If Donald Trump doesn’t win the election, his supporters will see it as nothing less than the end of the United States.

America is staring into an abyss of populism: People are angry, frustrated, fearful, disconnected, resentful.

By Salena Zito, Oct. 20, 2016

Populism isn’t ideology; it’s energy. It is entitled and noble, naive and skeptical, good-willed, dangerous and not going away anytime soon, all at the same time.

Both the Democrats and Republicans experienced it in the primaries — the Democrats in the person of Bernie Sanders — but Republicans actually nominated a populist candidate, in part because their party leadership was seen as insufficiently concerned about the kitchen-table issues driving a large segment of the party’s grass roots.gettyimages-513728014Yet, if folks think this current variant of populism is just based on economic resentment or racism, they’re vastly oversimplifying it. Instead, they should be spending the time to understand all the forces at work here.

Why are many people, particularly white working-class men, attracted to Trump?

Is it economics? Racism? Or something deeper?

There’s an important social and cultural element to this populism that’s often misidentified as simple racism. It is more what one might call “patriotic chauvinism,” reflected in Trump’s “America First” rhetoric.

It’s about how we define America in the early 21st century.

Today’s populist backlash began in 2009 with the rise of the Tea Party movement, whose own attempt to “make America great again” focused on constitutional restoration.

The Tea Party movement — sneered at by much of the media — arose spontaneously, without any centralized structure, said Paul Sracic, political science professor at Youngstown (Ohio) State University. “Because of this, it seemed to be dissolving on its own. But the anger, and the sense that things weren’t right, simmered beneath the surface.”

Enter Trump. His connection to the Tea Party wasn’t obvious. After all, he seems barely aware of the text of the Constitution.

“Perhaps, however, the Constitution was more of a symbol of the America that had been lost than anything else,” Sracic said.

And Trump offered a confident message that all could be made right. He began with a promise to build a wall, to establish a solid border that would help to define “America.” He also promised to sever the ties that bind the global economy — free-trade agreements like NAFTA.

“Trump is unlikely to win this election, and is even less likely to be able to institute the changes he desires even if he were to win,” said Sracic.

What will this mean for Nov. 9, the day after the election?

A Trump defeat will be incredibly difficult for his supporters to accept. Not that all of them admire him as a person — but this has never really been about him.

Instead, it has been about what he represents: pushing back against what those supporters see as nothing less than the end of the United States as they know it.

This article was originally published in the New York Post.