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Sarah Kendzior is a St. Louis-based commentator who writes about politics, the economy and media

In 2008, the United States plunged into a massive recession from which it never recovered. Unemployment soared, full-time careers were converted to part-time gigs and middle-class jobs were replaced by low-paid positions. In the midst of this financial collapse, Donald Trump achieved popularity as the host of the reality-television series The Apprentice.

His catchphrase was "You're fired." And Americans loved him for it.

This is the psychology of Donald Trump. He sells the suffering of others as a salve to the wounded. The smartest thing any candidate can do in the 2016 election is run on American pain. That is the U.S. growth industry in an era of economic decimation, war recovery and racial strife.

Unlike Hillary Clinton, who seeks to continue Barack Obama's legacy, or Bernie Sanders, who offers hope through sweeping change, Mr. Trump homes in on anguish. He assures Americans that their fate is not their fault. He pledges to end their pain. And he does so by promising the public persecution of the most vulnerable citizens: ethnic, religious and racial minorities.

In Mr. Trump's campaign, long-time losers – the mostly white industrial workers whose jobs began to disappear in the Reagan era – are promised to become instant winners, through means he has yet to articulate. The rest will be fired: denounced, deported, devalued. Mr. Trump redefines America through the politics of exclusion. He is tearing the country apart, and he will likely win what is left of it in November.

On Tuesday night Mr. Trump won the Indiana primary, and his last major rival, Senator Ted Cruz – dubbed "Lyin' Ted" by Mr. Trump – dropped out, ending a long series of humiliations. In the two days prior to the primary, Mr. Cruz's wife had to proclaim that Ted was not, in fact, a serial killer, while Mr. Trump posited that Mr. Cruz's father may have had a hand in killing President John F. Kennedy. Mr. Trump speaks the language of sloganeering and slander. This is the language of the New York tabloids that propelled him to fame in the 1980s, and the language of the reality and radio shows that kept him in the limelight in the decades to follow. It is the vernacular of the American showman: bold, bright, a performance of power disguised as speaking truth to power.

When one can make "You're fired" a beloved slogan during a time of massive job loss, one will have even greater success aiming destructive rhetoric at targets who are actually despised. Since 2008, the number of Americans registered as neither Republican nor Democrat has soared, reaching a record 43 per cent. Mr. Trump, a billionaire businessman born a millionaire, is as entrenched in the establishment as one can get, but plays the outsider to party politics by virtue of his self-funded campaign. He presents himself as victor and victim – a formidable force constantly fending off political enemies.

His is the triumph of a battle that exists primarily in his own mind, as financially strapped U.S. media grant him record amounts of airtime, and the opponents he humiliated, one by one, give him their blessing.

It is almost impossible to beat a candidate like this – one who peddles shameless lies while touching on taboo truth, one who is both the powerful and the put-upon. Pundits like to point to Mr. Trump's record high unfavourability rating – over 50 per cent – as an indication that he has no chance in the November general election. (Hillary Clinton is the second-most-loathed candidate, at nearly 40 per cent.) What this ignores is that, historically, the candidate with the most unfavourable rating wins.

For in America, ratings are ratings, no matter the reason. Bad press is good press. Dominating the conversation moves the conversation away from wonkish policy – Ms. Clinton's strong suit – into raw emotion.

In America, a nation of failed institutions – economic, civic, journalistic – emotion rules. We can no longer trust what we know, but we know how we feel.

America has endured 15 years of wars, joblessness, social-media rumour-mongering, brutal partisanship and reality TV. What you're seeing is not America breaking but the consequences of an America already broken. The country was Donald Trump's for the taking. On Tuesday night, Americans gave it to him.

In the end, the most vulnerable Americans will suffer, as Mr. Trump redefines his selected scapegoats as strangers in their own land.

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