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Trump's extremism pushes broader debate in radical direction

Paul Ryan's agenda towards Syrian refugees is indefensible - but it seems "moderate" compared to Donald Trump's radicalism.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivers a speech at the Library of Congress, Dec. 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty)
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) delivers a speech at the Library of Congress, Dec. 3, 2015 in Washington, D.C.
House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) was asked last night about Donald Trump's call for "a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States." The Republican congressional leader passed, and his office said Ryan would share his thoughts in more detail at a press briefing this morning.
As the New York Times reported, the Speaker did exactly that.

[Ryan] condemned on Tuesday the proposal by Donald J. Trump that Muslims be barred from entering the country, saying it is "not what this party stands for." [...] "This is not conservatism," he said at the House Republican leadership's weekly news conference. "What was proposed yesterday is not what this party stands for and, more importantly, it's not what this country stands for.... Some of our best and biggest allies in this struggle and fight against radical Islamic terror are Muslims, the vast, vast, vast majority of whom are people who believe in pluralism, freedom, democracy, individual rights."

These were, to be sure, welcome remarks from a far-right congressman who has generally shied away from commenting on the Republican presidential race. Speaker Ryan had an opportunity to do the right thing and it's heartening to see him take advantage of it.
But this is the same Paul Ryan who recently pushed through legislation to block Syrian refugees -- ignoring the advice of U.S. national security and diplomatic experts of every stripe -- largely as a result of mindless, anti-Muslim paranoia. It's exactly what ISIS wants Congress to do, but that didn't stop the Republican Speaker from throwing his support behind the bill anyway.
And therein lies one of the under-appreciated consequences of Trump's bigotry and extremism: he's pushing the broader debate so far to the right that truly odious Republican measures start to appear "moderate" by comparison.
Jeb Bush, for example, was willing to condemn Trump's latest nonsense, which is laudable, but the former governor also wants the United States to show preferential treatment to Christian refugees over Muslim refugees. By any sensible measure, that's an outrageous idea that has no place in the American tradition -- but compared to Trump, Bush is seen as a "moderate."
Chris Christie denounced Trump yesterday, which is encouraging, but he's also said he's afraid of Muslim orphans and widows -- which seems indefensible, except when compared to Trump, Christie's posture is characterized as far less extreme.
Ben Carson distanced himself from Trump yesterday, and I'm glad, but Carson has said Muslims should be excluded from the U.S. presidency -- which is brazenly unconstitutional and offensive, but doesn't seem quite as bad as Trump's garbage.
Marco Rubio was willing to say he "disagrees" with Trump, but the Florida senator himself wants to use government power to close down "any place," including potentially mosques, where "radicals are being inspired" -- which sounds pretty ridiculous, but which isn't quite as ridiculous as what Trump said.
And then, of course, there's practically every GOP member of Congress, who, like Paul Ryan, is balking at Syrian refugees -- for reasons they've struggled to explain in a coherent way -- a position that seemed absurd as of a few weeks ago, but which is now perceived as vastly more reasonable than anything coming from the Republicans' 2016 frontrunner.
Watching the Overton window move with such incredible speed is exasperating, but don't be surprised if it continues into the election year. If the GOP nominee isn't Trump, he or she will likely be the most far-right major-party nominee in the modern political era, but we're still going to hear a whole lot of pundits tell voters, "Yeah, but at least he's not Donald Trump."