By Tom Ehrich

I just wrote captions for photos taken during my February-March pilgrimage across the US. The resulting book will be published next month.

I am not a great photographer. But I did capture the down-to-earth life of America "from California to the New York island." The land I saw was a good land -- fertile fields, abundant crops, industrious small communities, and, everywhere I went, people choosing to get along.

Whites, Hispanics, African-Americans, and Native Americans all worked side by side, ate together in restaurants, shared community life, and, to the extent that I could tell, seemed to have found mutual respect.

It was strange, therefore, to hear radio preachers and commentators beating a loud drum for "white power." It was strange to see legislators in the states I passed through declaring virtual war on people of color, both citizens and immigrants. Was there that much hatred beneath the surface? Would whites truly turn guns against browns, as police were doing in some cities? What was the anomaly: signs of mutual respect or fervent cries of bigotry?

Having watch the appalling candidacy of Donald Trump unfold, I am convinced that there is indeed an extreme fringe of haters out there. It is loud, it is impassioned, and it is well-armed. Great damage could be done if politicians like Trump give bigots the nod to act out their hatred.

Two questions emerge: One, how large is this hate-filled fringe? We know many Americans are frustrated, especially with lack of economic opportunity, and many yearn for what they imagine to have been the simpler days of the 1950s. But how many of the frustrated and wistful will turn to violence remains to be seen. We might know the answer within the next year, as our political class compete for the title "chief bigot."

The second question is: will extremes prevail, or will the center stand firm? Thus far, political candidates find it expedient to "race to the bottom." Will they eventually come to their senses? Right-wing extremists seem to be controlling the public square. While the wealthy few egg them on, as a cover for their greed and plundering, the middle that has always been America's strength seems unengaged. Posting sarcastic comments on Facebook doesn't strike me as engaged.

America has been down this road before, when haters ruled the streets and decency waited for their vitriol to run out. Europe went down this road in the 1930s. It doesn't end well, unless the sensible and decent push back.