The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Donald Trump seems to want us all to be gripped by the terror of nuclear annihilation

President-elect Donald Trump speaks during a rally last week at the Giant Center in Hershey, Pa. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

When liberals joked during the campaign that if Donald Trump became president we might all be consumed in a nuclear apocalypse, many people considered it absurd hyperbole. They may have felt the same way about Democrats’ regular criticism that someone as impulsive and vindictive as Trump shouldn’t be allowed near the nuclear codes. That’s because since the Cold War came to an end a quarter-century ago with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the threat of nuclear annihilation has grown more and more distant from our collective consciousness. But if you’re more than 40 years old or so, you remember when it was a daily source of unease, fear and even terror.

And guess who’s doing his best to bring all that back?

We’re now witnessing a cycle we’ve seen many times before, which goes like this: First, Donald Trump says something alarming. Then his aides fan out to the media to say, “Don’t be silly; that’s not what he meant.” Then Trump himself says, “That’s what I meant all right, and I’ll go even farther.” Then the aides come back and say, “It’s ridiculous that the media are making so much out of this and putting so much stock in the things that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth.”

It started yesterday when Trump tweeted that “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Given that every president since Ronald Reagan has worked to reduce our stockpiles of nuclear weapons (and those of the Russians), the idea that we’d start expanding them is shocking. And when he says that we’ll expand our arsenal until other countries come to their senses, what does that mean? We want more nuclear weapons because of the few that, say, India and Pakistan have? How would that help?

After some spinning by his aides about how maybe he’s only talking about modernizing the existing arsenal to make sure the nukes work, Trump had an off-air conversation with Mika Brzezinski, which she relayed early this morning on “Morning Joe.” “Let it be an arms race. We will outmatch them at every pass,” she reported that Trump said. “And outlast them all.”

That’s an encouraging attitude to hear from a president. Now let me quote from the second round of explanations, this time from Sean Spicer, who will be the White House press secretary, talking to Matt Lauer:

SPICER: Other countries need to be put on notice that he’s not going to sit back and allow them to undermine our safety, our sovereignty. He is going to match other countries and take action.
LAUER: Was this a knee-jerk reaction, a shoot-from-the-hip reaction to Vladimir Putin yesterday saying that he plans to fortify the Russian nuclear arsenal?
SPICER: There’s been several countries, Russia among them, that have talked about expanding their nuclear capability. The point that he was making was very clear: Other countries that want to threaten U.S. safety, are not going to sit back and allow this country to not act.
LAUER: But if there’s going to be an arms race …
SPICER: There’s not going to be! Because he’s going to ensure that other countries get the message that he’s not going to sit back and allow that. And what’s going to happen is, they will come to their senses and we will all be just fine.

So let’s get this straight. If some country decides to increase its nuclear arsenal, then Trump is going to increase ours, too, to make sure they can’t threaten us, and then they’ll stop what they’re doing. But that’s ludicrous. The fact is that the United States and Russia together hold the vast majority of the world’s nuclear weapons; no other country has more than a few hundred.

Let’s say China went from having 260 warheads to 400. Would we be less safe? And would increasing our arsenal make us more safe? Of course not. We have enough nuclear weapons to flatten every building and kill every man, woman and child in China, then pulverize the rubble that’s left over, then vaporize the dust that’s left over from pulverizing the rubble. Building more weapons wouldn’t make us any stronger than we already are. That’s the thing about nukes — there’s a world of difference between not having them and having them, but the returns diminish quite rapidly as you add more. If we went from having 7,000 to having 8,000, exactly nothing would change.

The threat of nuclear proliferation is a profound one, but up until now both liberals and conservatives have understood that nuclear deterrence is an imperfect way to stop it — and you need only a small number of weapons to create a deterrent. Trump, though, seems to believe that a situation like the one we have with Russia now — long-term nuclear stability created by mutual deterrence — is unacceptable, probably because we’re not “winning.” As we’ve learned again and again, Trump believes that practically every situation is zero-sum: either you’re the winner or the loser, and we need to be the winners. He also has a deep-seated need to display dominance, to show other people and the world that he has bested them and been proven to be the alpha male, which is why I strongly suspect that the fact that Russia has a few more warheads than we do is at the root of his displeasure.

That kind of mentality is obviously dangerous when combined with the power to initiate a nuclear cataclysm. If there’s any saving grace here, it’s that a genuine change in our nuclear posture would require a lot of time, work and involvement of other, presumably saner people in order to carry out. It’s not something Trump can just order up on a Monday and see put in place by Friday.

But one thing he can do quickly and on his own is make sure that we’re all living in a world of fear, where our thoughts are regularly taken over not just by the specter of terrorism, but now by nuclear holocaust as well. It hasn’t been that way for a long time, but thanks to Trump, it just might be that way again. And that’s probably just how he wants it.