The past seven days have been, arguably, the worst week for the worst president in modern history.
Within the span of seven days, President Trump thanked a foreign adversary for expelling U.S. diplomats from their country, stoked tensions with North Korea to the point that Kim Jong-un threatened to attack Guam, and waited two days to grudgingly condemn a neo-nazi rally even after an anti-racist activist was run over by a white supremacist–and only issued that repudiation after a raft of bipartisan outcry over his weak initial response. Our commander-in-chief achieved all this even as a federal investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia heated up.
These recent events are symptomatic of an America out of control and in decline, its demise hastened by the executive body tasked to strengthen it. This week, the call came from inside the house–the White House, to be precise–and its message was: “We’re f***ed.”
Instead, it is the pivot of our citizenry from a naive maybe-he-won’t-be-so-bad optimism to a cold-eyed assessment of our grim reality. Our executive branch not only coddles white supremacists, but employs them; our president praises dictators and sends “best regards” to maimed patriotic protesters. Even Trump’s lackeys–Huckabee, Ryan, Sessions— felt compelled to condemn the nazis Trump was so slow to explicitly refute.
It may be possible–albeit tremendously difficult–for the U.S. to rebuild from the destruction of not only Trump’s presidency, but the shift in political culture his campaign catalyzed, if we are willing to acknowledge its severity. But there is one exception to this plausibility: nuclear war. The deployment of nuclear weapons would mark the point of no return. It is an option that Trump embraces with his trademark bravado.
The Third Nuclear Era
In 1945, when nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer accepted a certificate of appreciation praising him for helping create the atomic bomb, he accepted it with a warning.
“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish,” he said.
“This war that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. Other men have spoken them in other times, and of other wars, of other weapons. They have not prevailed. There are some misled by a false sense of human history, who hold that they will not prevail today. It is not for us to believe that.”
In other words, if he built it, they will bomb. But over the following decades, the fear of nuclear war faded along with the demise of the Soviet Union, as mutually assured destruction was followed by a push for non-proliferation. These decades of uneasy limbo were followed by the election of Donald Trump: a pathological narcissist obsessed with nuclear weapons since 1984, when he proclaimed he could learn all he needed to know about them in an hour and a half.
While Trump’s policy positions shifted over the years, his obsession with nukes remained steady, whether when he was betraying his openness to dropping them on Pakistan and France in 1987, proclaiming their use was inevitable in 1990, or musing in 2016, “If we have them, why not use them?” Last week, Trump followed that daydream up with a specific threat against North Korea, stating the authoritarian regime would see “fire and fury the likes of which the world has never seen” and tweeting, “Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!”
When an autocrat is cornered and flailing–as Trump is thanks to both Robert Mueller’s Russian interference investigation and by domestic policy failures like TrumpCare–he often lashes out violently to consolidate power. Trump has thus far followed the typical autocratic pattern of scapegoating minorities, but this tactic can only take him so far, especially given the public backlash to the racism the nation just witnessed in Charlottesville. There is only one domain where Trump wields absolute and unparalleled power, free from the Congress he despises and the public he reviles, and that is his control over the nuclear arsenal. He already wields these weapons rhetorically, and it is naive to assume he will stop there.
Given how chaotic Trump’s six-month rule has been, it is tempting to label Trump’s rhetoric as a distraction–but a domestic American distraction does not translate abroad. North Korea’s bloody leadership, upon hearing Trump’s threat of “fire and fury”, is not going to think, “Oh, Trump’s just trying to divert the U.S. media from the Russia scandal” but will instead accept his words as a threat. Their vow to take out Guam, however abhorrent, was in response to a statement from the President of the United States.
Might Trump actually use nuclear weapons? He certainly isn’t ruling out the option, and there is nothing to hold him back from doing so: No congressional approval is needed. If Trump decides to use them, he will use them because he can, and because he does not appear to adequately process the consequences of using them. When addressing North Korea’s aggression toward Guam, Trump told its governor the nuclear threat will improve tourism.
Trump’s rise was predicated on denial: that he’d lose the primary, that he’d lose the general election, that his autocratic ambitions would be curtailed by our systems of checks and balances. It all happened anyway. It is time for the GOP and others wielding power to accept that with Trump, the worst-case scenario is the most likely scenario. It took the GOP two years to staunchly condemn Trump’s embrace of neo-nazis. When it comes to nuclear weapons, there is no such luxury of time.
The “false sense of history” of which Oppenheimer warned has made willful blindness the default response to rising autocracy and growing nuclear threat. For that trajectory to change, U.S. officials must confront not only the horrors of the past, but the urgent threat of the present, and take any steps possible to curb the president’s ability to obliterate our future.
Sarah Kendzior is a journalist and scholar of authoritarian states.