What if Trump is more than just a clown? What if he’s unleashed a real constituency for nativist, authoritarian politics? Then it’s not hard to imagine how Trump, riding on his own wealth, keeps the show going into Iowa, New Hampshire, and beyond. And while our political system is fractured enough to deny him an ultimate victory, that doesn’t mean this wouldn’t matter. For the GOP — much like the Democratic Party in the 1960s — a successful Trump would force a reckoning. Either Republicans cut him out of the party, even at the risk of losing in a three-way race, or they follow Nixon’s example and co-opt his basic message for the party’s use, shrinking his base enough to win if he runs an independent campaign.
In which case, by leaving the mark of white nationalism on the Republican Party, Trump wins regardless of his ultimate fate.
Either way, we can’t just dismiss Trump as entertainment. Like Wallace, he is an eruption of the ugliest forces in American life, at turns authoritarian, like the Louisiana populist Huey Long, or outright fascistic, like the Second Ku Klux Klan. And like all of the above, he’s brought the background prejudice of American life to the forefront of our politics, and opened the door to even worse rhetoric and action.