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Playing with fire: At what point will Donald Trump have gone too far?

2 March 2016
Will Super Tuesday be the beginning of the end for Donald Trump?

With ugly violence at his rallies and a public flirtation with racists, will Super Tuesday be the beginning of the end for Donald Trump, or confirmation he is a master demagogue ready to pander to the worst of human fears and prejudices? John Barron writes.

As voters in more than a dozen states of Amercia prepare to cast their ballots in Super Tuesday presidential primaries and caucuses, the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump is facing an intense barrage of criticism, and claims he is a racist who is unfit to hold office.

It began last week with a Facebook post by David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard who emerged in mainstream politics in the late 1980s as a member of the Louisiana legislature. Duke encouraged Americans to "take a close look" at Trump if they believe the era of political correctness needs to come to an end.

Duke said Trump would:

  1. Secure our border - if not - America and our heritage will not survive!
  2. Break the power of the Jewish-controlled Federal Reserve and predator banks like Goldman Sachs (and the FED) that are robbing us and the world blind.
  3. Break-up Jewish dominated lobbies and superPACS that are corrupting and controlling American politics.
  4. Ensure that the USA will not go to war with Russia and create Word (sic) War III.
  5. Ensure that White-Americans are allowed to preserve and promote their heritage and interests just as all other groups are allowed to do: Jews, African Americans, Mexican Americans etc. And the right of America to preserve its founding heritage in America.
  6. Because Trump exposes the lies of a controlled media and a controlled opposition media (Fox News).

When asked by CNN's Jake Tapper about Duke's endorsement, Trump was less than full-throated in his condemnation of the notorious racist and anti-semite:

"Honestly, I don't know David Duke. I don't believe I've ever met him. I'm pretty sure I didn't meet him. And I just don't know anything about him."

He also refused to distance himself from white supremacist groups:

"I have to look at the group. I mean, I don't know what group you're talking about," Trump said. "You wouldn't want me to condemn a group that I know nothing about. I'd have to look. If you would send me a list of the groups, I will do research on them and certainly I would disavow if I thought there was something wrong. You may have groups in there that are totally fine - it would be very unfair. So give me a list of the groups and I'll let you know."

Following the interview, unusually Trump went into damage control. He blamed a "very bad earpiece" and said he could "hardly hear" Tapper's questions.

His Presidential rivals piled on via social media. Senator Ted Cruz tweeted: "Really sad.@realDonaldTrump you're better than this. We should all agree, racism is wrong, KKK is abhorrent."

Senator Marco Rubio chipped in: "We cannot be a party that nominates someone who refuses to condemn white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan."

And the Republican's 2012 nominee Mitt Romney went even further: "A disqualifying & disgusting response by @realDonaldTrump to the KKK. His coddling of repugnant bigotry is not in the character of America," he tweeted.

Trump claims not to know who David Duke is or "anything about him". That is clearly false. Anyone who has followed politics in America as closely as Trump knows who David Duke is. In 1999 Trump briefly ran for the Presidential nomination of Ross Perot's Reform Party, but said he quit because the party included "a Klansman, Mr Duke".

And the controversy swirling around Mr Trump has continued today. A week after he told an audience at a campaign event in Las Vegas, Nevada he'd like to punch a protester in the face, a reporter covering a rally in Radford Virginia says he was choked and kicked by a Trump security official.

With these ugly scenes and flirtation with racists, Donald Trump has either made the kind of rookie mistakes the Republican establishment has long been expecting, or he has blown a long, loud dog whistle. Sadly, courting the racist vote is not bad politics ahead of the Super Tuesday, which includes states like Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas.

The Super Tuesday results will tell us whether this is the beginning of the end for the interloper Trump, or confirms he is instead a masterful demagogue prepared to pander to the worst of human fears and prejudices, and is all but unstoppable.

The outrage from Cruz, Rubio and Romney is self-serving, predictable, and probably too late. If Trumps attacks on MexicansMuslimswomen, the disabled, and prisoners of war haven't dented his appeal for some voters, why should this?

Sure, he's playing with fire. But Donald Trump is a political pyromaniac, he'll happily see the place go up in flames.

John Barron is an ABC journalist, co-host of Planet America, and research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney.

This article originally appeared on The Drum