Donald Trump at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner in Washington. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

Where’s the Donald?

Where is Donald Trump? He has sort of hung around presidential candidate events and even launched a presidential exploratory committee, but when the media’s lists of GOP contenders are printed, the name of Donald Trump is usually nowhere to be found. The man can’t get no respect.

To show you what I mean, I have in my hand the April 18 edition of the Economist magazine, which lists 11 possible presidential candidates, eight of them Republicans. Others cite as many as 19. Still, no Trump. The Post and the New York Times regularly publish similar lists — it’s hard to keep up without them — and yet no Trump. The Times’ list is called “Who Is Running for President (and Who’s Not)?” As far as I can tell, the only one who’s not is me.

This refusal to see Trump as a legitimate candidate is both mystifying and, for the Republican Party, highly injurious. After all, Trump has not only expressed serious interest — he’s in New Hampshire again this week — but he has sincerely declared himself to be “the only one who can make America truly great again.” He wouldn’t say that if he weren’t serious about running. I, frankly, don’t consider him any more of a dark horse than Mike Huckabee, who has noticed a war on Christianity that, apparently, you can see only with special glasses.

But if I were a Republican presidential candidate, I would do everything in my power to get Trump taken seriously. Oh, I know in previous years he has hinted at a presidential run and then done nothing. But the man provides a utility that the party dearly needs: He makes the other candidates seem reasonable. For instance, he recently retweeted: “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?” A Trump staffer was given the blame, but it was Trump’s official account — and the message was taken down faster than one of his companies could declare bankruptcy.

Trump’s most interesting quirk is his touching conviction that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. You may wonder about the religious fervor of some of the candidates — the ever-running Rick Santorum, for instance — or the suppressed isolationism of Rand Paul. But nothing approaches Trump’s birther belief.

It remains remotely possible that Trump fastened on the birther stuff just to get some attention. After all, he is in other respects both smart and canny. He has built an impressive real estate empire and presided over a long-lasting and evidently successful TV show. He is a billionaire, and his brand is either an icon or a narcotic: People flock to his buildings, positioning themselves so the name Trump can be seen in their selfies.

It’s possible that even in American politics one can go too far. Maybe Trump has soiled himself. Now, it is true that Obama’s birth certificate was a bit late in showing up, but why demand it and not, at the same time, John McCain’s? Could it have been Obama’s race? Or that his father was born in Kenya? Or that his middle name is Hussein? Could it, in short, be a reflection of prejudice? I mean, black man, white mother, Kenyan father, strange middle name . . . can’t you connect the dots? Trump can. Follow them long enough and you’re in the loony bin.

Trump’s birther obsession is both distasteful and more than a minor tic, like his flamboyant hairdo. When, for instance, Hawaii’s health director, Loretta Fuddy, died in the crash of a small plane, Trump tweeted: “How amazing, the State Health Director who verified copies of Obama’s ‘birth certificate’ died in plane crash today. All others lived.” Was he implying that Obama somehow killed her — maybe by drone? Who knows? Kenyans are capable of anything.

American politics sometimes seems to me to be a version of the movie “Animal House.” Every four years, some wholly unqualified person surfaces — usually in the Republican Party — and is swiftly declared some sort of political messiah. Last time around it was the ridiculous Herman Cain, pedigreed by right-wing pundits as the man we’ve all been waiting for, and before that the comedic Sarah Palin, a woman for whom the word unqualified is itself unqualified. This year, it could be almost anyone, but whoever it is, he or she (Carly Fiorina?) better pray that Donald Trump gets fully into the race. He’ll make everyone else look better.

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