In political terms, who has the most to lose from this appalling brinksmanship over a federal government shutdown? House Speaker John Boehner? President Obama? Senate Democrats? Tea party Republicans?

The clear answer is all of the above, plus American democracy itself. As proof, we need look no further than a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll indicating that Donald Trump is running second behind Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination.

Donald Trump.

Look, I like The Donald. He’s a quintessentially American character, the brash billionaire who’s more Barnum than Buffett. As a developer, he’s thrown up some schlock but also given us some landmarks; his Trump International Tower in Chicago, for example, is a gorgeous spire that houses a superb hotel. As a celebrity and television star, he plays his role to perfection. And as a self-promoter, well, even in an era that historians may call the Age That Shame Forgot, he has few equals.

But that anyone could seriously imagine Trump as president of the United States — the actual president, living in the real White House, making fateful decisions about war and peace — must reflect something deeper and more significant than the weakness of the Republican field. I mean, really. Trump doesn’t even qualify as a wing nut on the political fringe, although that’s what he’s pretending to be, with all his “birther” blather. He’s a caricature, a cartoon, a “candidate” only in the wink-and-nod sense.

Yet 17 percent of Republicans surveyed by NBC do take Trump seriously — as many as favored Mike Huckabee, a former governor who won the second-biggest number of GOP convention delegates in 2008. In the poll, Romney led the field with 21 percent; of the rest, only Newt Gingrich with 11 percent and Sarah Palin with 10 percent made it into double digits.

In part, this must be a function of name recognition — but only in part, because knowing Trump’s name isn’t the same as saying he should represent a major party in a presidential campaign. Charlie Sheen has name recognition. Gary Busey and Lil Wayne have name recognition.

Trump’s prominence in the race must also owe to the fact that he’s a businessman — and, perhaps, that he also plays one on television in “The Apprentice.” Over the years, Trump has made smart moves and boneheaded ones. He has made great fortunes — and lost them too. But whatever his acumen as a deal maker, he couldn’t possibly keep himself in tailored suits and hair-care products if he ran his affairs the way our elected officials do.

The richest, most powerful nation on Earth is more than halfway through its fiscal year without having a budget. Lately, we’ve been operating on two- or three-week spending plans. This wild irresponsibility comes at a time when the nation is fighting wars in the Middle East and struggling to recover from the worst economic slump since the Great Depression — a time of great uncertainty and high anxiety about America’s place in the world. Now comes a serious threat to shut down the government, strictly as an act of political theater.

I blame the Democrats for not passing a budget last year, when they were supposed to, while they still had big majorities in both houses of Congress. I blame Republicans for their ever-changing demands, which seem to be coming from a caucus of 2-year-olds. But the point isn’t who’s responsible. The point is that in the larger sense, nobody’s responsible.

This is no way to run a banana republic, let alone a superpower. Leave aside, for the moment, the long-range challenges — sagging infrastructure, vanishing industry, growing inequality, underfunded entitlements, an overextended military. Leave aside the rise of China, the fall of Arab autocrats, global climate change and our stubborn addiction to oil. At one of the most basic duties of any government — make a budget, even if you don’t keep to it — our elected officials have utterly failed.

It’s the kind of incomprehensible failure that makes people conclude that the system is broken. It’s the kind of failure that makes voters want to look for a knight in shining armor, a caped crusader, a Man With No Name — maybe even a Man With an Inescapable Name. We’re lucky that polls show Obama well-positioned to defeat any of the Republicans mentioned so far. We’re also lucky that Trump’s “candidacy” is a piece of performance art.

And let’s hope Charlie Sheen keeps his tiger blood and Adonis DNA out of politics.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)

© 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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