Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally on March 11 in St. Louis. (Seth Perlman/Associated Press)
Opinion writer

It’s happened before. The Republican establishment, recognizing the danger that the bigoted, demagogic candidate posed to the party, roundly opposed his election. On Election Day, however, the candidate captured a majority of the white vote. It was no fluke, as his odious views were well known. He had even once held elected office. A column I wrote almost 25 years ago refreshed my memory.

The candidate was David Duke, an ex-Klansman, neo-Nazi and former member of the Louisiana House of Representatives who ran for governor of Louisiana in 1991 and lost by a landslide to Democrat Edwin Edwards, thanks to a phenomenal black turnout.

Then, as now with Donald Trump’s campaign, Duke wooed economically discontented and politically alienated white voters by playing to their fears and resentments. Duke’s supporters believed back then that the quality of their lives — financial situation, job security, personal safety — was no better than when President George H.W. Bush took office in 1989, maybe even worse. As a result, they were frustrated, insecure, angry and ready to blame someone. So they gravitated to Duke, a man they believed would vanquish their foes.

The remarkable thing about the “Dukies,” as some of his supporters described themselves, is that they hardly resembled the caricature that might have been drawn of people who openly sympathized with a racist and anti-Semite.

I was in the midst of a large gathering of Dukies on election eve 1991 in a packed, smoke-filled American Legion Hall in the nearly all-white Metairie, La., House district that Duke had represented. I was also among Duke’s crowd the next day at his election night rally in Baton Rouge.

They resembled the enthusiastic white women and men who attend Trump’s rallies. Duke’s supporters were in their 20s, 30s and 40s, along with many senior citizens, more of them wearing jackets and ties and dresses than cowboy boots and jeans.

As with those in today’s Trump crowds, Dukies’ attention and emotions were riveted on their candidate and against the devils he excoriated: criminals who rape, rob and steal; politicians who only want more government and taxes; the liberal news media that try to tell them what to think.

A few of Duke’s 1991 themes echo today.

Said Duke, “Our environment is being threatened by massive immigration.” Sound familiar?

Duke on his trade policy and what he would say to the Japanese: “If you no buy our rice, we no buy your cars.” Is this where Trump gets it?

Duke on values and religious freedom: “I believe that Christianity is the underpinning of this country. . . . And if we lose its underpinning, I think we’re going to lose the foundations of America.”

A similar message is being delivered by at least one top Trump supporter.

Warming up the crowd this week before Trump’s appearance in Hickory, N.C., Pastor Mark Burns said: “Bernie Sanders . . . doesn’t believe in God. How in the world are we going to let Bernie — I mean, really? Listen, Bernie gotta get saved. He gotta meet Jesus. He gotta have a coming-to-Jesus meeting.”

Donald Trump, the outrageous, is no original. David Duke first trod this path.

But Trump is taking his campaign to places Duke never dreamed of.

Duke thought he knew what was bugging white America. White nationalism was his answer.

Trump knows what the United States needs. His answer: Donald Trump.

Trump’s aim seems not to be just the Republican presidential nomination. He clearly wants to be an American ruler, above political party, Washington politics and the demands of democratic compromise. Popularity and admiration will bind him to his followers. He’s so sure of his followers — “many, many millions of people,” as he puts it — that he predicts riots if his path to capturing the nomination is blocked by the GOP establishment.

Trump feeds off a zealotry born out of his promise to reawaken America and restore the country’s greatness. He promises to make his followers strong, instill them with pride, give them hope and make American power dominant in the world.

That kind of thing, too, we have seen before.

From der Spiegel: “There was the impact of the expanded Führer cult on Hitler himself. . . . He became, so it was said, more dismissive than earlier of the slightest criticism, more convinced of his own infallibility. His speeches started to develop a more pronounced messianic tone. He saw himself . . . as chosen by Providence. When, following the successful Rhineland coup, he remarked, in one of his ‘election’ speeches: ‘I follow the path assigned to me by Providence with the instinctive sureness of a sleepwalker,’ it was more than a piece of campaign rhetoric. Hitler truly believed it. He increasingly felt infallible.”

It has happened before.

Read more from Colbert King’s archive.