Column: Trump defines extremism down

WASHINGTON -- In the towering cumulonimbus that Donald Trump has formed over the Republican Party, there is a small silver lining: He makes the rest of the candidates look not quite so zany.On Sunday, Trump declared that his nearest (but not terr...

WASHINGTON - In the towering cumulonimbus that Donald Trump has formed over the Republican Party, there is a small silver lining: He makes the rest of the candidates look not quite so zany.
On Sunday, Trump declared that his nearest (but not terribly near) rival, Ted Cruz, is “a little bit of a maniac.”
There is some obvious truth to that statement. Cruz is the one who forced the 2013 shutdown almost single-handedly, who delivered the famous “Green Eggs and Ham” all-night filibuster on the Senate floor, who called his Senate Republican leader a liar and who has managed, with his kamikaze tactics, to inspire the loathing of his colleagues, liberal and conservative alike.
But in comparison with his accuser, Cruz is a paragon of statesmanship. When the front-runner for the Republican nomination is talking about banning Muslims from entering the country and registering those already here, and stirring up bigotry against Muslim, black and Hispanic Americans - well, everybody else in the pack looks downright reasonable.
Trump may be driving the GOP into demographic oblivion, a future without women, nonwhites, the young and the educated - but he has redefined extremism. Only in this environment could Cruz, a few inches more moderate than Trump, have a shot at being the consensus candidate.
Consider the case of Frank Gaffney, a far-right provocateur who alleges a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy in the Obama administration, who warns of “creeping Sharia,” referring to Islamic law, and who has played footsie with white supremacy. Respectable conservatives long ago abandoned Gaffney, but Trump Made Gaffney Safe Again.
Trump (joined by Cruz) appeared at a rally Gaffney organized in September. And, in his announcement last week that he would bar Muslims from immigrating, Trump cited a poll from Gaffney’s Center for Security Policy allegedly showing that 25 percent of Muslim Americans believe “violence against Americans here in the United States is justified as a part of the global jihad,” and 51 percent think Muslim Americans “should have the choice of being governed according to Sharia.”
The poll was garbage, an online opt-in survey of no statistical value. But after Trump embraced Gaffney in such a visible way, it didn’t cause much of a stir Monday when Gaffney hosted a forum in Las Vegas before Tuesday’s GOP presidential debate there, and four Republican candidates participated: Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Rick Santorum and Cruz. “Frank is a patriot,” Cruz said in his remarks to Gaffney’s group. “He loves this country and he is clear-eyed about the incredible threat of radical Islamic terrorism.”
Here’s what else he is:
In September, Gaffney hosted on his radio show Jared Taylor, a well-known white nationalist. On the show, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Gaffney told Taylor he “appreciated tremendously” the work Taylor does at his “wonderful” racist magazine and website, American Renaissance.
Taylor has, among other things, described black people as “deviant” and “pathological.” He has encouraged white people to revive their “instinctive preference for their own people and culture” and has written that “when blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization - any kind of civilization - disappears.”
In the ensuing uproar, Gaffney said he had been unfamiliar with Taylor’s views and removed the interview from his website.
In other actions, this friend of GOP presidential candidates has made allegations about Clinton aide Huma Abedin’s “deep personal” ties to the Muslim Brotherhood and said Abedin (also a Trump target) may have advocated for laws against “sharia blasphemy.” He was barred from speaking at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference after charging that the group had been infiltrated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The Anti-Defamation League has denounced him for promoting “the threat of an Islamic takeover of the U.S.”
Over the years, notes Charles Gati of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, prominent foreign policy conservatives such as Eliot Cohen, Paula Dobriansky, Richard Perle, Doug Feith and the late Jeane Kirkpatrick quietly distanced themselves from Gaffney.
But there on the screen at Gaffney’s event Monday was Cruz, now in second place in the race for the Republican nomination. Calling President Obama “an apologist for Islam,” Cruz said, “Frank Gaffney has been attacked over and over again for having the courage to stand up and speak the name ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ of the enemy that is waging jihad against us.”
In ordinary times, the specter of Cruz and other mainstream presidential candidates embracing such an ideological outlier would be obscene. But, thanks to Trump, these are no ordinary times.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.

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