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Is Trump the end or the beginning of populism?

| Saturday, May 14, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

BROOKE COUNTY, W.Va.

For years, students of history and politics have waited for a populist election that would wake up the voters who trace their ancestry to migrating Scots-Irish frontiersmen.

Theirs was a settlement that began in New Hampshire in the 1700s, with a clear geographic pattern through upstate New York, down the spine of the Appalachian Mountains and reaching the Gulf Coast by the mid-19th century.

“If you'd told me a New York billionaire would be the one to unite Appalachia, I'd have bet you 100 pounds of Benton's Bacon you were wrong,” said Brad Todd, veteran GOP adman and a son of the South and of a long line of Scots-Irish.

Throughout this panhandle county, about at the center of the Scots-Irish trail, it's hard to find anyone in down-on-their-luck cities like Weirton or the picturesque college town of Bethany who didn't vote for Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in last week's state primary. Most voted for Trump.

Populism does not have an ideology, principles or core values, at least politically. That doesn't mean the people swept up in it do not have those — but those don't drive their anger, frustration or willingness to vote emotionally. Populism's power in this election cycle has frustrated principled conservatives, who feel pushed out of their party; it has annoyed Hillary Clinton supporters, who don't understand the appeal of a 74-year-old socialist.

Trump won Brooke County with 81.6 percent of the vote in last week's Republican primary; so did Democrat Sanders. Exit polling showed four out of 10 Sanders voters would choose Trump in the fall, if Sanders fails to win the nomination.

Trump's victory here was one of his highest percentage wins anywhere. The cities and towns here are mostly white, mostly working class. They were mostly born as New Deal Democrats but are considered “behavioral Republicans,” at least in mid-term elections when they typically vent their anger. (They tend to be less reliable in presidential years.)

Voters here say they are frustrated with Washington. They share that with voters in New Hampshire, upstate and Western New York, and just about everywhere in Pennsylvania — including Philly “collar counties” like Bucks, where Trump got 5,000 more votes than Clinton, despite facing five ballot rivals to her one.

That same sentiment is found in the South.

Populism wants someone who understands the frustration, who will fight the “big” things in life that have hurt lives and communities. Populist sentiment builds in voters drowning in uncertainty — will the government build an interstate that destroys our town? Will the rivers flood and destroy our livelihoods and homes? Will the factories ever reopen?

Trump's non-ideological message appeals to them because they feel the hard right and hard left have given them nothing for their support over the years.

In 2006, they grew weary of George W. Bush's ineptness in Iraq and congressional Republicans' overspending, and they threw out the GOP's majorities; they voted for Obama in 2008 in historic numbers because they saw John McCain as an extension of Bush.

Two years later they were appalled by the overreach of Democrats holding the White House and Congress and threw them out; they threw out some more in 2014. To people here, Trump isn't just some billionaire; he's someone who's been in their living rooms every week for more than a decade. His promise of American renewal and anti-establishment populism resonates despite his success, not because of it.

The voters who brought us our first real populist election since 1896 are the same people that big media likes to dismiss as less educated, less affluent, less likely to vote than their urban cousins — yet, for the first time in generations, they've captured the spotlight and left cosmopolitan America aghast.

Is Trump the end of populism in American politics? Will he and his movement be repudiated in November?

Or, win or lose, is Trump just the beginning of a new, anti-elite politics that threatens to wreck the foundations of both political parties?

Of course, it might just devolve into some white-working-class brand of identity politics, another challenger for “inclusion,” another one of the many “victim” groups that have arisen in the Age of Obama.

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

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