It’s not the most egregious thing Donald Trump has ever done. He’s made far more vulgar statements before. His past utterances have been far more bizarre and nonsensical. His presidential actions are more likely to cause greater lasting harm than any incendiary comment gushing from his addled, angry brain—from environmental deregulation to regressive tax cuts to the destabilization of health care markets. Besides, maintaining peak outrage over a Trumpian tweet is a hopeless endeavor. He can always go lower, and he’ll waste little time doing so.
But the series of 2018-christening presidential tweets this week were a truly nauseating display, and they culminated in a proclamation that should instigate his speedy removal from office. At 7:49pm on January 2nd, Trump pressed “send” on the following inane missive:
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
To state the obvious, this is a needless, childish provocation. And it is part of a worsening pattern of senseless escalations in a tense nuclear standoff with worst-case outcomes approaching the apocalyptic.
Naturally, the White House’s collection of goons and ghouls quickly went to work trying to convince America that we were the crazy ones. Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders explained that the tweet proved Trump is “not going to cower down and is not going to be weak and is going to make sure he does what he’s promised to do, and that’s stand up and protect the American people.” Vice President and sycophant-in-chief Mike Pence had the audacity to defend the tweet by saying that “President Trump has provided the kind of clear leadership on the world stage that’s made measurable progress. President Trump made it clear, America will not be bullied. America will not be threatened.” These interpretations are patently ludicrous, and their authors are so lacking in credibility that they deserve no benefit of the doubt or careful parsing. The President has not only abdicated his role as the nation’s caretaker but is actively undermining our prospects for peace and stability, and the highest officeholders beneath him are fully onboard.
A logical response to all this (and the main reason this blog does not have a daily article along these lines) is that none of this is new. The President is the worst combination of impulses and attributes—vain, uncurious, simpleminded, deluded, selfish, arrogant, self-absorbed, and downright stupid. We knew this before he was elected, and we’ve seen that he has no capacity, willingness, or both, to correct course.
Yet, even if his “my button works” boast is neither new nor a nadir, it is at least a clarification of this perilous moment in our nation’s history. So instead of merely observing that it’s another example of “Trump being Trump,” as Republican Senator John Thune did this week, let’s actually take a careful look at what Trump said. After suspending disbelief and ignoring the understanding that two years observation of the man can bring, let us ask ourselves two simple questions about Trump’s behavior. Is there a charitable explanation for the strategy and purpose behind this statement? And if not, what does it mean for our republic that Congress has responded with business as usual?
Defenders of President Trump’s “nuclear button” tweet have offered the same defense as the ones they’ve given to his previous aggressively juvenile boasts. It is this: in contrast to Obama’s “weak” foreign policy of apology tours, appeasement, and unenforced “red lines,” Trump is engaged in an aggressive form of deterrence, both standing up for his country and stoking the unpredictable, “madman” theory intended to keep Mr. Un apprehensive and defensive. Why should we tolerate Un’s provocations and intimidations? Why not check the dictator with military bluster of our own?
So, let’s analyze the President’s tweet according to this extremely forgiving theory. Trump’s statement responded to Un’s New Year’s address warning the United States that he could launch a nuclear strike at any moment. In response, Trump issued three taunts: 1) America has a “bigger” nuclear button than North Korea; 2) North Korea’ nuclear button doesn’t work; and 3) North Korea is a “depleted and food starved” country. The first statement misses the point entirely, the second is patently false, and the third is wholly irrelevant and embarrassingly juvenile. At least a wild threat to “totally destroy” North Korea could potentially have a deterrent effect under some dubious theory of diplomacy. But bragging that your nuclear bombs are bigger than another country’s nuclear bombs is the kind of callous bombast that ignores the stark reality of modern warfare. The total destruction of North Korea in exchange for elimination of Los Angeles is not an acceptable trade. Say what you will about Kim Jong Un, at least he understands this idea. Indeed, he’s built his entire foreign policy around it.
It’s the other two propositions, however, that are the emptiest. Kim Jong Un’s “nuclear button”—an idiom not a precise description—doesn’t work? Then why all the attention? Why the threats to wipe out an entire nation in self-defense? Indeed, the danger of a nuclear armed madman in North Korea is one Trump himself has said is real. Finally, a pot shot at the poverty and food scarcity within North Korea (an existence abetted by the very regime Trump attempts to denigrate) is the kind of idiocy that a particularly dense, insecure middle schooler would make to reinforce his popularity. It is neither productive nor in service of the alleged objective. It is of a piece with Trump’s earlier tweets calling North Korea’s leader “Rocket Man” and “short and fat.”
In sum, it’s painfully obvious there is no strategy or purpose behind these statements. It is all egoist chest thumping, and rather ineffective even for that modest aim. Trump has no awareness of the risks that such provocation could cause or the horrific damage that might result. The best you can say is that Trump isn’t a serious person to be taken seriously. But he is president of the United States!
If North Korea is truly a nuclear threat to the United States and its Asian allies, then Trump’s hollow and deranged tweets are imperiling world peace and safety. Yet, Republicans in Congress have mostly laughed it off. Democrats, too, have dropped the ball. They seem content to allow the president’s unpopularity to deepen. This has to stop. Trump’s tweets may be silly, but they are also deadly serious. If our leaders take the president seriously, then they should act now to replace him. And if they cannot? Well, then certainly the result should be the same.