Trump traffics in hate. He began his campaign telling Americans that Mexican immigrants are rapists and drug dealers, who, when they aren't busy defiling women, are stealing jobs. He has promised to build a wall across our entire southern border to keep out the supposed hordes that are invading our country, even though illegal immigration is at a decades-long low. He insists that he'll make Mexico foot the bill for the wall's construction. He promises to round up 11 million illegal immigrants and send them back where they came from. When asked how he will do so, he invokes "Operation Wetback," the Eisenhower-era program that led to the deaths of hundreds of people; 88 died from heatstroke in one incident alone.
Trump quickly went from bashing Mexicans to calling for bans on Muslims. All Muslims. He slandered American Muslims for celebrating the attack on 9/11: "Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down. Thousands of people were cheering," he told a crowd in November in Alabama. When no evidence could be produced to back up his false memory, he did what he always does. He doubled down.
If every one of his opponents had taken the debate stage following Trump's outrageous remarks and said in one voice that they won't stand for this demagoguery, he would not be where he is today, the leading candidate of the Republican Party. Instead, they mostly ignored him or tried their own less-outrageous versions.
Ted Cruz has recently started to take on Trump in a systematic way in his TV ads, but even Cruz wilts when he stands on stage next to the man. Part of the problem is that, to one degree or another, most of the other candidates have demagogued on Trump's signature issue, immigration. And they've done so because they are afraid to stand up before conservative audiences and speak the truth. You can't tell me that Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush don't all know that illegal immigration is down, not up; that we spend more money on border enforcement than we do on all other federal criminal law enforcement combined; and that immigrants take jobs that others won't or can't do, with a net gain to the economy. Their reticence to set the record straight gives Trump free rein to get uglier every time he opens his mouth.
Expect it to get worse. At this point, Trump seems willing to say almost anything. He called Ted Cruz a "pussy" last week, repeating, to much laughter and applause, a line from a woman in the audience. His audiences are, in Trump's peculiar pronunciation, "yuge" -- and that is why none of the candidates want to criticize him.
But there are other ways to appeal to lower-middle-class voters than by resorting to vulgar language and pandering to bigotry. These voters have legitimate concerns about the erosion of their wages and their diminished opportunities in an economy that has stagnated. But competition from immigrants isn't the problem. How many of these voters really want to work in poultry processing or agriculture or mopping floors and cleaning toilets anyway -- jobs where immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, dominate?
It may be too late to stop Trump. I hope not, but my optimism dims with each debate, poll and primary. The candidates will have one more chance before the South Carolina vote, in Saturday's debate. Let's see if those who believe in something greater than themselves will stop taking shots at each other and focus on calling out Trump.