Trump fears and the nuclear apocalypse

In a best-case Trump scenario, he bumbles around for four years doing not much except embarrassing himself and the country, but few substantive political changes actually occur; in the worst-case Trump scenario, however, Trump starts or provokes a nuclear war that either extinguishes the human race or at least wipes out the United States and one or more other countries. I still view the latter scenario as unlikely, but it’s far more likely than I would’ve judged it three weeks weeks ago, and when I’ve mentioned increasing fear of nuclear war I’ve gotten a weirdly large amount of pushback.

Most of that pushback seems like wishful thinking. To understand the danger, Fred Kaplan’s The Wizards of Armageddon is a good book about nuclear policy and history, but Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser is probably better for people who know little about the subject. Command and Control details the (scarily) short lines between the president and launching, or attempting to launch, nuclear weapons is appallingly short.

To understand why Trump is scary, it is necessary to understand two things: 1. That in theory the president is supposed to be able to order a nuclear launch anywhere, at any time, and have missiles in the air and 2. The way seemingly minor quarrels among countries have sometimes led to historically catastrophic outcomes.

Let us deal with the first point: while the president is supposed to be able to order an unprovoked nuclear attack at any time, there is at least some precedent for a gray area around nuclear weapons:

[I]n 1974, in the last days of the Watergate scandal, Mr. Nixon was drinking heavily and his aides saw what they feared was a growing emotional instability. His new secretary of defense, James R. Schlesinger, himself a hawkish Cold Warrior, instructed the military to divert any emergency orders — especially one involving nuclear weapons — to him or the secretary of state, Henry A. Kissinger.

It was a completely extralegal order, perhaps mutinous. But no one questioned it.

“Although Schlesinger’s order raised questions about who was actually in command,” Eric Schlosser writes in “Command and Control,” a 2013 book, “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”

This is at least somewhat heartening, as it implies that the generals in charge of executing nuclear launch commands simply will not do so unprovoked. The human nuclear bureaucracy and apparatus is itself hopefully not suicidal and homicidal. Still, that is a slender hope, as Alex Wellerstein describes in “The President and the bomb.”

To be sure, it’s also possible that Obama, Biden, and for that matter someone like Paul Ryan is having quiet conversations with the Secret Service and the military about what to do with a rogue nuclear launch order. Those quiet conversations might be arguably unconstitutional, but if the choice is between constitutionality and the death of everyone and everything, one should hope that the few people charged with mechanically carrying out orders will second-guess those orders.

Beyond that, the history of World War I should scare us. World War I was a catastrophe that killed tens of millions of people and it was a war that no one wanted. I doubt most people have the faintest idea how World War I got started, and if you want to annoy your friends try asking them. Hell, I’m not even sure I could give a good answer. Still, consider some background reading:

* This is Tobias Stone’s “History Tells Us What Will Happen Next With Brexit And Trump.”

* Here is one description of “How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War.”

* Here is “The real danger,” also about the possibility of direct, great power wars.

* At the same time, see “Commander-In-Chief Donald Trump Will Have Terrifying Powers. Thanks, Obama.” It can be fun to have secret, unchecked powers when your guy is in office, but is incredibly dangerous when the other guy does.

Almost everyone has forgotten about World War I, but in the short prelude to it people acted like it was normal. Check out the sleepwalking into war described in the Hardcore History podcast, around 1:38. In the horrible late July and early August of 1914, people went on holiday and shopkeepers assured their customers that nothing untoward would happen (One sees similar noises in the normalization of Trump). World trade had been expanding for decades; everyone “knew” that war would be suicidal; it seemed implausible that the death of a minor noble would lead to conflagration.

A similar set of circumstances could happen today. The flashpoint could be in the South China Sea, which is a disputed area. It could be the Baltic states. It could be Syria. It could be almost anywhere that the U.S. could pointlessly clash with China or Russia. Trump is obsessed with revenge and in a skirmish or dispute between U.S. forces and Chinese or Russian forces, which escalates rapidly in a tit-for-tat fashion.

Like this scenario: a Chinese ship fires on a U.S. ship in the South China Sea. The U.S. ship flees with a few causalities and Trump orders an attack on a Chinese ship in retaliation. The ship sinks, and China cannot possibly accept disrespect and in turn sinks a sub and imposes trade sanctions. The U.S. rallies to the flag and does the same. Eventually China uses a supercav missile to take out a U.S. carrier.

One could spin out an infinite number of scenarios like the above, which may develop very quickly, over the course of days or weeks. Tit-for-tat may be an attractive strategy for small bands of humans or proto-humans in hunter-gatherer or agricultural societies fighting each other. It could end the world in the nuclear age.

I’m not too worried about Trump and domestic policy. He is likely to do some bad and foolish things, but they are unlikely to be existential threats. I am worried about Trump and the end of the world.

Maybe nothing catastrophically bad will happen. I hope so and think that will be true. But to pretend he is a “normal” politician (or to vote for him) is to be willfully blind to history and to the man himself. In darker moments I wonder: maybe we don’t deserve democracy or freedom. Those who will not even vote for it—and half the potential electorate didn’t vote—don’t deserve it. Maybe institutions will resist Trump for the next four years, or resist his most militaristic and dangerous impulses. Maybe they won’t.

Again, I think the likely scenario is that Trump bumbles for four years and gets voted out of office. But nuclear war is a too-likely scenario and one that seems so far outside most people’s Overton window that they won’t even consider it, much as the total destruction that preceded World War I was inconceivably by any of the belligerents (had they realized it they would not have marched off to war, and many of the soliders themselves would have dramatically resisted conscription; they marched to their own deaths).

If you are not scared you’re not paying attention.

We are one black swan event from disaster. The last worldwide, negative black swan event was arguably World War II. Perhaps the 71 years separating us from then is long enough to have forgotten how bad bad really is.

I don’t expect this post to change any minds. All of the information in it was available three weeks ago and that didn’t change shit. This is a post based on logic and knowledge and logic and knowledge played little role in the election. Maybe, outside of elite spheres, it plays little role at all in human life. I only hope that the apocalyptic scenario doesn’t come to pass. If it does, “I told you so” will be no comfort, as it wasn’t in the aftermath of World War I. In that war the prophets and historians were ignored, as they were in the 2016 election. Let us pray that some of the prophets and historians are wrong.

8 responses

  1. Interesting analysis, but perhaps a bit over the top. Or, perhaps it is the wisdom of age, having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, fake Gulf of Tonkin “attack”, truly awful 1968 election, Viet Nam protests, that Snake Faced Son of a Bitch Nixon (hats off to Uncle Frank for this characterization), Ronald Raygun, various Iraq wars, collapse of the Middle East and so on. I have faith in American institutions and our military leadership. A good novel/movie of this subject is “Seven Days in May.” Let’s hope President Elect Trump emulates the fictional President Lyman and there is no General James Mattoon Scott waiting in the wings.

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  5. Thank you for this article.Absolutely spot on!

    It should be mandatory reading for every American president, particularly the next one (which could potentially be the last one).
    The situation is akin to handing a loaded gun to a ten year old and hope he won’t do too much damage.

    How could this happen?

    The same question I asked my parents: how could you let Hitler come to power? And their answer sounds frightening familiar: it sort of happened (he was elected after all), he promised to make the country great again and everybody thought that once in power, the guy would settle and not do too much damage.

    Well, we all know how that ended.
    And that guy didn’t have a nuclear button. This one has.

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