The media know it. Republican operatives know it. Democratic strategists know it. But precious few of them will openly admit it: Donald Trump isn’t running a presidential campaign. 

WaPo’s Philip Bump summarizes the state of affairs that has the political world utterly befuddled:

Trump has the same ability as any other candidate to say precisely what he wants to any voter in any state: by advertising. He can buy ads in swing states and run 30- or 60-second spots making whatever case he wants in any language he chooses. He can send mail, he can knock on doors. He can, in other words, run a campaign. But he’s not. He isn’t running any ads, spending zero dollars on television (and getting outspent by the Green Party and Libertarian candidates). He isn’t contacting voters on doors or on phones, and has hardly any field offices. He isn’t sending mail. He’s tweeting, he’s holding rallies, but not much else.

Republicans are as stumped by Trump as the pundits:

Concerned Republicans say their worries go beyond the campaign’s decision to send its greatest resource — the candidate himself — to chase one or two electoral votes in Maine, or to what they believe are unwinnable states like Connecticut. The other phenomenon perplexing veteran operatives is that the Trump campaign now has the needed money to finance television ads and ground operations — they just don’t appear to be spending it.

If Donald Trump isn’t running a presidential campaign, what is he doing?

Let’s listen to what he’s telling us:

Consider his Alex Jones-style conspiracy-mongering; his meticulously crafted words of incitement and exhortations to violence; his attacks on a federal judge; his description of President Obama as a terrorist (the “founder of ISIS”); his birtherism; his retweets of neo-Nazis; his eliminationist language toward Hillary Clinton; his fierce misogyny and indifference to sexual harassment; his feud with the Khan family; his Muslim ban; his use of anti-Semitic symbols; his embrace of torture; his capriciousness about the proliferation and use of nuclear weapons; his praise for dictators; his flirtations with Putin; his welcoming of Russian cyber-espionage; his undiluted xenophobia; his racist dog whistles (“look at my African-American”); his infamous border wall and relentless anti-Mexican bigotry; his claims of a “rigged” election; his unconcealed calls for voter intimidation; his refusal to disavow ties to white supremacists.

And notably, look at his open warfare against the national media, simultaneously using them to mainstream white nationalism while verbally abusing and delegitimizing them.

Taken together, there’s one very simple and logical conclusion that explains everything Trump is doing: He’s purposely working to lead an uprising of the extreme right, to be a “heroic” figurehead for white nationalism, to create an atmosphere of violence, intimidation and nullification, to mainstream the language of the far right.

Either that or he’s dumb, incompetent, foolish, mentally unstable or some combination thereof.

I realize that the latter explanations are favored by the vast majority of political and media professionals. But are they accurate?

I no longer believe so.

I confess I’ve called Trump a “buffoon” on occasion. But the evidence keeps mounting that there’s a method to his perceived madness.

If we set aside conventional wisdom and the reflexive urge to attribute his behavior to something unintentional (foolishness, sociopathy, psychological problems, personal inadequacies, etc.), we end up in a very different place from mainstream pundits. Donald Trump is neither stupid, nor deranged, nor off message. He is a smart, manipulative, shrewd, successful, cold and cunning man executing on a plan. The reason he is confounding the national media and political establishment is because they are assuming his plan is to run a successful presidential campaign.

It is not.

His failure or success can be judged by his mission and the response he’s getting to it. If his mission is to run a successful presidential campaign, then he’s clearly failing.

If, on the other hand, he’s aiming to lead a movement, an uprising — perhaps an intentionally violent one — then he is getting the job done with brutal efficiency:

The leader of Italy’s far-right Northern League party, Matteo Salvini, hailed US presidential hopeful Donald Trump as ‘heroic.’

KKK leader Thomas Robb:

“At least he’s saying things that many, many people in this country are identifying with and are saying, “Yeah, that needs to be done.” So it isn’t Donald Trump that you guys are concerned with. You’re not afraid of Donald Trump. You’re afraid of the masses of people, the millions of people supporting Donald Trump becoming awakened to what they feel to be a country that’s being taken away from them.”

Don Black, former Klan leader who runs the white supremacist website

“There’s an insurgency among our people that has been seething for decades that have felt intimidated and demoralized. The Trump candidacy has changed all that. Whatever he says, even if he gets the facts wrong, it still resonates with people.”

And there’s more:

Richard Spencer, a leading white nationalist who coined the term “alt-right” … came to national attention last year when he pronounced Donald Trump as the candidate for white Americans in an interview with The Washington Post’s David Weigel. Almost exactly a year later, he’s even happier with the presumptive GOP nominee. “I think with Trump, you shouldn’t look at his policies. His policies aren’t important. What’s most important about Trump is the emotion. He’s awakened a sense of ‘Us’ a sense of nationalism among white people. He’s done more to awaken that nationalism than anyone in my lifetime. I love the man.”

Back in December, the Washington Post analyzed Trump’s primary campaign and came away with this:

Trump is, for the most part, a disciplined and methodical candidate, according to a Washington Post review of the businessman’s speeches, interviews and thousands of tweets and retweets over the past six months. The Post’s analysis found several qualities to Trump’s approach. First is a pattern of experimentation that suggests that he is testing his insults and attacks as he goes along. Like a team of corporate marketers, Trump understands the value of message-testing — but he appears to do it spontaneously, behind the lectern and on live television.

My colleague Melissa McEwan astutely observes that with thousands of lawsuits under his belt, Trump is keenly aware of the power of words. She’s absolutely right.

He dispatched several of his Republican opponents with derisive two-word monikers.

He consistently walks right up to the line of incitement but calibrates his words to avoid violating the law.

He has applied his uncanny knack for self-promotion to create a global cult of himself.

I can no longer look at Donald Trump’s campaign and dismiss it as a big error, joke, or train wreck. The fact is, he’s not even running a presidential campaign. He’s up to something more diabolical and more dangerous.

And we have to work even harder to defeat him decisively at the ballot box and prevent him from becoming what he wants to be: A historic and (darkly) transformational figure for the extreme right. After all, more than 13 million people voted for him. And that’s not something to be trifled with.

[Updated 8/15/16]

(Photo: CNN)