WASHINGTON – “I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”
Thus did Donald Trump react last week to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, who in her Republican response to the State of the Union address bravely called on Americans to resist the temptation “to follow the siren call of the angriest voices.”
And nobody wears the mantle of anger as well as Trump. The rest of the Republican presidential contenders, acolytes in anger all, seem happy to help him on with the cloak, to hem the sleeves and let out the waist until the fury fits perfectly.
Republicans like to blame Trump for hijacking the party, but equally to blame are the others in the race for letting it happen – and continuing to do so, now just two weeks from the Iowa caucuses. Thursday night’s debate was another depressing development: Any of four men on the stage – Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie or John Kasich – could have been a viable alternative to the fear and demagoguery offered by Trump and Ted Cruz. Instead, they cluttered the stage and quarreled among themselves, offering little beyond faint echoes of Trump’s rage.
A crystallizing moment came when each was asked about Trump’s plan to bar Muslims from immigrating.
Kasich: “I’ve been for pausing on admitting the Syrian refugees.”
Christie: “I said right from the beginning that we should take no Syrian refugees of any kind.”
Rubio: “Donald tapped in to some of that anger that’s out there about this whole issue.”
Cruz: “I understand why Donald made the comments he did and I understand why Americans are feeling frustrated and scared and angry.”
Bush alone expressed outrage at Trump’s proposal (“all Muslims – seriously?”) but he had no chance to draw an extended contrast with Trump in the seven-way competition for air time.
The GOP race is typically described as a struggle between the outsiders and the establishment. Really it’s a battle between the demagogic (Cruz and Trump) and the selfish (Rubio, Bush, Christie, Kasich). The latter candidates, blinded by certainty in their own magnificence, refuse to clear the field so that one of them can take on the demagogues. (Ben Carson, the other man on the stage, appeared to have wandered, bewildered, into the debate.)
The polling shows the dilemma: Trump averages about a third of the GOP vote, Cruz a fifth. The four others together are about a quarter – enough to give voters a viable alternative to Trump and Cruz, if only they could put country before self.
Worse, they seem content to echo and imitate Trump. Haley, in the audience for Thursday’s debate in South Carolina, got little support for her noble call for tolerance.
“Our military is a disaster. Our health care is a horror show,” Trump said when asked to respond to Haley. “We have no borders. … Our country is being run by incompetent people. And yes, I am angry.”
So was Bush: “The simple fact is that the world has been torn asunder.”
And Rubio: “If we don’t get this election right, there may be no turning back for America.”
Christie spoke of Obama’s governing as “a dictatorship,” called the president “a petulant child” and described “the world being on fire.”
But none could equal Trump’s formula for frightening. “It’s not fear and terror, it’s reality,” Trump said. “Our country’s a mess and we can’t let all these people come into our country and break our borders.”
Trump turned his conspiracy theories on Cruz (“if you become the nominee, who the hell knows if you can even serve?”), and when Cruz tried to fight Trump in kind by insinuating his “New York values” are too liberal, Trump shut him down by invoking the smell of death in New York after the 9/11 attacks.
There is, as Cruz was the latest to learn, no way to best Trump in demagoguery. So if Trump’s other rivals are only going to ape his paranoia and rage, why would voters accept an imitation if they can have the original?
A better solution is to present an alternative, which the other Republicans can’t do because they’re fighting among themselves.
When Rubio and Cruz were having a valuable argument about taxes, Christie broke in to “interrupt this debate on the floor of the Senate” and told Rubio: “You blew it.”
Similarly, after Cruz and Rubio were having an important debate about immigration, Bush dismissed the bickering of “back-bench senators” who “bend with the wind.”
And while his rivals quarreled over trifles, Trump got one step closer to the nomination.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.