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john ibbitson

Donald Trump waves to the crowd gathered in front of Trump Tower ahead of the arrival of the pope's motorcade for an appearance in New York's Central Park on Sept. 24, 2015.The Associated Press

In the summer of 1786, Daniel Shays led a movement of poor farmers that turned into Shays' Rebellion. Two hundred and twenty-nine years later, we have Donald Trump.

Is the billionaire candidate for the Republican presidential nomination simply the latest in a two-century-old tradition of populist protest? In some ways, yes. "Trump is very much a classic populist," argued Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest magazine, because his campaign " gain[s] energy by hooking up with generalized dissatisfaction with elites and the status quo."

But Charles Postel, a historian at San Francisco State University who studies American populism, believes this misrepresents both populism and Donald Trump.

"Donald Trump is a traditional politician who gains votes by scapegoating marginalized groups and promising pie in the sky," Prof. Postel said Friday in an interview. "He is much more common within the American tradition than people are saying."

Yes, resentment of the Washington elite is a trope as old as the republic. But as Prof. Postel observes, every American politician regardless of party, including every incumbent president seeking a second term, has campaigned on a promise to clean up the mess in D.C. Labelling that ubiquitous and forever-unkept commitment "populism" debases the word.

Real populism, of the kind incarnated in William Jennings Bryan, was a social democratic movement that emerged in the 1890s and that flickers today in the candidacy of Senator Bernie Sanders, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Mr. Bryan, who won the Democratic presidential nomination three times between 1896 and 1908, campaigned on behalf of poor farmers against big banks, big railroads, big anything. The Northeastern Republican elites beat him every time, just as the Democratic Party establishment will see to it that Mr. Sanders never poses a serious threat to their favourite, Hillary Clinton.

But there is also a nativist, anti-immigrant or simply racist streak in the American psyche that politicians have often exploited. Andrew Jackson was singularly brutal in his campaigns against Indians as they fought to protect their land. That reputation helped make him president.

The Know Nothings were a powerful force in the 1850s, demanding an end to Catholic German and Irish immigration. (Their only allegiance was to the Pope in Rome, the Know-Nothings claimed.) The Civil War swept their cause aside.

Huey Long is a special case, defying classification. The popular Louisiana governor, dubbed The Kingfish, proclaimed "every man a king" and advocated high corporate and personal taxes, with the money going to schools, hospitals and public works. His bid to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency ended in 1935, when he was cut down by an assassin. To this day historians debate whether Mr. Long was a reformer or a potential dictator.

But George Wallace was much more mainstream. The Alabama governor tried to rally Southern white resentment against Northern elites who demanded an end to segregation. "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever," Mr. Wallace vowed in 1963. In the traumatic1968 election, he carried five southern states as a third-party candidate. An attempted assassination in 1972 left him paralyzed. Although he later renounced his support for segregation, Mr. Wallace in the 1960s exploited racism against African-Americans in that same way that Mr. Trump is exploiting racism against Latin Americans today.

In that sense, the Tea Party wing of the Republican Party, far from being populist, instead simply mirrors age-old resentments –toward immigrants, African-Americans or anyone else easily defined by fearful white voters as the Other. The grandfather of the Tea Party is Pat Buchanan, who won three million votes in 1992 by challenging incumbent president George H.W. Bush with a platform opposing immigration, abortion and homosexual rights, and defending the supremacy of Christianity.

Sarah Palin embraced the spirit, if not the entire agenda, of Mr. Buchanan when Senator John McCain chose the unknown Alaska governor as his running mate in 2008. By talking about "real America," Ms. Palin stoked fears among conservative white voters frightened by the prospect of an African-American president.

Donald Trump, you will remember, campaigned to force Mr. Obama to prove he was born in the United States. Today, in his own bid to become president, he vows to deport Latinos en masse and restrict the freedom of Muslims.

But if Mr. Trump wins, Prof. Postel predicts, "he will rely on the Republican establishment and we will have a Republican administration."

That sounds almost comforting, until you next find yourself listening to Donald Trump.