Some have suggested that Donald Trump is a would-be tyrant. I would say no, not in the full-blown sense of a Hitler or a Stalin. He has no utopian blueprint he intends to impose on America by force. Ancient writers would probably have called him a demagogue. For them, demagogues mirrored the worst aspects of democracy. They incited the mob against their betters. Braggarts with a love of wealth and pleasure, they epitomized the most vulgar kind of behaviour.
Does Mr. Trump stand for coherent policies? Despite flip-flops and vagueness, I think he does. It's just that he combines them in a way not done by anyone before, at least not within living memory. As a nativist, protectionist, fan of big government and quasi-isolationist (he would annihilate the Islamic State, but withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Pacific), he is the anti-Ronald Reagan.
But all of those policies have been staples of U.S. politics for decades. Both parties, and especially the Republicans, were fiercely protectionist throughout the 19th century and up until the Second World War. Moreover, a number of Mr. Trump's competitors for the Republican presidential nomination already had isolationist leanings and, like him, opposed George W. Bush's war in Iraq.
The core of Mr. Trump's support is from rural and rust-belt white men whose former middle-class economic security has been devastated by the outsourcing of jobs and who feel that America's identity is threatened by foreign immigrants. Like Andrew Jackson, Mr. Trump is the champion of this populist folk nation. His most recent predecessor was Alabama governor George Wallace: Just as Mr. Wallace, a southern populist and segregationist, garnered surprising support in the industrial Northeast and Midwest, Mr. Trump, a New York billionaire, has garnered surprising support in the South.
Mr. Trump sensed correctly that the Reagan-inspired policies offered to conservatives by Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio often left them cold. While today's Jacksonian Tea Party movement may favour lower taxes, they're not against entitlement programs they need, such as Social Security and ethanol subsidies and, in their libertarian leanings, some think that abortion and sexual identity are a matter of personal choice. Mr. Trump has intuited their existential mood of anxiety and frustration.
I suspect that many Tea Party adherents have been protectionists all along, but that mainstream Republican candidates could not offer them a way to express that feeling. Because they continued to adhere to Mr. Reagan's policies of free trade and stimulating the economy through lower taxes and smaller government (policies pursued vigorously by Democratic president Bill Clinton, something Hillary Clinton does not always care to remember), Mr. Cruz and the other mainstream candidates could only respond to white male economic insecurity by repeating that Americans need to "grow the economy" and create "jobs, jobs, jobs" through tax breaks and deregulation.
Mr. Trump, by contrast, tells them: "We're going to get back the jobs we lost to countries like China, whose idea of free trade is: You buy everything we make with our cheap labour, but we're not going to buy anything you make!" It is viscerally satisfying and contains more than a grain of truth.
Whatever the final outcome may be of Mr. Trump's raucous ride toward the White House, the Age of Reagan is over.