Donald Trump, a garrulous, self-aggrandizing bully who courts the votes of racists and blames immigrants and foreigners for America's problems, is well on his way to becoming the Republican candidate for president of the United States. This should never have happened. Mr. Trump's candidacy was toxic from its inception, and history has repeatedly demonstrated that nativist demagogues like him have zero redeeming qualities. But instead of being exposed for the danger he represents, he has until this week been given credibility by far too many people – in the media, in America's political class, in the entertainment industry, in the Republican Party itself – who should have known better.
This great failure of conscience has happened for two reasons. One, Mr. Trump is terrible politics but great television. He shamelessly plays the clown. His slapstick insults and burlesque boasts are replayed for amusement's sake, shielding the candidate from deeper examination. "You won't believe what Donald Trump said this time!" is a news treatment that papers over the fact that so much of what he says is vile. He even got to host Saturday Night Live in November, a low mark in the show's history, but a ratings hit.
Two, his opponents kept expecting this clown to flame out in a spectacular clown-car crash. They downplayed the meaning of his rise and laughed when wags dubbed him the "Tangerine Mussolini." No one took him seriously, even as he played to the worst aspects of race-based American authoritarianism. They focused on his comic value, and not on his values, and counted on history to correct his course.
When the reality TV star announced his candidacy, experts said don't worry, he can't win. When he started winning, they said he wouldn't survive the long game that is the nomination process. Now that he is the presumptive Republican candidate, his flabbergasted critics are counting on the fact that he won't be able to beat Hillary Clinton, his likely Democratic opponent.
But what if he does beat Ms. Clinton, who just happens to be a terrible campaigner and is additionally handicapped by a controversial past and her status as the ultimate Washington insider? Imagining a debate between the shameless Mr. Trump and the plodding Ms. Clinton is like imagining a race between Seabiscuit and a wooden horse.
Oh, but not to worry, the same people are now saying, slightly less hopefully. As president, Mr. Trump will be constrained by Congress, the courts and the many other limits imposed on his office.
This is no way to fight demagoguery and racism. Sitting on the sidelines and relying on the mechanics of party politics to wean out a hatemonger is a recipe for disaster every time it occurs. Mr. Trump should have faced a unified, non-partisan counter-attack from the moment he took to a podium in New York City last June to announce his candidacy and accused Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers. He never should have gained such momentum. Instead of being condescendingly relegated to the entertainment section, as Huffington Post did to much self-congratulation last year, he should have been exposed on front pages as the racist huckster he is and forced into the margins of American society.
Because that is where he and his views belong. Like so many buffoonish racist politicians before him, he has exploited the economic and social disaffection of American voters by falsely blaming ethnic targets for those voters' legitimate problems. To win supporters, he says hateful and hurtful things about Mexican immigrants, Muslims and women.
Tellingly, as verbally tough and brave as he is when attacking vulnerable minorities, he can't bring himself to condemn the Ku Klux Klan, one of the most vile organizations in the world. In his view, a Muslim citizen is more deserving of public condemnation and government sanction than a former KKK leader who tells white people they must vote for Mr. Trump or they will betray their heritage.
KKK members and other white supremacists have been emboldened by Mr. Trump's rise. Suddenly they are more visible, dressing in black shirts, holding protests and waving the Confederate flag in people's faces. They even openly attend Trump rallies. And why not? Now they have a representative in the mainstream, one validated by an ahistorical culture clueless to the threat he represents.
Mr. Trump puffs out his chest and speaks of mass deportations of Mexican immigrants, of bans on Muslims entering the country, of building a wall across the Mexican border. His has bellowed support from the stage, Mussolini-like, as his followers have violently ejected black and Muslim protesters from his rallies. He gleefully endorses torture as a weapon of war. He trades in conspiracy theories, including the one where 9/11 was an inside job. He is vile about women, once tweeting, "If Hillary Clinton can't satisfy her husband what makes her think she can satisfy America?"
Mr. Trump is thriving in a dysfunctional Republican Party. Until this week, its leaders failed to denounce him, preferring to look away and hope for the best. They did nothing when he accused President Barack Obama of being a Muslim born in Africa, or as his racist rhetoric grew during the nomination campaign. And now they – and the rest of the country – are paying the price.
The man leading the Republican race for the White House is a preening, bellicose racist, feeding off the most divisive and destructive toxins in America's body politic. Mr. Trump should have been outed as one of this ilk immediately. It is not too late to finally undo him, but that will require Americans of all stripes and across all parties to stand up together and say, This is not what our country is all about. This is not America.