Mark Hertsgaard, writing in The Nation, directly confronts in the light of day the monster that many, probably most of us encounter in nightmares. We would rather ignore and repress than acknowledge and face the real possibility of nuclear extermination. It is a possibility that has haunted us since 1945, one we wanted to think was put to rest with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. But the menace remained. Nuclear weapons proliferated. The war on terrorism metastasized. The infamous Doomsday Clock moved up to two and a half minutes to midnight.
Hertsgaard renders the abstraction of nuclear annihilation tangible in the person of Donald Trump. President Trump is the monster that goes thump in the night. He is as frightening as our childhood fear of the dark. Yet, personifying the threat of nuclear annihilation with the palpable image of Trump’s impulsive finger on the nuclear button focuses attention on the immediate danger at the risk of distracting attention from the systemic militarism of US imperialism.
There is good reason to be scared of a madcap Commander in Chief, but even more reason to reflect on what it tells us—a people habituated to empire and militarism—about the general state of our troubled affairs.
Hertsgaard’s warning is present tense. Its tone is urgent. Its aim is immediate action. The larger context is absent, perhaps implied but unspecified. The warning unfolds as follows:
“We need to get Donald Trump’s finger off the nuclear button . . . . [His] volatile temperament and erratic judgment should rule out allowing him to single-handedly start a nuclear war.”
US law and long-standing policy give president Trump unilateral, unstoppable authority to launch a nuclear attack. He need not present a compelling reason for such an attack; perhaps he simply decides that it is time to teach North Korea a lesson. He need not notify, much less attain agreement from, leaders in Congress or the secretary of defense or other military officials. Trump’s status as commander in chief empowers him and him alone to unleash nuclear weapons at a moment’s notice.”
Seven hundred US nuclear weapons, “each many times more powerful than the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki,” are poised for immediate launch. Once launched, they cannot be called back. They launch four minutes after the president’s order is given and hit their targets within thirty minutes.
The system must be changed in three commonsense ways: “The United States should take its nuclear weapons off of ‘hair-trigger’ status; it should declare a policy of ‘no first use’ of nuclear weapons; and it should prohibit this or any president from unilaterally launching a nuclear attack.”
“None of these reforms will happen without strong, sustained public pressure” in a country (Hertsgaard quoting a Global Zero campaign director) “’just waking up to the nuclear danger posed by Donald Trump’.”
Trump is a problem of immediate and potentially catastrophic proportions. These days remind me of my duck-and-cover childhood, wondering if I’d be smarter to take cover under the schoolroom windows or toward the back of the room, and thinking the end was near regardless. I’m still amazed that we survived the Mutually-Assured-Destruction madness of the Cold War. I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be that lucky again.
But Trump is also a symptom of a deeper problem. Should our dumb luck hold, surviving Trump’s presidency will not remove, or even substantially alleviate, the threat of nuclear holocaust. Resting our hopes on cooler heads should be a reminder that we are playing with deadly fire. The weapon is a doomsday machine. The humans in charge and their systems of control are fallible and subject to caprice. The logic of America’s enemies is that they have to possess nuclear weapons to prevent the US from meddling in their affairs.
The flailing Trump symbolizes the floundering empire that thinks more and bigger weapons will save the day. The President’s “egomania” (Hertsgaard’s term) is a sign of the country’s collective struggle with its waning hegemony, its disconfirmed ethos of exceptionalism. We can’t get enough respect anymore to reassure ourselves that we are an exceptional people. We have a powerful military, powerful enough to obliterate, but not to rule, the world. Our culture of war has dulled our democratic sensibilities. We march dumbly over a political landscape of dead metaphors toward the precipice with no idea of when or how to stop. The “truths” we tell about ourselves, in Nietzsche’s terms, are an army of tropes so overused and embellished that they have become canonical and binding illusions, “metaphors that have become worn out . . . coins which have lost their embossing.”
Trump, as bad as he is, should not become the scapegoat we sacrifice to redeem ourselves in the short run while continuing our imperial ways. We should see in him a reflection of our collective self, which is the first crucial step toward making a necessary course correction.
 Friedrich Nietzsche, “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” in Philosophy and Truth: Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s, ed. and trans. Daniel Breazeale (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 1999), 84.