Thanks to Trump, other candidates could get a pass on extremism

Richard Engel of MSNBC correctly described Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's proposal to block Muslims from entering the U.S. as "insane." As Engel points out, Trump's preposterous and dangerous suggestion would play right into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria's (ISIS) hands — the terrorist group wants to describe itself as waging a religious war that pits Christians against Muslims. In addition, it is revolting to hold a group responsible for the actions of some of its members. Yes, ISIS claims to be acting in the name of Islam. The Ku Klux Klan and the Christian Identity movement in the U.S. claim to be acting in the name of Christianity. Using Trump's "logic," we ought to hold all Christians responsible for terrorist actions committed by these groups. Of course, this would be ludicrous — which ought to tell us just how perverse and wrongheaded Trump's group punishment proposal is.

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But Trump may not be finished yet. He has refused to denounce the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, a decision most Americans now correctly recognize as a stain on our national honor. Would a President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump conversation with foreign leader part of complaint that led to standoff between intel chief, Congress: report Pelosi: Lewandowski should have been held in contempt 'right then and there' Trump to withdraw FEMA chief nominee: report MORE consider interning Muslim Americans? That the answer is not clear should be alarming, to say the least, for the American public.

For other presidential candidates, however, Trump's bigotry may be useful as it could make their own extreme views seem more palatable — simply because Trump is setting the standard for Islamophobia. It's easy (or ought to be easy) to condemn Trump. Some Republican candidates did just that by quickly denouncing Trump's proposal to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called Trump's idea "unhinged." Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) declared that Trump had raised bigotry to a new level. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie called Trump's suggestion "ridiculous." Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina described Trump's idea as "dangerous." Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) was more muted, but still said that he disagrees with Trump's proposal.

But some of these candidates have taken extreme positions of their own. Rubio has described the fight against ISIS as a "clash of civilizations," which may suggest that he believes the U.S. is at war with Islam. After the Paris attacks last month, Bush suggested that the U.S. should focus on Christians in Syria, rather than Muslim refugees. Rubio and Bush benefit from Trump's outlandishness. Although their own comments dangerously suggest that the fight against ISIS requires dividing all of us along religious lines, Rubio and Bush may escape scrutiny simply because they do not go as far as Trump.

And then there are the Republican presidential candidates who have, so far, declined to criticize Trump. Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas) would initially say only that Trump's Muslim exclusion idea "is not my policy." Later, Cruz said that he disagreed with Trump's proposal, but refused to specifically criticize Trump. Like Cruz, Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) would not criticize Trump — instead, Paul pointed to his own (by comparison, more limited) proposal to prohibit immigrants from a list of countries "with known radical elements" out of the United States.

It is significant that Cruz and Paul (as well as retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson) pointedly declined the opportunity to condemn Trump's dangerous proposal. One might assume that naked discrimination against a group of people runs so contrary to fundamental American principles that any candidate for public office would reflexively stand against it, without having to think twice. What Cruz, Paul and Carson may understand is that Trump has changed the rules. With one presidential candidate pushing the debate beyond established bounds of reason, common sense and basic decency, the rest of the field is free to stake out positions that — but for Trump — would appear extreme. For instance, Cruz has argued that the U.S. should only accept Syrian refugees who are Christian as he believes "[t]here is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror." In other years, the rest of the presidential field would be tripping over each other to denounce Cruz's proposal as dangerous bigotry. In the year of Trump, however, Cruz may be able to avoid being seen as an extremist.

Assuming that Trump does not end up gaining the Republican nomination (which is far from a given, of course), whoever is the party's nominee may benefit from Trump's outrageousness. After seeing one leading presidential candidate call for closing mosques, registering Muslims in a database and excluding Muslims from the U.S. (even, apparently, Muslim Americans who travel outside the United States), it's going to take a lot to move the nation's outrage meter in the general election campaign, which will leave plenty of room for positions that, at another time, would properly be denounced as extreme.

Edelson is an assistant professor of government in American University's School of Public Affairs. He is the author of "Emergency Presidential Power: From the Drafting of the Constitution to the War on Terror," published in 2013 by the University of Wisconsin Press. His second book, "Power Without Constraint: The Post 9/11 Presidency and National Security," will be published in spring 2016 by the University of Wisconsin Press.