Poor Potter Stewart. The late Supreme Court justice wrote many important opinions, but will forever be known for honestly admitting that when it came to defining obscenity, "I know it when I see it."
Isn't that the truth about some things?
When people ask me to draw the line between serious candidates for president with something to say (if not a chance of ever saying it as president), the best I can do is to say I know it when I see it — and what I see is Donald Trump.
Trump has long been, in my mind, a perfect "Jeopardy" answer for the vulgarization of our culture and values, a celebrity for his celebrity, not for anything he's ever done, a man who seems to bring out the worst in everything around him.
It's easy to understand why people are drawn to him. He's the embodiment of everything most of us aren't: wildly overconfident (while most of us are still checking out the indices to the self-help books), unembarrassed (Who else could show their face after all his financial flops and failures, and he's turned it into a brand?) and absolutely convinced that he can do anything, say anything and get away with everything.
The line as to what you can "get away" with in American discourse has changed. It no longer includes racism. You might have thought that was true years ago and certainly since the election of America's first black president, but it wasn't. Indeed, independent surveys confirm that race enters strongly into the depth of opposition to Barack Obama, even if the White House, until very recently, has mostly done everything it could to keep race off the table, to not have Obama be "the black president", walking the tightrope between objectivity and empathy.
And then came the church killings and the flag and the long-belated recognition that symbols are such because they have power, that hate can flourish on the Internet not because anybody approves of it, but because the whole system is that you're not liable for what you don't edit. I never knew there was a Confederate flag on the state grounds in Charleston, S.C. Or maybe I knew (it's been many years since I've been there) and just "got" that that was the way things were there. But after the church killings, I knew, and there really was nothing to get.
Except for Trump, with his stupid, racist, offensive remarks about Mexicans, which first surfaced in his mid-June announcement.
"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending their best. They're not sending you (pointing to the audience). They're not sending you (pointing again). They're sending people that have lots of problems, and they're bringing those problems to us. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people."
Crime, drugs and rapists — and oh, yes, maybe some good people, too.
In recent days, a number of large companies have — to what seems to be Trump's genuine surprise — cut all ties with him. Did he miss the last election? Does he not realize something has changed? He has not.
A normal person would apologize. Trump has gone on the attack against his critics, in particular the companies who have dropped him. Describing himself as "defending the people of the United States", he called out his former partners: "I have always heard that it is very hard for a successful person to run for president. Macy's, NBC, Serta and NASCAR have all taken the weak and very sad position of being politically correct even though they are wrong in terms of what is good for our country."
Casting himself as the victim because he's a "successful person" running for president, even as he continues to repeat his original comments, goes beyond chutzpah. It is positively Trumpish.
(Susan Estrich is a professor of Law and Political Science at the University of Southern California Law Center. A best-selling author, lawyer and politician, as well as a teacher, she first gained national prominence as national campaign manager for Dukakis for President in 1988.)