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Over the holidays, I did a lot of thinking about the future of this country and the world. Yes, that’s what news geeks like yours truly do when confronted with a week or more unscheduled time. We think about problems we’ll never be able to solve.

The most alarming and troublesome trend I’ve seen in the last few months is the rise of Donald Trump as the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for president. Since last summer, I’ve wondered how it could be possible for so many Americans to fall prey to the insidious blandishments of one of the most shameless demagogues since George Wallace. But after the recent publication of a couple of reputable studies, a coherent picture has emerged.

The first was conducted by the Pew Research Center. Better than any I’ve seen to date, the study documents what Pew calls the “hollowing out of the middle class,” or the extent to which its ranks have shrunk in size and in real wages. Moreover, after being the largest economic class in the country for four decades, the middle class now has fewer households than the lower- and upper-income brackets combined.

Since 1971, the percentage of both lower- and upper-income households has grown, though the upper bracket grew fastest. Perhaps most troubling, for those in the middle, their median income in 2014 was 4 percent lower than in 2000, Pew says. And, along with the post 9/11 slowdown, the great recession of 2007-08 wiped away what little gains were seen.

Among those who migrated from middle to upper, almost all had college degrees. Tellingly, the study concluded that “those without a bachelor’s degree tumbled down the income tiers” and “among the various demographic groups examined, adults with no more than a high school diploma lost the most ground economically.” And of course, the shrinkage of the U.S. manufacturing sector has surely played a role.

Not coincidentally, a Washington Post-ABC News survey from November found Trump’s highest level of support coming from those without college degrees. More than 40 percent of those surveyed without a college education said they supported the billionaire businessman — more than double neurosurgeon Ben Carson, his nearest rival.

The second study I ran across from September was even more revealing. Since just about anyone can remember, people in wealthy countries have lived longer than those in poorer nations. But one group — middle-aged non-Hispanic whites in the U.S. — has seen its mortality rate climb significantly, especially among those without a college degree, according to the study’s authors, economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case.

Meanwhile, “black non-Hispanics and Hispanics at midlife, and those aged 65 and above in every racial and ethnic group, continued to see mortality rates fall.” How can this be? After all, middle-aged whites are probably making more money than any other demographic group.

The causes for the increased deaths probably won’t surprise you: drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. And wouldn’t you know? The study found that “those with less education saw the most marked increases” in mortality. The only known first-world spike in deaths comparable to this took place in Russia almost 25 years ago after the collapse of the old Soviet Union when alcoholism rates skyrocketed among males.

With members of the white non-college middle class feeling as though they are under siege on so many fronts, is it any wonder that they’re flocking to people like Trump and Carson? Why support a politician when it’s the political class that has inflicted such misery on us in the first place?

The phenomenon could even explain the relative success in Connecticut of outsider candidates such as Linda McMahon and Tom Foley. It could leave the door open to someone like MSNBC host Joe Scarborough, who lives in the state and has been mulling a run for governor.

True, Scarborough served a little more than three terms in Congress but his private-sector success and outspokenness since then have surely burnished his outsider creds. Look for Scarborough to run in 2018 and win. I don’t see a high-profile Democrat on the horizon willing to run for governor if Dannel Malloy doesn’t opt for a third term.

Sens. Chris Murphy and Dick Blumenthal are comfortably ensconced in the world’s most elite club. And besides, being governor is very hard work. You have to step on toes and do more than conduct town hall meetings and show up for photo ops, which is why Jodi Rell wasn’t any good at it.

It’s a shame that beleaguered middle class whites feel compelled to look in great numbers to someone like Trump. With the exception of Michael Bloomberg, high-powered business people rarely succeed in politics. They’re used to walking into a room, giving orders and hearing, “Yes sir, Mr. Perot. Right away, sir.”

Legislatures take a dim view of that sort of thing.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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