were president, would have nuked Denmark.”
That was Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas back in 2016, when it was still permissible for the Republican Party to speak truth about Donald Trump. A man who has spent his life conning investors, the press, girlfriends and wives has now enlisted one of the two major political parties of the world’s only superpower in perhaps the greatest con in history. Republicans must pretend Trump should be president of the United States.
In a long career of political consulting, I’ve helped elect Republicans in over half the country. I turn on the television and see men and women I helped elect praising Donald Trump, and I know they are lying. They are not idiots who suddenly decided that the core values they long claimed were at the heart of the Republican Party — character counts, personal responsibility, strong on Russia, fiscal sanity — were now meaningless. But they have convinced themselves that to be a Republican in 2019 requires you to lie. They tell themselves that their mendacity serves the greater good.
Trump is changing the presidency
In the 2016 Republican primaries, candidates other than Donald Trump spent most of their time attacking each other for one seemingly very sound reason: The Republican Party was never going to nominate a bankrupt casino owner who had lost the 2000 Reform Party nomination for president to Pat Buchanan; a candidate who had given the maximum allowed under law to Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner, had five kids with three wives, who seemed to believe church was where you went when you needed to marry a model, and who talked in public about dating his own daughter.
It was obvious this man could not represent a conservative party, so the key to winning the Republican nomination was simple: Be the last person standing against Donald Trump and you had to win. That logical conclusion proved to be an optimistic fantasy.
GOP activist who ran for Congress:Trump stole my party and my heart is breaking
The justification that many Trump skeptics gave for supporting him in 2016 was that he would change, grow into the office. But the presidency hasn’t changed Trump; he is changing the presidency. Trump has validated decades of criticism from Democrats that issues like the national debt and family values were meaningful to Republicans only to the degree they could be weaponized against Democrats.
We now exist in a world in which Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont is to the right of a Republican president on Russia and North Korea. Racism seeps from this White House like blood from a poorly bandaged wound.
In 2016, Republicans who had grave doubts about Trump but supported him could argue that he was better than Hillary Clinton, and that it was a binary choice. But a Republican primary gives Republican voters a chance to choose another Republican alternative. Voting for Trump in a primary is validating Trump, stripped of any pretense that he might improve or that an evil socialist is the alternative.
That’s why Republicans need an active, robust primary. The 2020 Republican primary is the definitional moment for the Republican Party for a generation or longer. We know who Trump is; the question for Republicans is who are we? Do we believe character doesn’t count, that the national debt is meaningless, that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (a man with American blood on his hands) is a “friend,” and that after decades of arguing that culture defines the soul of America, a president paying off a porn star is of no consequence?
A vote in the primary for Trump is to endorse all of the above. Arguing that you will vote for Trump because of judges but don’t approve of him saying he couldn’t have raped a woman because “she's not my type” is a childish rationalization. It’s like boarding a plane and saying you approve of where the first 10 rows are going but don’t approve of where the rest of the plane is landing. It’s one plane. You board it willingly and knowingly, or you get on a different plane.
Party of Lincoln is better than Trump
He represents what the Republican Party claimed to be for decades: a former U.S. attorney (named by President Ronald Reagan) who put crooked politicians in jail, a big state governor who balanced budgets and saved a state from bankruptcy without raising taxes. In a state that was less than 15% Republican, he brought people together to solve problems without the personal attacks and pettiness that is the Trump way. He is everything Trump is not: A big-hearted, decent man who understands what makes America more than just a place on the map with a flag.
Never Trump ex-Republican: I will vote for almost any 2020 Democratic nominee
There is talk of other candidates running. I hope they do. If the Republican Party accepts that Trump is the best we have to offer, it will forever own every bit of the bigotry, ignorance and terribly bad ideas that Trump would bring over the next four years.
Voting for Trump in the Republican primary is validating that the Republican Party is Trump’s party. If you are comfortable with that reality, fine, you have your man. But if you believe a party once defined by Abraham Lincoln is better than Donald Trump, this is your moment. Take a stand for an alternative or embrace that you are defined by Donald Trump. It’s your choice.
Republican strategist Stuart Stevens worked for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and is currently an adviser to America United, a super PAC supporting William Weld in the 2020 Republican presidential primary. His book about the Republican Party will be published in the spring. Follow him on Twitter: @stuartpstevens
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Give Republicans a chance to reject Donald Trump in a 2020 primary