Dozens of theories have been propounded to explain Donald Trump’s outlandish and dangerous behavior; most of them center on his insatiable appetite for self-aggrandizement. But everything he is doing makes perfect sense if you look at it through the right (and white) prism. Simply put: His ambitions are larger than the U.S. presidency.

Something’s been bugging me about Donald Trump’s candidacy. I don’t mean the egregious comments — we all know how offensive they are. I’m talking about the strategy behind it, the sense that something else is going on that we haven’t quite figured out:

Whatever it is, something seems fishy; it feels like we’re getting played. And we need to pay careful attention. Complacency is dangerous.

And today it clicked: Donald Trump is not running a campaign to win the American presidency. Rather, he is using his presidential run as a vehicle to achieve a larger personal ambition: To be seen as the leader of a “white [nationalist] awakening” — the term David Duke used to describe his campaign.

By accident or design, Trump is now seeking what he sees as a greater glory than the mere presidency. His strategy could be described as “lose at all costs.” That’s not to say he wants to lose. Far from it. He’d happily advance his agenda from the Oval Office.

It’s that he is willing to pay the price of defeat, denunciation and even disgrace to become a (darkly) transformational figure in American history, organizing and empowering the extreme right, mainstreaming their views with the help of a timid national media, and fully awakening the forces of bigotry and intolerance that lurk in the shadows of American society.

Chauncey Devega describes how those shadowy forces have become increasingly visible during President Obama’s tenure:

Since the election of Barack Obama, the United States’ first black president, Republicans — urged on by the Tea Party faction and right-wing media — have used the antebellum slave regime language of “nullification” and “states’ rights” to undermine federal authority and to call into question Obama’s political legitimacy. The right-wing media, its opinion leaders, and elected officials, have also openly talked about a second American “civil war” in response to Barack Obama’s (very centrist and moderate) policy initiatives. Conservatives routinely call Obama a “tyrant” or say that his policy initiatives (such as the Affordable Care Act) are infringements on “liberty” and “freedom.” This is speech that is designed to encourage violence against a democratically elected public official.

It’s hardly news that Trump appeals to these radical conservatives and their violently racist fringes. A fair amount of commentary examines that appeal. But it’s something entirely different to take the logical next step and acknowledge that analyzing Trump as a candidate who is legitimately running for the highest office is a fool’s errand. Everything he says and does is confounding from that perspective. By contrast, his behavior makes perfect sense through the prism of his long term mission to “awaken” the extreme right. Seen in that light, his words aren’t accidental, they are purposeful. And diabolical.

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 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 and Russian hackers; 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 there’s so much more:

For the second time this year, Donald Trump has retweeted a message from an apparent neo-Nazi, raising troubling questions about his judgment and the ideology of some of his supporters. [And] when British citizens proposed he be banned from their country via a petition, Trump encouraged his supporters to read the writings of U.K. conservative and former “Apprentice” cast-member Katie Hopkins. Hopkins has compared migrants to ”cockroaches” and “feral humans” and was reportedly investigated for “inciting racial hatred” in early 2015.

We are the clowns, not Trump, if we continue to believe that all of this, all the filth that emanates from him, is simply due to arrogance, loose lips, a lack of discipline, or some other facile excuse. Trump may be ignorant but he is extremely shrewd. His mastery of the extreme right’s lexicon and uncanny ability to knock out opponents during the Republican primary are reason enough to assume he possesses substantial political skill.

Evan Osnos, writing for The New Yorker:

From the pantheon of great demagogues, Trump has plucked some best practices—William Jennings Bryan’s bombast, Huey Long’s wit, Father Charles Coughlin’s mastery of the airwaves—but historians are at pains to find the perfect analogue, because so much of Trump’s recipe is specific to the present.

With slick operatives like Paul Manafort around him, it is increasingly difficult to believe that all of Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is accidental and unintentional.

My colleague Melissa McEwan elaborates:

Donald has, throughout his campaign, wantonly flirted with antisemitism, often in ways that have, wrongly, been attributed to his simply being ignorant of history. But it is not ignorance; it is plausible deniability. His white nationalist supporters hear these dog whistles loud and clear, while his surrogates spin excuses. There is a reason he insistently uses the “America First” rallying cry and waxes enthusiastic about Brexit, which was delivered on a cresting wave of anti-immigrant racism.

More from Sarah Kendzior:

What Trump is doing — and has been doing all along — is pivoting Americans toward his bigoted and paranoid worldview. He has made extremism mainstream to the point that David Duke now feels comfortable running for Senate. With his encouragement, his supporters have attacked non-white and non-Christian Americans. And, in its desperation for ratings, the financially struggling U.S. media has been key to normalizing Trump, giving him more airtime than any other candidate and often failing to challenge him on his lies and his bigotry.

And from the Huffington Post:

Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”, does not align at all with his rhetoric or political agenda. His campaign slogan should instead offer, “Make America White Again.” That’s the subtext to his message, appealing to those that pine for a return to the days when discriminatory laws, openly bigoted politics, racial violence, and a culture of hate and cruelty were tolerated when directed at people of color.

This clip from BNR’s video team, which exposes the underbelly of the Republican convention and has amassed nearly 10 million Facebook views, captures the exact language Trump is speaking. It’s the language of lawlessness — from the self-described “law and order” candidate.

If we open our eyes, we can see that Donald Trump is already realizing his vision of a white nationalist “awakening.” The signs are everywhere:

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.”

There are countless other examples, as Joan Walsh explains:

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.”

Assessing Trump’s campaign from a traditional electoral standpoint is a fruitless exercise; hardly anything he is doing makes sense in that respect. And it’s not just political observers and pundits who are stumped by him. Republican officials seem baffled too:

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.

This mystification would be justified — if Trump’s central focus were actually winning in November. It’s clearly not. Granted, he’ll occasionally appease GOP operatives (and throw off the media), by offering a concession … barely:

But aside from a few gratuitous qualifiers like the one above, Trump is intransigent: “I’m not changing strategy or my temperament.

Why would he change? His plan is working, not to win the White House, but to change America — and the world — by triggering a white nationalist uprising and becoming a “heroic” figurehead in what his followers see as a defining war against inexorable demographic shifts.

So for anyone who opposes what Trump stands for, it’s not just enough to defeat him in November (which we must do) but to understand that what he’s after is even more ambitious, and more dangerous.

Part 2 here.

[Updated 8/14/16]

(AP Photo)