By Tom Ehrich

When I imagine 14 more months of presidential campaigning, my immediate reaction is, "Ugh!" Then I pause. Maybe an endless campaign is exactly what we need to chart our future as a nation.

We need to know if a nation built on a middle-class and common sense can endure two worrisome forces: the widening gap between rich and poor and weakening of the middle, and extremism in right-wing and evangelical fringes.

Can a nation of immigrants survive the browning of that immigrant flow and the unleashing of racism?

Can a nation built on optimism -- a far greater force than "manifest destiny" -- survive the waning of American global supremacy, the unmasking of American "exceptionalism," and the growing complexity of a world transformed by technology and made a more level playing field?

Can a nation built on laws survive breakdowns in law enforcement and the corrupting of courts and legislatures by Big Money?

Can a nation built on religious freedom survive assaults on that freedom by Christian evangelical extremists claiming persecution as a pretext for persecuting others?

Thus far, the "perfect storm" of these historic forces has been tailor-made for a bully and race-baiter with bizarre hair. Donald Trump has given permission to extremists to shout their hate and to imagine a nation cleansed of everything they hate. Weaklings among his competitors have climbed aboard this sorry train of white triumphalism.

The coming months will determine whether a message of fear and hatred can gather enough momentum to swamp common sense, optimism, and fairness. It might well take every one of these 14 months to discern how deeply fear and hatred have corroded American character.

One by one, we will cycle through the scapegoats being offered up for sacrifice. Homosexuals, immigrants, people of color, independent women, intellectuals, liberals, scientists, honest media -- each will take its turn as the target of rage. If common sense prevails, each will be pardoned, and scapegoating itself will be named the enemy. If common sense loses the day, violence against minorities will become our way of life.

The mega-wealthy who are financing these smokescreens to divert attention from their plundering of America are hoping common sense loses, but that victors will prove malleable and controllable. History is unkind to that hope.

So, it could take 14 months to sort out who we are and to answer the key question: will the center push back against extremists and declare a fresh day of hope, reason and tolerance?

Trump-mania shows signs of wearing thin, because voters want something less shrill and nonsensical to chart the nation's course.

Fools and frauds are unlikely to stay around. They try to get traction for extreme provocations like walls along borders, but they sound like trivial opportunists, not leaders of a great nation.

After 14 months of 21st Century politicking, the question will be whether citizens turn out to vote. Will they examine their actual opinions and interests? Will they treasure the free ballot that makes our democracy work?