Donald Trump gets no respect. The Republican establishment dismisses him as a buffoon and takes refuge in the certainty that he will never be president. But as Republicans struggle to describe a real alternative to Barack Obama’s foreign policy, it is just possible that Mr Trump understands Republican voters better than his rivals do.
Recent polls have demonstrated that such voters want a president who understands, as Mr Trump put it in his announcement speech, that the US is getting weaker, its enemies are getting stronger, and its leaders are stupid losers. The next step is a foreign policy doctrine: a branding opportunity like no other. It would bear the Trump name down through history — and long after his next bankruptcy.
Sure, a doctrine is presumptuous. Presidents, not candidates, have doctrines. But no candidate has ever possessed Mr Trump’s blend of self-confidence and self-promotion. After all, if President James Monroe, a man who never built a high-rise casino, can have a doctrine, why not Mr Trump?
His foreign policy doctrine already exists in the apparently contradictory statements Mr Trump has made. At core, it holds that foreign policy is really about gaining respect. In his own words: “Get respect, do not give a damn if people like you.” If our enemies and allies respect us, America will bestride the world much as the Trump Tower dominates Fifth Avenue. Without respect, a deeply indebted America will become Greece in a matter of days.
The Trump doctrine would hold that there are three steps to respect: alienation, looting and negotiation.
Alienation breeds respect because it demonstrates that America does not need anyone. Mr Trump has already very effectively alienated Mexico by claiming that it is sending rapists and criminals to the US. But alienating the many and varied countries of the globe requires an intimate acquaintance with what really irritates every given culture. Unfortunately, the professionals at the US State Department consistently focus on building friendly relations with foreign countries. Mr Trump would probably have to fire them all.
Looting reminds voters of the schoolyard lesson that people never respect you more than when you take their stuff. The strongest military in the world needs to take more opportunities to loot to make up for stolen jobs. As Mr Trump has suggested, it made little sense to conquer Iraq and not seize the oil. Occupying American forces could just as easily seize, say, a couple of profitable casinos in Macau, or the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Why should a puny little country like the United Arab Emirates have the tallest building in the world? Also, Burj Trump has a nice ring to it.
The final step is negotiation. Negotiation means leveraging the respect earned through alienation and looting to pay your bills. Mr Trump has suggested he would get Mexico to pay for a wall on the border. Similarly, China will have to pay for the US healthcare system and Saudi Arabia can fund the US Army. Of course, getting these deals would require a tough negotiator. As Mr Trump has said about himself: “Our country needs a truly great leader . . . a leader that wrote The Art of the Deal.”
The Trump doctrine accepts that foreign policy always lacks consistency. Many candidates struggle to explain away America’s apparent hypocrisy in, say, claiming to promote democracy while cosying up to dictators. But Mr Trump embraces the idea that moral purity, and even the dictates of logic, end at the nation’s shores. Regardless of the contradictions, he will voice unapologetic pride in America and its foreign policy— then just as forcefully accuse China of stealing American jobs, while outsourcing his own clothing line to that country. To gain respect, you must respect yourself.
Trump critics will say that this doctrine only demonstrates in a slightly more coherent fashion how deeply dangerous his ideas are. Maybe, but perhaps they don’t understand the American people in the way that Mr Trump does. He has tapped into a deep well of populist anger that runs through much of the Republican electorate. People are tired of the same old elites peddling the same old solutions, while the working class suffers through economic loss and cultural decline. They do not want any more efforts to explain away their anger in politically correct terms. And so they are looking for a new kind of foreign policy. Mr Trump has one and, for better or for worse, it is already making an indelible mark on a confused Republican field. His rivals will have soon have to give it respect.
The writer is a fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution