Viewpoint

The wasted gift of Trump

I keep reading that Donald Trump is wrecking the Republican Party. I keep hearing that he’s a threat to the fortunes of every other Republican presidential candidate, because he sullies the brand and puts them in an impossible position.

What bunk. The truth is that he’s an opportunity for them as golden as the namesake nameplates on his phallic towers, if only they would seize it.

The brand was plenty sullied before he lent his huff and his hair to the task. And by giving his Republican rivals a perfect foil, he also gives them a perfect chance to rehabilitate and redeem the party.

As it stands now, he’s using them.

If they had any guts, they could use him.

They could piggyback on the outsize attention that he receives, answering his unhinged tweets and idiotic utterances with something sane and smart, knowing that it, too, would get prominent notice.

They could define themselves in the starkest possible contrast to him, calling him out as the bully and bigot that he is. Then he wouldn’t own the story, because the narrative would be about cooler heads and kinder hearts in the party staring down one of its most needlessly divisive ambassadors and saying: Enough. We’re serious people at the limit of our patience for provocateurs.

There was a hint of this last weekend, when Jeb Bush, whose wife is Mexican-American, lashed out at Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants crossing into the United States with an agenda of drugs and rape.

Bush labeled those remarks “extraordinarily ugly” and “way out of the mainstream” and said that there’s “no tolerance” for them.

But he didn’t exactly volunteer that assessment. It came in response to a reporter’s question, and it came more than two weeks after Trump’s offense.

Neither he nor Marco Rubio exhibited any hurry in distancing themselves from Trump, though both of them trumpet their personal biographies as proof that they’re sensitive to Latino immigrants.

On Fox Business on Tuesday, Rubio gave a pathetic master class in cowardly evasion, stammering his way through an interview in which he was asked repeatedly for an opinion about Trump. You would have thought that he was being pressed for malicious gossip about the Easter bunny.

He never did manage to upbraid Trump, though he was careful to mention the “legitimate issue” of border security that Trump had raised.

As in 2012, Republicans can’t summon the courage to take on the dark heroes of the party’s lunatic fringe. As in 2012, this could cost them dearly.

The Charleston, South Carolina, church massacre and subsequent debate over the Confederate battle flag afforded them an ideal moment to talk with passion and poetry about racial healing.

But the leading contenders reacted in fashions either sluggish, terse, muffled or all three. They showed more interest in fleeing the subject than in grabbing profitable hold of it.

Trump’s rant about immigrants, which he has since amplified, was another squandered moment.

Chris Christie could have made good on his boasts about always telling it like it is and being unconstrained by politesse. Instead he made clear that he liked Trump and considered him a friend. That crunching sound you heard was the supposedly hard-charging New Jersey governor walking on eggshells.

Rand Paul claims the desire and ability to expand the party’s reach to more minorities. So where’s his takedown of Trump?

Bush has said that a politician must be willing to lose the party’s nomination in order to win the general election, but that philosophy can’t end with his allegiance to the Common Core. It has to include an unblinking acknowledgment of his party’s craziness whenever and wherever it flares.

Trump’s hold on voters stems largely from his lack of any filter and from his directness, traits they don’t see in establishment candidates. So his fellow Republicans’ filtered, indirect approach to him just gives him more power.

And while he should be irrelevant, he’s becoming ever more relevant, because he’s exposing their timidity and caution.

They’re wrong to try to ignore him, because the media won’t do that and because he’s probably going to qualify for the debates.

Looking ahead to the first of them, conservative pundit George Will bought into the notion of Trump as an ineradicable pest who “says something hideously inflammatory, which is all he knows how to say, and then what do the other nine people onstage do?”

Oh, please. That’s hardly an existential crisis. It’s a prompt for an overdue smidgen of valor.

Without any hesitation, they tell him that he’s a disgrace. Without any hedging, they tell him that he’s absurd.

It’s the truth. And for the Republican Party, it might just be transformative.

Frank Bruni is a columnist for the New York Times.

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