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Susan Estrich: The Trump Question

Donald Trump has gone over the line. It is as simple as that.

Demagoguery in times of terror does not require much skill. It is said of Trump that he is popular because he says what the rest of us — or at least a fraction of a minority of the rest of us — only think to ourselves.

But of course, even presuming we all have such thoughts, there is a reason we don't say them out loud.

Because they are wrong.

They are un-American and unconstitutional. And we know it.

It is easy to stand up for principle when there is prosperity at home and peace abroad. It's not so easy when the country is gripped by fear.

Look at the history of the First Amendment and you'll find that a libertarian's least favorite policies coincide with times of war (locking up the Japanese in internment camps during World War II) or periods of heightened anti-communist insecurity (the Alien and Sedition Acts, the Red Scare). 

So don't waste your breath praising Trump for having the skill to turn himself into the Father Coughlin of his time. Playing to fear by advocating extreme measures is frighteningly easy.

You just keep stepping over the line until there is no line. And then you step again. 

The country is afraid of Muslims, period. So don't let any more in, suggests Trump.

Barring Muslims from entry is his logical next step if his goal is to exploit peoples' feelings of anger, fear and helplessness. He is someone who can get attention to light the match.

Trump is a professional manipulator of public opinion; he has spent his life pushing the line of outrageousness and getting rewarded for it. This is his latest foray, and he's good at it. If you were casting a demagogue, you'd pick him. He did.

Easy for me to say; it's true. The Democrats will be tripping over themselves to condemn the man. So will those Republicans in the race looking to be the anti-Trump.

But will Ted Cruz stand up to him? Will he stop bashing Hillary Clinton long enough to denounce the man whose supporters he hopes to woo?

Trump doesn't need to prove anything. He has already shown his character. But this is a test of guts for Cruz, who has to decide whether he's on the side of decency or demagoguery. And it's a test for the GOP as a whole, along with its army of professional talkers. 

And could Trump win? Is this a Frank Capra movie? 

In presidential politics, a small percentage of voters serve as the country's nominating committee, in a peculiar dance from one state to another over the course of the winter and spring.

So, sure, as long as you have a multi-candidate race, where 35 percent of the vote can give you a "victory," Trump can remain in the lead.

But I have always believed that what unites us as Americans is so much greater than what divides us, and that it is the task of leadership to bring us together, not tear us apart. Ratings and delegates may come to those who scream the loudest and hardest, but the presidency should not.

But could it? Only if the race takes (way) too long to narrow and ends up with Trump vs. Cruz.

I say this not because I believe the two are equal but because so many Republicans tell me (and the press) that the only way they would vote for Trump is if the other choice is Cruz.

"He's that bad?" I ask. Apparently so.

As for the general election, I don't underestimate the force of the anti-Clinton vote. But she will win, unless a third-party candidate like Michael Bloomberg jumps in the race. In that case, 35 percent could be enough for an electoral victory.

Scary? It should be.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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