I can’t shake the nagging suspicion that not only isn’t this guy conservative, he doesn’t much respect conservatism either when you come right down to it.

Here’s Trump firmly planting his flag in the soil of nationalism:

Ben Shapiro says the mask is finally off. Was it ever on?

So why is Trump blaming “the help of Conservatives” for the lies of the Republican establishment? Because Trump isn’t conservative, and now he’s admitting it. Trump has spent most of his career giving money to Democrats; he has spent most of his career rejecting conservative policies; even now, his version of conservatism boils down to “give me power and I’ll make great deals,” which is a leftist vision of government rather than a conservative one. Like many members of the Republican establishment, Trump thinks the biggest problem with the Republican Party is ideology; he only dislikes the establishment because he doesn’t run it. He wants to replace the old Party establishment with himself. He wants to top the power pyramid.

And so he blames conservatives.

This is also a strategic play to get ahead of the Cruz-led argument that Trump doesn’t philosophically qualify to win conservative votes. Trump is stating pre-emptively that he isn’t failing conservatism – conservatism has already failed, and he’s just here to help the country. Many of his followers believe this – I routinely receive emails and tweets proclaiming that Trump fans don’t care if Trump is conservative, because he’s a “real American,” as though Americanism can be boiled down to nationalism while excising Constitutionalism. Trump’s going full-bore populist now.

Right, excellent point. It may seem counterintuitive that Trump is deriding conservatives ahead of a primary in South Carolina, which is a lot more conservative than New Hampshire is. But it makes sense strategically. There’s no point in him spending the next nine days trying to convince voters there that he’s a conservative when Cruz will be showcasing ample evidence to the contrary. He’s better off trying to consolidate populists and moderates — and there are plenty of the latter in the SC GOP, which is how Lindsey Graham keeps getting reelected — by wearing Cruz’s accusation as a badge of honor. Okay, says Trump, I’m not conservative. But what has conservatism done for anyone over the past eight or 16 or 24 years? It’s time for the GOP to become a nationalist party.

The risk is that some conservative voters in South Carolina who are on the fence between him and Cruz will take this the way Shapiro did, as a kiss-off. Never forget, though, that Trump’s more daring public statements usually come with a walkback later. Whether it’s mass deportation (the “good ones” can come back in) or banning Muslims from entering the U.S. (the ban might not last long), his ability to seem as hardline or “malleable” as his individual supporters want to perceive him means he’ll be able to massage this if there’s any backlash. If he’s challenged on this, he’ll probably say that the “conservatives” he had in mind who are aiding and abetting the GOP are Rubio and Cruz, even though Cruz is the Senate’s most notorious obstructionist — and has been derided as a “maniac” by Trump because of it. Or, if he ends up getting in a lot of trouble for this, he’ll claim that it’s only because he’s so conservative himself that he’s terribly, terribly disappointed in the conservatives in Congress who failed to stop Obama, never mind the fact that they’re a small minority even within their own House and Senate caucuses. In other words, he wasn’t pronouncing himself a post-conservative nationalist, he was pronouncing himself the truest conservative in the field.

Would Republicans who are open to Trump buy that? Sure, probably. One thing we’ve learned about voters who claim, or have claimed, to be conservative is that a lot of them are very cheap dates ideologically:

One of the great puzzles of the primary season is why a candidate who so recently espoused moderate or progressive views is succeeding in a party that favors purity over pragmatism. Of course, Trump can always claim that he had a road-to-Damascus-style conversion to conservatism. But this claim surely won’t cut it for many movement conservatives. After all, if Trump can flip to the right so recently, perhaps he’ll flop back to the left in due course.

For Trump, the solution has been to announce something so outrageously offensive to liberals, so contrary to every progressive shibboleth, that its utterance immediately disqualifies him from being a leftist. Opposing Obamacare isn’t good enough. After all, some progressives aren’t big fans of the Affordable Care Act. Neither is it sufficient to back gun rights. Many on the left own guns and believe in the Second Amendment. In any case, these are issues on which reasonable people can disagree. What Trump needs is something that is literally unspeakable for a liberal. Trump’s immigration policy is just the ticket. Virtually no progressive would dream of banning the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims from visiting the United States. The very idea represents a kind of exclusionary nativism that is anathema to liberals. Trump’s anti-immigrant language is an efficient way of proving that he has abandoned the left. In a single glorious moment of illiberal demagoguery, he can achieve what would otherwise take months of debate and rebuttal.

That, more than any other reason, probably explains why Cruz and others have had so much trouble getting the charge that Trump is a phony conservative to stick. Some voters, as Shapiro says, don’t care about conservatism in the first place; either they’ve been centrists for years or they’ve drifted towards nationalism in frustration with the GOP. But others probably do still identify as conservative yet have no problem identifying Trump that way too because their definition of conservatism is thin and consists in great part of opposition to the left. The left wants open borders and Trump wants to build a wall. The left won’t say a critical word about Muslims and Trump wants to bar them from coming into the country. The left is politically correct and Trump and his fans laugh about Ted Cruz being a “pussy.” What more could you ask from a “conservative”? He’s fighting the left on forbidden ground, even if he agrees with them or is “malleable” on the other 80 percent of their agenda. That “logic” explains a lot about the Trump phenomenon, from his ability to defy the easy branding as a RINO that’s sunk more right-wing pols than him to the outsized role that immigration has played in his appeal to the odd dynamic in which his supporters insist they’re somehow going to punish the Beltway GOP for being squishy sellouts by electing a guy who’s much further to the left than Mitch McConnell. Identify where conservatism overlaps with nationalism, toss a rhetorical grenade at the left/media on that issue, and voila — you’re conservative. Enough so to be the GOP nominee, in any case.

The true risk to Trump in lumping conservatives in with Beltway Republicans is that it makes the right’s incentive to go third-party stronger if he ends up as nominee. If conservatives are part of the problem that a Trump-led GOP is trying to overcome, why would they stick around and support him in the general? Better for that 20 percent of the party to go indie and vote for Romney or whoever, even at the expense of electing a Democrat, since it would force nationalists to recognize that they can’t win without conservatives any more than conservatives can win without them. Trump’s not stupid so I assume he’ll take steps to lower the risk of that happening, probably by using the “I only care because I’m so conservative myself” spin that I suggested. Even so, it’s noteworthy that he’s even trying to force “the base” to consider how they should identify politically.

Here’s Trump telling Fox News that he’s very capable of changing into anything he wants to — a reference in this case to his tone, but true enough about his policy positions too given his record. Exactly the sort of thing you’d expect to hear from a true conservative.