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Political class fueled populist wave that won't soon subside

| Saturday, April 16, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Watching the coverage of this year's presidential campaigns, it is evident that most members of the political class do not understand why Donald Trump appeals to voters.

They mistakenly attribute his attraction to a segment of white society that is wedded to racism and profoundly uneducated, has minimal social skills and is foolish and narrow-minded.

This typically gets reinforced after a Trump event, where the most outrageous supporters are interviewed and their comments spread like wildfire, becoming the image of every Trump supporter.

Many reporters, pundits and academics are befuddled by the attitudes of working-class people and by a Middle America that is so unlike their world.

These elites — who dominate politics, finance, entertainment and media — live in a world of college-class reunions, 401(k) plans and rising living standards; they deride any place not on either coast as “fly-over country.” Barack Obama once dismissed the people who live there as bitterly clinging to God and guns. Hollywood casts them as punch lines — when it bothers to acknowledge them at all.

When the real estate market crashed because of Washington's misguided housing policies and Wall Street's reckless rush to profit from them, the “Acela corridor” — that power axis running from Washington to New York to Boston — collaborated to come up with TARP, a program guaranteeing that congressmen got re-elected, banks stayed solvent and the only real losers were those who were handed foreclosure notices.

When the prescription drug industry developed new, potent painkillers, Congress paid for them as fast as they could be prescribed, padding the industry's profits. But lawmakers failed to establish safeguards against the wave of addiction that has devastated communities from New Hampshire to Pennsylvania and beyond.

Many Americans perceive Washington as having enacted policies that shipped off their jobs, stripped them of home equity and turned their family members into addicts. So their support for Donald Trump is not about Trump; it is about their communities, their families, their values.

Kathy Wagner, 42, a nurse from Aspinwall, attended Trump's Pittsburgh rally on Wednesday with two colleagues who work for a home health-care service.

“He made sure that the speech was about what he was going to do for us ... a focus on the people and the issues,” she said of the Republican front-runner.

Her colleague, Sally Lyons, 47, of North Versailles, gave up going to that night's Stanley Cup playoff game to see Trump: “Making America great again is more important than hockey right now. And for me to say that about my beloved Penguins means a lot.”

Co-worker Jackie Long of North Huntington wasn't just impressed with the content of Trump's speech.

“The behavior of the crowd was inspiring,” she said. “Everyone was well mannered, happy, really into each other and the speech and wanting better things for our families and communities.”

Paul Sracic, a Youngstown State University political science professor, understands such sentiments.

“It is true that the views of working-class white people are largely ignored by the coastal elite, but I think it's worse that — their views are ridiculed and stereotyped,” Sracic says.

“Trump appeals to them because he seems to be showing them respect. Supporting Trump, when he is so obviously despised by those same elite, is a form of retaliation.”

What most worries Wagner, the nurse from Aspinwall, is the stability of the economy — “not just for me, but for my family, my friends and my community. How do we fit in?

“No one looks us in the eye on the national stage and says to us, ‘We need to take the blame for how we've hurt your lives,' ” she said after listening to Trump.

Sadly, the first step in fixing the aggravation felt by working-class families as their hometowns, schools and quality of life decay, is for members of America's political class to take some blame for those frustrations.

But they don't, and they won't.

The danger is that they will continue to dismiss main-street Americans who support Trump as fools, racists and out of touch with the elites' cosmopolitan way of life.

Those frustrations that have evolved into a populist wave won't go away anytime soon.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (szito@tribweb.com).

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