Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush speaks at Regent University in Virginia Beach on Oct. 23, 2015. (Steve Helber/AP)
Opinion writer

The Bushes are burning as they consume the news.

Bush family patriarch George H.W. Bush is alarmed, bewildered and irritated, the New York Times reported over the weekend, that his son Jeb is doing so poorly in a Republican presidential primary battle dominated by Donald Trump. The 41st president summoned his son George W., the 43rd president, Jeb and Bush money men to Houston for meetings Sunday and Monday to sort out what has gone so wrong that Jeb is now cutting staff.

They didn’t have to look far for an explanation. All they had to do was listen to Jeb on Saturday in South Carolina.

“If this election is about how we’re going to fight to get nothing done, then I don’t want any part of it,” the candidate said. “. . . I’ve got a lot of really cool things that I could do other than sit around, being miserable, listening to people demonize me and me feeling compelled to demonize them. That is a joke. Elect Trump if you want that.”

I don’t want any part of it? I’ve got a lot of really cool things I could do? Elect Trump if you want? The self-described “joyful tortoise” may have just delivered the most petulant political speech since the future 37th president said “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

At a rally in Jacksonville, Fla., Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump contrasted his own religion with that of Ben Carson's saying, “I’m Presbyterian. Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist I don’t know about.” (Reuters)

Bush is correct that Trump’s campaign of insults has made the 2016 GOP primary race an ugly affair. But his response — suggesting he’d take his ball and go home rather than sully himself — is precisely what has sunk Bush’s candidacy so far. Angry voters want a fighter, and Bush, justifiably dubbed “low-energy” by Trump, doesn’t seem to have it in him. The way to combat Trump’s demagoguery and race-baiting is not to look down your nose at him and say “Tut-tut.” It’s to hit Trump back with as much force as he delivers.

The alternative for Bush and other Republicans is to accept a situation that looks more gruesome by the day. This weekend gave us the spectacle of Trump going after Ben Carson — who just passed Trump in Iowa polls — for his religion. “I’m Presbyterian,” Trump told a crowd Saturday in Florida. “Boy, that’s down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don’t know about. I just don’t know about.”

This was vintage Trump — making his opponents seem alien, or something other than normal Americans. He led the birther campaign to portray President Obama as foreign-born. He warns of invading Mexican rapists, demonizes Univision and threatens to deport millions. And now he’s disparaging the (Protestant) faith of a rival. Trump said he wouldn’t apologize to Carson, who like half of Seventh-day Adventists is nonwhite.

Carson, who has questioned the fitness of Muslims to serve as president, may have had it coming. But that hardly justifies Trump’s campaign of insults. On Monday morning, at an event in New Hampshire hosted by NBC’s “Today” show, Trump continued the vilification, informing voters that Bush and Carson are both “weak” and that Obama “doesn’t get along with anybody.”

“People are tired of stupid people running our country, and we have, believe me, stupid people,” he said. “. . . It can’t always be the dummy United States led by people that are incompetent.”

When Trump wasn’t praising himself (“I deal with the biggest people. . . . I’ve done very iconic things”) or making vague policy pronouncements (“I would build our military so strong and so good. . . . We’re going to have a country that will be so amazing”), he was peddling fear about people “pouring across our borders” and raping, sodomizing and killing Americans.

He said he wouldn’t admit a single one of the thousands of Syrian refugees destined for the United States, because “these people could be ISIS.” He would instead “take a big swatch of land” to serve as a safe zone for them in the Middle East.

A “swatch” of land — as if he is choosing fabrics for a hotel, not dooming thousands to their likely deaths.

Jeb Bush understands — sort of — why he needs to answer such Trump lunacies. “If we don’t stand for people that will die because of their faith, wow, we have really lost our way,” he said Saturday, according to CNN, even as he fretted about a possible Twitter response from Trump.

Once the presumptive Republican frontrunner, Jeb Bush is now falling behind candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson. The Fix's Chris Cillizza explains why this next GOP debate is a make or break for Bush. (Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Damn the Twitter attack, governor, and stop fussing about whether we’ve “lost our way.” Americans are better than Trump. A strong candidate would argue that with passion — not muse about all the “cool things” he could be doing instead.

Twitter: @Milbank

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