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Donald Trump's choice

| Saturday, April 30, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

SHARON

As the crow flies, the distance from this former industrial town hugging the Ohio border to Indiana — the site of this week's presidential primary contest — is slightly more than 250 miles.

That's about the number of delegates Donald Trump needs to win the Republican nomination for president on the first ballot.

After the primary bloodbath in Pennsylvania last Tuesday, Indiana isn't even a must-win for Trump. Barring a meteor slamming into Earth, he will be the nominee.

Since the day he announced his candidacy, Trump has defied political science, political history and political-media expectations. And he reinvented the character and temperament by which you seek the nation's highest office.

He has done it because of everyday Americans who drifted away from the comfort of trusting government. These people have flirted with populism since 2006, when they stuck it to Republicans for their mismanagement of the Iraq war and their government-spending sprees.

After three wave election cycles, the shredding of the Democratic Party down-ballot, the shredding of the Republican Party at the top of the ballot and the registering of independents in record numbers, Americans of all stripes have contributed to selecting the first populist nominee for a major political party since William Jennings Bryan in 1896.

To date, we've never elected a populist president. The only presidential candidate to capitalize on voter discontent and win the presidency during a populist revolt was Andrew Jackson in 1828.

Old Hickory understood that for a very unsettled electorate to propel him into the White House, its anger had to be grounded in civic virtue, restoration of personal and states' rights and noble public service, rather than simple demagoguery.

Read Jackson's campaign literature from 1824 (“The letters of Wyoming”), and it is quite striking the way he sought balance and moderated his populist appeal.

He rarely appealed directly as a “man of the people.” Instead, he appealed as the last member of the Revolutionary generation, the last man of “republican” revolutionary virtue, charged with rooting out intrigue and corruption and restoring lost rights.

Jackson compared himself frequently to George Washington, who was no man of the people; he was a successful general who could take or leave politics but was willing to become the tribune of the people's virtue to retake their government from an aristocratic cabal.

Populism is not a Left or Right ideology. In fact, it has no ideology at all — which is why longtime conservatives have struggled to support Trump's candidacy or wrap their minds around what exactly he stands for.

As a populist, he doesn't have to stand for anything. He just has to keep the decibel turned up all the time.

Modern politics — with its insatiable appetite for sound bites, tweets and raw public exposure — has cheerfully fed the beast that is populism and eroded principles from the equation in America's contemplation of presidential timber.

In short, we have substituted concrete policy plans and core ideals — along with the principles that conservatism has stood for since 1856 — for the demands of the masses.

Democrats have felt that pinch to a lesser degree but still face some of the issues dogging Republicans. Many of their supporters are tired of all things big: big government, big banks, big corporations, Big Brother, big deals, big wars, big money.

Many voters have put their trust in the guy with the biggest megaphone to take them to a better place than the one in which they live. But how selflessly he takes that responsibility remains unclear.

Does Trump — like Jackson — understand that the way to harness populist energy is to quell the public anger with arguments for a return to a civic future; to advocate the restoration of over-regulated freedoms; to encourage the pursuit of noble public service instead of demagoguery?

Has he sought balance and moderated his populist appeal, or promised to root out intrigue and corruption?

So far, not really.

Yet as he stands on the precipice of being the Republican nominee, Trump has a choice: To become a man who expresses his willingness to be the vehicle of the people's virtue in retaking their government from the elite — or to become this century's Barry Goldwater.

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

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