Opinion: Are We Really Giving an Impulsive Novice Like Trump the Nuclear Codes?
President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets not only breach a sacred U.S. presidential taboo; they are also likely to usher in an era of uncertainty and fear not seen since World War II.
For more than seven decades – from the administration of President Harry S. Truman to that of outgoing President Barack Obama – a kind of political and diplomatic taboo formed in the United States of America: Nuclear weapons are not a subject for public discussion, and certainly not without preparation. Nuclear weapons should be treated as a special case, one that is beyond the accepted political discourse. This taboo, the product of a custom that is not enshrined in any law, is considered a means of measuring presidential responsibility.
Last month, though, in the blink of an eye, President-elect Donald Trump spit on this sacred taboo in a Twitter post. “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes,” he tweeted on December 22. There are some who say Trump is so ignorant, he is completely unaware of the power of that nuclear taboo.
Trump’s tweet was a blatant defiance of U.S.A. policy that goes back to the time of President Ronald Reagan, a policy five subsequent presidents have stood behind. It holds that the United States of America seeks to reduce nuclear arsenals and the role atomic weaponry plays in global diplomacy.
The following day, after Trump’s advisers sought to put a different spin on their boss’ foolish statement and claim that it was nothing more than a comment on the dangers of nuclear proliferation, Trump amazed the world yet again.
In an interview that was meant to minimize the damage, and in response to the claim that such a tweet could spur a renewed global nuclear arms race – or at least legitimize it – the president-elect nonchalantly told a reporter: “Let it be an arms race … we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all.” In less than 24 hours, President-elect Donald Trump had twice violated the basic no-no of the nuclear age.
All of Trump’s tweets, including the embarrassing series of comments about a former beauty queen, demonstrate that he is impulsive, unbalanced and not in control of himself, a person responding immediately to every provocation, whether large or small, that exceeds his threshold. His responses are knee-jerk reactions and not subject to a common-sense review, whether by Trump himself or his institutional gatekeepers.
Trump is addicted to tweeting (and has over 18 million followers on his Twitter account). And just as he reported to no one when he was a businessman – never being bound to a board of directors sitting above him – now, too, Trump sees himself as a leader who is not obliged to account for his actions, so long as he doesn’t violate the letter of the law.
His Democratic presidential challenger, Hillary Clinton, was convinced that if she could successfully convey the message to the U.S.A. electorate that Trump was clearly unfit for the role, the public would understand that they had no choice but to vote for her – if for no other reason than because an unstable individual mustn’t be elected president. And since she was the only rational, stable person in the race, the electorate would therefore cast its vote for her by default, even if many voters strongly disliked her.
Clinton believed there was no more effective way to sell this message than via the nuclear issue. In one TV ad last October, she used the dramatic opening footage from one of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s ads in his 1964 race against Barry Goldwater. It showed a girl, “Daisy,” plucking the petals of a flower one by one: after she got to the last one, the camera zoomed into the black of her eye and the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb appeared on the screen. Clinton concluded her ad by stating that someone who responds impulsively on Twitter can’t be entrusted with America’s nuclear codes.
But not only did the clearly unqualified candidate win the election; he will also take possession of the briefcase with the nuclear codes. Now he is tweeting nonsense about things he knows nothing about, on subjects his predecessors as president always treated with reverence. There’s no knowing whether Trump is tweeting his crazy thoughts to the world as a narcissistic act or one of megalomania and arrogance. But since these thoughts now have the aura of a future presidential policy, they are truly frightening.
On January 20, when Trump becomes the one with the nuclear codes, the world will be entering an era of uncertainty and fear, the likes of which it hasn’t known since the end of World War II.
The writer is a professor of nuclear nonproliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.