(Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

THE MORNING PLUM:

Has Donald Trump given up on winning the White House and “pivoted” (this might be his real pivot) to a full-blown effort to build a national following that will outlast the election, perhaps allowing him to establish a media empire with him at the helm — one that caters, at least to some degree, to a white nationalist or “alt-right” audience? Was that his plan all along?

The last few days have brought fresh reporting and evidence that suggest this is where Trump is really headed, a scenario that a number of observers (your humble blogger included) have been speculating about for months. I thought it would be useful to round up this evidence:

* Vanity Fair media writer Sarah Ellison reports in a radio interview that Trump has had private discussions with his inner circle about “how to monetize” the new audience he’s built up. As Ellison puts it, this potential goal should no longer be seen as “speculation.”

* The New York Times reports today that in July, Trump’s campaign “spent more on renting arenas for his speeches” than he did on setting up a national field operation, leaving him with no operation to speak of. That is consistent with the idea that Trump (as I’ve speculated) is very consciously sinking most of his resources into a format (rallies) that allows him to continue staging his unique form of raucous WWE-style political entertainment, and building an audience that thrills to it, rather than winning a general election.

Here's what you need to know about the man who went from Breitbart News chairman to Donald Trump's campaign CEO before his appointment as chief White House strategist and senior counselor. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

* Sarah Posner of Mother Jones has some excellent reporting this morning on new Trump campaign chief Stephen Bannon, which shows Bannon has skill and experience in building a media outlet (Breitbart) explicitly aimed at the ethno-nationalist audience. As Bannon himself put it last spring: “We’re the platform for the alt-right.” Bannon, naturally, denies that his nationalism is racially driven. But Posner shows that Bannon has regularly “stoked racial themes,” and one former Breitbart insider has explicitly said that Bannon’s Breitbart has become “a gathering place for white nationalists.”

Either Trump actually sees Bannon as just the guy to expand his appeal — i.e., he actually thinks that doubling down on the same approach and themes that won the GOP primaries will somehow expand his appeal — or he has something else in mind.

* Trump’s first TV ad of the general election, with its fearmongering about refugee-terrorists and dark hordes flooding over the southern border, did not appear to be aimed at the constituencies Trump needs to improve among — college educated whites, suburban women, nonwhites. And Politico’s Alex Isenstadt reports that the Trump campaign’s plan was initially to air an ad about the economy — which would make more sense as a way to reach those voter groups — but abruptly shifted at the last minute to the hard-core immigration spot, surprising even some Trump campaign insiders. At critical moments, Trump continues to revert to form — which is to say, he keeps speaking to that hard Trumpist core, as if maintaining their interest is the paramount goal.

* If this is Trump’s endgame, he is already succeeding at building an audience. Dave Weigel reports that white nationalist and alt-right figures are finding a lot to like in Trump’s new immigration ad, and in his overall messaging. In a very telling moment, one white nationalist writer asks us to “imagine a media that was more Breitbart than the New York Times,” adding that “what the media have been telling them” — the “them” being “whites” — “about race relations is simply wrong.”

The first general election television ad from Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's campaign accuses Democratic rival Hillary Clinton of keeping the "system rigged." Trump released the ad Aug. 19. (Donald Trump)

Trump has trafficked heavily in similar ideas, regularly accusing the media of covering up inconvenient “truths” such as the notion that “thousands and thousands” of American Muslims celebrated 9/11. Trump understands very well that there is a big audience out there for people who want to believe that the American press — hamstrung by “political correctness” (wink, wink) — won’t tell the truth about race and Islam.

Now, admittedly, all of this is still speculative. And I hesitate to ascribe grand and clever schemes to Trump, because the more prosaic reality could be simply that he is making all of this up as he goes along. But this possibility is worth taking seriously, if only because it could have untold longer term consequences.

Trump has already been saying the election will be “rigged,” as part of a broader effort to delegitimize the presidency of Hillary Clinton (should she win) in advance. If the goal here is to persuade a lot of Trump supporters that the outcome of the election is illegitimate, that could create a large audience that wants to hear this message during a Clinton presidency, a message that Trump’s new media venture could peddle to them for fun and profit. For good measure, Trump can also tell his new media audience that the rest of the media is in on the conspiracy to cover up the election’s illegitimacy. It’s hard to predict what sort of longer term civic impact that might have, but it’s hard to imagine it would be a good one.

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UPDATE: Here’s more. Kurt Bardella, a former Breitbart News spokesman and political strategist, tells CNN that Trump’s hiring of Bannon means:

“There is this desire by Trump, and I think Bannon as well, to launch a media venture…even the rhetoric of the Trump campaign, fixating on the media, bringing up the narrative of how this election is rigged — that the media has it in for him, that this is why he’s going to lose — it’s laying the groundwork for something else.”

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* NEW CLINTON AD HAMMERS TRUMP AS UNFIT: The Clinton campaign is up with a tough new ad that essentially paints Trump as unhinged and temperamentally unfit for handling the sort of international crisis that presidents regularly confront:

An ad put out by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign uses Republican rival Donald Trump's own words to suggest that he would be dangerous as president. (Hillary Clinton)

The ad is running on national cable at first, which suggests the target audience may be right-leaning and GOP-aligned national security types who might be coaxed into backing Clinton.

* HILLARY EXPANDS LEAD IN OHIO: New CBS News/YouGov polls finds that Clinton has expanded her lead among likely voters in Ohio to 46-40, while she remains tied with Trump, 40-40, in Iowa. Two key findings: In Ohio, only 35 percent say Trump is “prepared for the presidency,” while 73 percent of women view him as a “risky choice.”

The polling averages put Clinton up just over two points in Ohio. Remember, Trump’s victory depends on keeping all the Romney 2012 states and running the table in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, so any leads she develops in those states make his path increasingly implausible.

 * TRUMP WAVERING ON MASS DEPORTATIONS? Over the weekend the news broke that Trump supposedly suggested to Latino leaders that he might either be wavering on his mass deportations plan, which senior adviser Kellyanne Conway said is “to be determined.” But also note this quote from Conway, on CNN:

“What he supports is to make sure that we enforce the law, that we are respectful of those Americans who are looking for well-paying jobs and that we are fair and humane for those who live among us in this country.”

If Trump really does drop his mass deportations scheme — which he may not — he will replace it with the standard GOP dodge of demanding that immigration authorities “enforce the law,” without saying exactly what he means by that.

* CLINTON TEAM’S GROWING CONFIDENCE: CNN reports that the Clinton campaign has settled on its advertising map for the fall, and is pulling its ads out of two key states:

Two states that the Clinton campaign will not air local ads in through September and October: Virginia and Colorado….The states that are part of Clinton’s ad campaign: Florida, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio, North Carolina and the Omaha market in Nebraska.

The growing confidence in Virginia and Colorado are striking omissions are a sign of the degree to which Trump has given a big assist to ongoing demographic trends that are pushing these formerly red states into the Dem column.

* TRUMP HAS ONLY A BARE-BONES FIELD OPERATION: The New York Times reports that with only two and a half months to go, Trump’s field operation remains “bare bones” and heavily reliant on the national Republican Party:

A senior Trump campaign official, who asked for anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss staffing publicly, said Mr. Trump’s campaign had fewer than 200 total staff members at the end of July, about evenly divided between field offices and New York. Although he has opened offices in Ohio and Florida in recent weeks, Mr. Trump’s field efforts rely primarily on roughly 500 Republican National Committee organizers scattered across 11 swing states.

Don’t worry, Trump will have a world class field operation, and if not, he’ll offset that problem with a lot of awesome free media coverage. Believe me.

* WHAT TRUMP’S VIRGINIA SLIDE REALLY MEANS: E.J. Dionne makes a key point here about Clinton’s increasing dominance in Virginia:

That an alliance between suburban voters and African Americans is turning Virginia presidentially blue is especially alarming to Republicans because the same pattern is repeating itself in North Carolina and is making Georgia close. Unless he finds the discipline to listen to advice from supporters…Trump could help Clinton solidify a great transformation in the geography of American politics.

The fact that college educated whites, particularly suburbanites, are deserting the GOP nominee in droves is an important story about this election, with untold long term consequences.

* TRUMP’S CLIMATE DENIAL IS SQUARELY IN GOP MAINSTREAM: We laugh at Trump for calling climate change a hoax, but as Paul Krugman writes, his position is shared by a lot of Republicans, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that fundamental contrast with Democrats:

He may be talking nonsense, but anyone his party was likely to nominate would have been talking pretty much the same nonsense…..this election is likely to be decisive for the climate, one way or another. President Obama has made some serious moves to address global warming, and there’s every reason to believe that Hillary Clinton would continue this push….Given the technological breakthroughs of the last few years, this push might just be enough to avert disaster.

One big question will be whether GOP hostility towards climate action will finally thaw, or whether one of the two major U.S. political parties (the GOP) will simply sit the whole thing out while the rest of the world solves the problem.