Mushroom cloud of ‘Gadget’ over Trinity, seconds after detonation, 1945. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In these hyperbolic times, we should pause occasionally to reflect on the casual use of dangerous language.  President Trump’s choice of the word “obliteration” in the present context of tensions with Iran is a case in point.  It is a term fraught with deadly implications, especially in the midst of a heated dispute between adversaries.  That, by itself, is worrisome, even if it were an isolated instance of inflammatory language.  The fact that it is characteristic of this president is all the more disquieting.  “Obliteration” reflects an ingrained pattern—the rhetorical mannerism of his volatile disposition.  Beyond that, it invokes a cultural fantasy of nuclear extermination.

Obliteration is not a word to be taken lightly.  My Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines obliterate as an act of removing something from existence, destroying all trace of it, causing it to disappear, making it imperceptible, and erasing it from memory.  It amounts to rubbing out an enemy.  

Mr. Trump engaged in the threat to rub out Iranians, on June 23, in an interview with NBC’s “Meet the Press,” warning that, while he was “not looking for war,” any attempt by Iran to build nuclear weapons would result in “obliteration like you’ve never seen before.”  Two days later, on June 25, responding to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s unflattering depiction of Trump as mentally handicapped or mentally disordered (depending on the preferred translation), the US president responded to the insult by tweeting that “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force.  In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.” And on June 26, in an interview with Fox Business, Mr. Trump allowed that a war with Iran “wouldn’t last very long” nor would it involve American ground forces. 

The mobster overtones of Trump’s threat constitute a wannabe imitation of Marlon Brando’s Godfather-film portrayal of the Don, Vito Corleone.  Speaking of his last-minute decision to call off military strikes in Iran, Trump allowed that he had been “very nice to them.  They shot down our drone.  I decided not to kill a lot of Iranians.  I know a lot of Iranians.  I like Iranians so much, and that plays into your decision, too.  They’re human beings.  They’re people.  And I didn’t want to kill 150 people.”  This president sounded very much as if he were making Iran an offer it could not refuse. 

To threaten Iranians with obliteration is fully consistent with Donald Trump’s wrecking-ball mentality.  Demolition is his defining trope.[1]  He was elected on a discourse of national redemption by demolition and deal making, prompting his followers to express uninhibited feelings of fear, anger, and hatred and vowing to restore lost national glory by defunding nondefense agencies, cutting taxes, dismantling government regulations, repealing Obamacare, shredding trade agreements, denying climate change, canceling executive orders, staying unwanted immigration, and eradicating Islamic terrorism.[2]

Mr. Trump’s rhetoric plays to a fantasy of extermination embedded in public culture.  Americans remember the Good War and celebrate the Greatest Generation in a ritual of self-affirmation.  The mantra of that war was unconditional surrender.  It ended decisively with the atomic extermination of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Since then, whether the US war machine has been stymied in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, or potentially Iran, we hear angry calls to just “nuke ‘em.”



[1] Robert L. Ivie, “Rhetorical Aftershocks of Trump’s Ascendency:  Salvation by Demolition and Deal Making,” Res Rhetorica 4.2 (2017):  60-79. 

[2] Robert L. Ivie, “Trump’s Unwitting Prophecy,” Rhetoric and Public Affairs 20.4 (2017):  708-709.

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