Somewhere within the psyche of longtime Republicans (those who have been horrified by the rise of the billionaire reality TV star Donald Trump within their party), there lurks a fear of what could happen if Trump became president.
Those fears were given form in quotes attributed to Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, at this weekend’s closed-door meetings of about 300 elite Republican at a retreat in Park City, Utah, held by former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney.
As reported by the New York Times and the Washington Post, during a session with House Speaker Paul Ryan, Whitman is said to have likened Trump to the prior century’s fascist dictators Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
She went on to argue that backing Trump in the November election on the theory that he’s a better choice than the all-but-certain Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton could lead to unpredictably worse choices down the political road. “What happens next time?"
Whitman’s question put Ryan on the defensive. He was Romney's running mate in 2012 and has backed Trump, but he criticized the billionaire’s attacks against a federal judge of Mexican descent as meeting the “textbook definition” of racism. He’s in a tough spot, he argued, because many House Republicans represent Congressional districts where Trump support is strong.
Whitman has never held elected office but there are reasons that her provocative questions carry weight among the dwindling moderate ranks of the Republican establishment. She spent $140 million of her own money to run unsuccessfully for governor of California in 2010. She was a national finance chair of Romney's campaign in 2012 and was twice on the Republican ticket’s vice presidential short list.
This year Whitman initially backed Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, in his failed presidential primary bid. Their political and likely personal friendship ended in March after Christie suspended his campaign and signed on with Trump. Whitman chose that moment to publicly blast them both.
She went on to contribute money to the #NeverTrump campaign, a Republican effort to derail Trump’s march to the nomination. It never gained traction
She has remained consistently anti-Trump whenever asked and, according to people familiar with her thinking, she says she sees it as a “black and white” principled stand putting country above party.
Whitman hasn’t yet said who she’s for but her choice will be closely watched. If Trump persists with racist rhetoric on the campaign trail, an alternative articulated by Whitman could point the way toward what Sen. Lindsey Graham has called the “off-ramp” that will give Republicans the excuse to drop their support for Trump.
Even so, the choices are difficult in a way that only a lifelong Republican can appreciate: Whitman could argue for sitting out the election entirely; she could back a third party candidate like Gary Johnson of the Libertarian party; or in a more unlikely scenario, she could break from Republican orthodoxy and support Hillary Clinton.
Whatever her choice, it’s unlikely to emerge until after the Republican National Convention in July. Stay tuned.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.