I'm neither endorsing nor condemning Mr. Trump, but I do think he's trying to save the Republican party from itself in a very rational way. The last thing he is is a clown or dilettante. (OK, maybe a clown.)
Why? Because the Republican party has essentially exhausted the two ideological themes it has ridden on since about 1980 -- free markets and social conservatism -- and needs new ones to survive.
Any ideologues out there, I'm sorry: American history makes quite clear that partisan ideological themes don't last forever, in either party. They're good for a few decades, then they evolve or get dumped.
(Permanent matters of national principle may last forever, but they're a different issue, and they're not the ideological possessions of either party, so no party can win competitive leverage in elections by appealing to them.)
First, consider the exhaustion of free-market ideology. This doesn't mean that free markets per se, which obviously have enormous validity, are dead as an idea. But it does mean that pushing even further in the direction of free markets is dead as an idea.
Why? Most obviously, the 2008 financial crisis, whose effects we're still dealing with, was an effect of markets allowed to run amok, not of markets being insufficiently free. (Yes, I know you can blame it all on the government, but that's a tendentious "reality is the opposite of what you see" argument.)
There's a happy medium between too much and too little regulation, and we've basically reached the limit of our ability to improve our economy by deregulating further. Five years ago, I predicted this would happen. Now it has.
In public perception, this wasn't always the case. It certainly wasn't in 1980, when Ronald Reagan rode this theme to victory. And argue the timing if you like, but surely the reader recalls the romanticism about markets of the late 1990s? Remember California deregulating its electricity market in 1996? (Which handed control over to Enron, by the way, and led to blackouts in Silicon Valley.)
So "Even freer markets!" has lost its credibility as an ideological theme. If you disagree, then what industries would you now propose to deregulate, and how do you think that would improve things?
The increased public interest in economic equality is also playing a role here. There are conservative policies that reduce inequality, but they're old-school paternalist conservative policies, not free-market conservative policies. (Some people will tell you that "conservative" simply equals "free market," but this is simply ignorant of history, though I don't have the space to elaborate here.)
Social conservatism is a more complicated topic, but in a country where both public opinion and the Supreme Court support, to take the obvious example, gay marriage, it doesn't look like a net electoral winner from now on. Neither does the ongoing fall in religiosity registered by public-opinion polls, the rise of "no affiliation" among Generations X and Y, the decline of major religious denominations, increasing acceptance of marijuana and out-of-wedlock childbearing, et cetera et cetera.
So what's the Republican party to do? Luckily, there are other right-wing themes out there to be had, though not an infinite number of truly big ones, substantial enough and popular enough to float a national political party on.
Enter nationalism. Specifically, economic nationalism, because the economy is what voters care about most. Mr. Trump's protectionism is a form of economic nationalism. So is his stance against immigration. (Again, I take no position on the merits, but anti-immigrationism is definitely a form of economic nationalism.)
Trump is not the first person to come up with this strategy: as I noted in an article during the 2012 election, Mitt Romney was going in this direction already, albeit much less aggressively than Trump.
Romney pledged to crack down on China's currency manipulation. He threatened the use of countervailing duties if necessary, a serious and previously ideologically taboo attempt to blunt America's trade deficit. He said illegal immigrants should "self deport."
Why was Romney less aggressive? For one thing, that was several years ago, and the causative trends hadn't yet gone so far. Two, he wasn't a billionaire, only a humble multi-millionaire, so he had to cater to the Republican donor class. Which, while not sincerely socially conservative, very much adores free-market ideology as the perfect rationalization for their crony-capitalist reality. (Their interpretation of "free" markets is "government won't interfere with private distortions of markets in my favor.")
Come to think of it, even Patrick Buchanan got there first, in the sense of taking economic-nationalist positions (anti-free-trade, anti-immigration) as a Republican primary candidate in 1992.
But Buchanan, of course, never attracted more than a fringe following. It's no mystery why. One, he wasn't a billionaire who could finance an entire campaign while defying the donor class and cowing the Republican establishment with the tacit threat of a third-party run tipping the election to the Democrats. Two, the credibility of "even freer markets are always the solution" economics hadn't exhausted itself in 1992. (As noted above, it didn't even peak until the late 1990s.) Three, there was not yet a collapse of social conservatism forcing a search for new ideological themes.
Even poor old H. Ross Perot fits perfectly into this picture. He was a trade hawk, anti-immigration, and relatively socially liberal. But he tried to do it without the legitimacy and infrastructure of an established party, and his political inexperience led to him getting spooked out of the race by, among other things, Republican dirty tricks. Still, astonishingly popular with the voters for a while.
So economic nationalism is a rich theme that's been waiting to be exploited for a long time. Like, say, civil rights in the early 1960s.
Mr. Trump's comically blustering persona, which seems to confuse a lot of commentators, fits perfectly into this picture. Why? Because it enables him to seem much more right-wing than he really is, which is essential to retreating from obsolete rightist positions without incurring the wrath of primary voters. (Trump's the most experienced show-biz politician since Reagan; of course he figured this out.) Every time some liberal yaps about his being a dangerous crypto-fascist menace, it re-glues this mask, though one of his biggest vulnerabilities is that it will fall off.
And no, Donald Trump is not a "fascist." Not even close. Which some people seem to genuinely believe: Paul Krugman wrote that "Trump is trying to become America's Mussolini," and there are other examples. Pick the right Italian, for a start! He's plausibly an American Silvio Berlusconi, the playboy media billionaire who became prime minister in 2001. Or he's a billionaire Huey Long, the populist demagogue from Louisiana who sparred with FDR in the 1930s. Or maybe even a non-alcoholic Boris Yeltsin, a maniacal figure who kicked over the entire Soviet establishment. But jackboots? Nope.
The biggest joke in all this is that the Republican establishment is fighting so hard against being saved. They may be the last to figure this all out.