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How Donald Trump Threatens the Delicate Calculus of Nuclear Deterrence

Every second of every day, hundreds of American servicemen and women around the world wait in readiness for a presidential order to launch a nuclear weapon. For most civilians, the idea of global nuclear war seems more remote and fantastical than it has since the beginning of the nuclear age—more like a plot point in a movie than an ever-present possibility. But those who serve on America’s nuclear front lines--its submarines and missile launch facilities—know all too well that nuclear war remains only a phone call and a keyturn away.

Although the day-to-day job tasks of nuclear weapons officers may be technically demanding, their main function is not supposed to require any thought whatsoever. They have been conditioned by years of repetitious training to launch missiles if they receive an authenticated order from the president. In fact, nuclear weapons officers are specifically chosen for duty based on their willingness to deliver death to millions, if so ordered, without question or hesitation. The logic of nuclear conflict makes no accommodations for human psychology or morality. If they receive an authenticated launch order (i.e. an order certain to have come from the President or a surviving head of the nuclear chain of command), it is taken as a given that American nuclear weapons officers will follow it.

It is precisely that certainty, paradoxically, which has permitted us to co-exist with our own terrible devices for three quarters of a century without being destroyed by them. (That, and quite a bit of dumb luck, as Eric Schlosser recounts in his sobering history of American nuclear weapons, Command and Control). The concentration of nuclear authority in the hands of the president, together with the absolute certainty that the president’s launch order will be followed, form two of the major pillars of America's nuclear deterrence doctrine.

The functionality of this arrangement depends upon the careful avoidance of certain questions. But sometimes those questions get asked anyway. In 2011, writer Ron Rosenbaum recounted the story of a former Air Force officer named Harold Hering. Major Hering had proven his dedication and valor, serving five tours in Vietnam and earning a Distinguished Flying Cross. But while training as a nuclear launch officer at Vandenburg AFB in 1973, Hering did something unforgivable in the eyes of the Air Force: he questioned the command process by which it deployed nuclear weapons.

Maj. Hering’s concern was simple: what if the president was mentally unfit to order a nuclear launch? Were there any safeguards to prevent World War III from being started by a deranged president, or a foreign breach of the nuclear chain of command? These were not academic questions at the time. A beleaguered President Nixon — no paragon of mental stability even at his best  — was showing visible signs of nervous collapse under the weight of the Watergate scandal. In fact, as the investigation into Watergate approached its endgame, Nixon’s Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger quietly ordered the Joint Chiefs of Staff to check with him personally before passing along any “unusual” military orders coming out of the White House.

But the Air Force was not interested in answering Maj. Hering’s question. They were so keen to avoid it, in fact, that they discharged him for "failure to meet the duty performance required of an officer." According to an Air Force board of inquiry, the legality of a nuclear launch order was not something an executive officer needed to know. “I have to say,” Hering responded in his unsuccessful appeal to the discharge, “I do feel I have a need to know, because I am a human being.” There are still no systemic safeguards in place to prevent an unbalanced president from launching nuclear weapons.

Today marks the 115th day of Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidency. After he won, many hoped that the solemnity of the office would sober him to his grave responsibilities as president. So far though, it is the office itself, not Donald Trump, that has changed, and not for the better. Trump's insatiable neediness, dishonesty and delusion make it impossible for him to act as other presidents have, even though doing so would far better serve his interests. Trump's decision-making seems almost reptilian in its simplicity: that which flatters him or elevates his profile is good, and that which does not is bad. He communicates poorly and recklessly, wasting political capital and undermining his own legitimacy. Far from seeking stability like a normal president might, he radiates chaos and negativity. He is impossible to work with or to trust. He has been diagnosed as a mentally unfit by knowledgeable observers across the political spectrum.

As a candidate, Trump displayed a lack of basic knowledge about America's nuclear command structure. He panned the Iranian nuclear agreement as “disastrous” with no understanding of what it actually did, and pledged to dismantle it on his first day in office. He seemed open to using the threat of nuclear weapons as a negotiating tactic. His military adventures thus far have consisted of a botched raid in Yemen, the pointless and costly shelling of a Syrian airbase with Tomahawk cruise missiles, and the deployment of the most destructive non-nuclear bomb in the US arsenal to collapse a few Taliban tunnels in Afghanistan. Trump cannot explain any of these operations in tactical terms, let alone articulate any coherent security strategy underlying them. These flashy but ineffectual actions suggest that military decision-making in the Trump White House is driven by something other than strategic national interest.

So what happens if Trump orders a nuclear strike against Iran or North Korea? Or Spain? What happens when a president who cannot be trusted to understand and contextualize an unfolding conflict situation orders an intervention of overwhelming force, leading to the possible deaths of millions? Is it legally possible to authenticate a launch order if it comes from a president who is mentally unfit? How many nuclear launch officers in the American military are asking themselves these questions right now? How many of our allies and adversaries are asking them?

The more irrationally the president acts, the more he tests the assumption that he alone controls America’s nuclear arsenal. If he is shown to have been compromised by Russian intelligence, an order to launch nuclear weapons will seem even more suspicious and problematic. Obviously, if he tries to launch a nuclear weapon for no reason, somebody further down the chain of command damn well better stop him. But what happens to the principle of civilian control of the military if a presidential launch order is countermanded by a general? And if he continues to damage his credibility, will President Trump be able to successfully order a nuclear strike — even if circumstances warrant?

The point is that when it comes to nuclear deterrence, uncertainty is dangerous. And the uncertainty surrounding Trump could actually increase the likelihood of nuclear confrontation.

Maj. Hering’s inconvenient question now seems like an opportunity squandered, lingering ominously unanswered in the era of Trump. Today, as then, American nuclear weapons officers rely on the sanity of the commander in chief to shield them from complicity in a potentially world-ending mistake. I have never envied them less. Who would want to twist the launch key on the say-so of Donald Trump?

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The Republican Party vs. American Democracy: Only One Can Survive

The Republican Party has won for itself all three branches of national government by a combination of chicanery and sedition. They have secured the House thanks to gerrymandered districts and targeted voter suppression--strategies which evoke legitimate comparisons to the days of Jim Crow. They have fallen in line behind a president who never tells the truth, scapegoats the weak and vulnerable, and who probably conspired with the Russian government to beat Hillary Clinton last fall. They have stolen a Supreme Court nomination from a Democratic president, and radicalized their base so as to make bipartisan compromise a political impossibility.

And for all this, they have been rewarded with a once-in-a-century opportunity to remake American government into an undemocratic instrument of private wealth, programmed to transfer even more money from the poor and middle class, as well as the assets still held in common trust (e.g. public lands, natural resources, etc.), to the few at the very top.

But they haven’t won yet. To ensure the realization of these long-held goals, the entire Republican Party is now hard at work covering Trump’s messy tracks and propagating his cult of personality. At the same time, they are trying to ram through a repeal of the ACA before anyone can see it--a necessary first step toward a government exclusively by and for the hyperwealthy. And finally, Trump and the Republicans are trying to intimidate and delegitimize both the intelligence community and the free press--two of the remaining centers of opposition to his authoritarian rule. (Trump even pays homage to one of the "Great Ones" by resurrecting an old Stalinism, "enemy of the people," to castigate the press.) Should the Republicans fail in any of these endeavors, their ambitiously dystopic vision may never come to pass.

So now, we as a nation have finally reached the crossroads we’ve been moving toward since the era of Barry Goldwater. All of the antidemocratic things the Republican Party has done over decades to reach this point have gradually made it anathema to the foundational American ideals of transparent and representative governance. The GOP is now beyond accommodation, appeasement or redemption. And now that a strongman like Trump occupies the Oval Office, the death struggle between democracy and authoritarianism is no longer just over the horizon; it’s here. The foundational institutions of American democracy will either triumph or perish in the fight. The same is also true of the Republican Party.

This fight was not the will of the American people, but the choice of a handful of powerful Republicans, who deliberately made their party incompatible with America's democratic traditions in exchange for power. It's going to be ugly and destructive no matter what.

Should Republicanism/Trumpism prevail, the United States will likely become a one-party state, in which an informed and engaged citizenry plays no role. If, on the other hand, American democracy is to survive in anything more than name, the architects of this historical moment--which include names like Trump, Bannon, Sessions, McConnell and Ryan--will have to be sidelined and discredited, and the party they lead repudiated and possibly even abolished. That's where we're at. These men know very well the stakes of the game they play. Everyone else should know them too.

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Trump is Bad. The Unitary Executive is Worse.

In the landmark 1974 Supreme Court case United States v. Nixon, the embattled President Nixon invoked executive privilege to stop the release of his taped conversations with indicted subordinates in the Oval Office, including discussions about the Watergate break-in. Nixon’s conception of executive privilege was breathtakingly broad. As his lawyer, James D. St. Clair put it, Nixon considered himself “as powerful a monarch as Louis XIV, only four years at a time, and [...] not subject to the processes of any court in the land except the court of impeachment.” Since the “court” of impeachment is actually Congress, Nixon was in fact arguing that as president, he enjoyed absolute immunity from the judiciary.

The Supremes didn’t go for it however, unanimously rejecting Nixon’s claim as “contrary to the basic concept of separation of powers and the checks and balances that flow from the scheme of tripartite government.” The president resigned two weeks later.

But even though Nixon lost his case, events were definitely trending in his direction. Remarkably, Watergate proved barely a speedbump on the road to an ever-more powerful “unitary executive.” For a number of reasons (the deepening dysfunctionality of American electoral politics not the least of them), the legislative and judicial branches have willingly ceded authority to the executive branch ever since.

Some of the blame for this goes to Gerald Ford. Preemptively declaring “our long national nightmare” to be over, Ford pardoned Nixon, foreclosing a rare opportunity to reign in the power of the presidency. A decade later, after Oliver North, one of Ronald Reagan’s military aides, began arranging funding for the Nicaraguan Contras via the illicit sale of arms to Iran, the Reagan White House pushed the concept of executive privilege just as far as Nixon had. Farther, perhaps, because Reagan actually got away with it--assuming symbolic (and thus meaningless) “responsibility” for the actions of his subordinates, of which he nevertheless claimed to be unaware.

But it was 9/11 that really supercharged the consolidation of executive power. The George W. Bush White House used the attack to engineer a fake casus belli for the invasion of Iraq, a geopolitical blunder of world-historic proportions. It created black sites, enacted torture, ramped up spying on American citizens, and shrouded its decision-making in ever-greater secrecy.

Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was widely viewed as a popular repudiation of everything George W. Bush had stood for. But far from rolling back the enhanced security powers bequeathed to him by his predecessor, Barack Obama added to them, ordering several major military actions without any congressional approval, and prosecuting whistleblowers with unprecedented ferocity. Stymied by Congressional Republicans throughout both his terms, Obama also came to rely on executive orders to govern responsively.

Through it all, the guiding assumption of the national press and political class has remained that any president would, at the very least, abide by certain norms of behavior as to the use of their broad authority.

But in just his first week, Donald Trump has already shown the entire world the how dangerous it has always been to rely on the character of popularly elected chief executives as the only bulwark against authoritarianism.

Because Trump--a profoundly damaged human being if ever there was one--is now the most unfettered, institutionally powerful president in American history. He has more latitude to prosecute wars of choice than any president before him. He has more power and technical capacity to spy on anyone, anywhere.

Building on Bush II and Obama’s extensive use of drones, Trump commands more authority to order the assassination of anyone he deems a threat to national security. There is nothing stopping him from murdering Americans without trial, with the flimsiest of justifications. Trump’s White House will operate with less external oversight and more secrecy than any before it. He has more tools at his disposal with which to manipulate and punish the press, and to intimidate potential whistleblowers.

Perhaps most worrisomely, Trump has more power than any executive before him to further degrade the power of the other two branches. With the help of Republicans in Congress, he is ramrodding profoundly unfit appointees to head crucial agencies with an absolute minimum of oversight. (Senators charged with confirming potential Education Secretary Betsy DeVos were arbitrarily limited to five minutes each.) And on the White House webpage describing the branches of the federal government, the judiciary branch temporarily disappeared altogether.

And thanks to his predecessors, Trump has plenty of rhetorical and legal ammunition with which to justify all of this. Indeed, the Trump administration is already defending executive overreaches like the refugee ban simply by repeating, ad nauseum, that the Obama administration did the same thing. Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s serpentiform advisor, justified the refugee ban to one reporter by saying, “President Obama did it, now President Trump is doing it.” That’s a lie, of course. But get used hearing it, because it will be the party line after every one of Trump’s executive overreaches, no matter how egregious. And unfortunately, when (not if) his administration starts prosecuting journalists for doing their jobs, that line will contain more than a hint of truth.

Still, we are where we are. If there is a silver lining to any of this, it’s that the Trump presidency represents an opportunity to correct a historic mistake going back at least some forty years. Our government is comprised of three equal branches. In order to be truly “equal,” they have to serve as a check on one another at all times, not just when the opposite party is in power. The “unitary executive” is a historical lie, and a precondition to autocracy. Beyond just seeing Trump impeached, his opponents should look to restore balance to the federal branches. This requires targeting the House and Senate leaders for at least as much political pushback as we give the president himself. Until men like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell put country over party--or (preferably) are replaced by people who do--there's really no stopping Donald Trump.

Update: I note, with no particular satisfaction, that I posted this a few hours before the Trump administration night-fired acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who had refused to enforce last week's immigration ban. The Saturday Night Massacre it ain't; Trump is well within legal bounds to do this. But the White House press release accompanying her firing reads like it was written by a pre-pubescent Nixon himself, noting darkly that Yates has "betrayed the Department of Justice," and is "weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration."

It's worth noting that Sally Yates worked at the Justice Department for 27 years, serving administrations from both parties. To accuse her of "betraying" anything is both ludicrous and deeply unsettling. It's also worth remembering that while Trump can fire his legal staff whenever he likes, it is the AG's job to tell the him when he's wrong, which is what Yates just did. At least that's what Jeff Sessions thinks the AG does, right?

If the shades of Nixon are this obvious from the cheap seats, I can only imagine how things look inside the Beltway these days. Yeesh.

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Fighting Words

So Trumpism is a thing now. The specifics of Trumpist ideology are still unclear, since the president-elect himself is too obtuse, dishonest, and contemptuous of the American tradition of representative government to have developed a cohorent political worldview. But clearly, Trumpism is a civic expression of some familiar and deeply human impulses--unreasoned fear, uncurbed spite, bullheaded ignorance and religious fundamentalism--just like every other authoritarian "ism" in memory, both here and abroad. Like every such movement before it, Trumpism disguises those underlying frailties under the trappings of strength and certainty.

Trumpism is also a natural consequence of America's deteriorating governing structure and traditions: the corporate capture of state and media power, income inequality, civic disengagement, the devaluation of the basic idea of the commons, and the degradation of civil liberties. As a result, we have now entrusted every organ of elected federal government to an avowed authoritarian and his political party.

It's a good bet that most establishment Republicans are also shocked by Trump's victory. Their takeaway from Mitt Romney's loss in 2012 was that the party needed to embrace comprehensive immigration reform to attract Hispanic voters, or they'd never win the presidency again. That was Marco Rubio's whole reason for being. And then the party went and nominated Donald Trump. He was seen by party regulars as a ruffian and a terrible electoral risk. He was supposed to lose, and they were supposed to pretend that he'd never existed.

But he won, with some help from Putin, the FBI, and yes, vote rigging. And now a radical, amoral Republican Party has a completely unexpected opportunity to roll back every progressive policy accomplishment since the Civil War. Their priorities are the priorities of their corporate masters: to wipe out ACA, roll back financial reform, destroy what remains of the union movement, and privatize Medicare, public education, and social security. They will challenge the very idea of federal environmental policy. They will gut workplace safety regulations, void rules governing overtime pay, etc., etc...

And unless the Dems can stop them somehow, they will definitely do serious damage to our country's electoral system. This will be the first time Republicans have controlled both houses and the presidency since Justice Roberts declared the 1965 Voting Rights Act obsolete in 2013's Shelby County v. Holder Supreme Court case. So they'll be looking for more and better ways to lock in existing franchise restrictions and further suppress minority voting, or even to change how votes are counted. I expect Republicans to take a page out of Vladimir Putin's playbook by imposing heavy new restrictions on how American elections are monitored. Edit: I note here that Kris Kobach, Kansas' own vote cager extraordinaire, has been named to Trump's transition team.

In exchange for the ability to do everything they've ever wanted, Republicans will now pledge their fealty to Donald Trump. Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell is getting that little errand out of the way today. House Speaker Paul Ryan is claiming that Trump has a "mandate" despite losing the popular vote. Ryan's a liar by both temperament and profession, but that's probably the most blatant public whopper he's told so far. That's how you know an authoritarian is feeling confident.

I don't know yet what congressional Democrats can do to protect the basic functions of American democracy. But at the very least, every Republican judicial appointment--not just to the Supreme Court--must be fiercely opposed. Going forward, I don't want to hear a single congressional Democrat snivel about how "so-and-so Republican is really a straight shooter (Hi Jim!)" or that "this is the best we're going to get from this administration." I don't ever want to hear Dems talk about how they need to "work across the aisle" to "get something done for the American people," or any other such nonsense. No Republican uttered any of those words in the last eight years. Congressional Republicans refused to even grant a hearing to Obama Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland for almost a year. Merrick f'n Garland! No congress in the history of the country had ever done that before. And not only did Republicans pay no political price for violating the constitution they claim to revere, but their gambit worked to perfection. With Trump's victory, congressional Republicans have successfully stolen a Supreme Court pick out from under a Democratic president. There are no rules anymore, which is an objectively terrible state of affairs. But that's how the ballgame is played now, Dems. You don't have to like it. But by God, don't wimp out. And whatever you do, don't let the Republicans put your presidential candidate in jail.

Here's another idea: stop talking about the Republican Party and Trump as if they aren't one and the same. There are no Republicans anymore, only Trumpists. Every Republican is, and should always be referred to, as a Trumpist for at least as long as he's in office. In writing, quotes, speeches, everything. There is no daylight between the party and the monstrosity at its head. So he should define them, not the other way around. Michael Moore's got some other pretty good ideas about how citizens can organize to oppose the Trumpist takeover of our government. But the point here is that we are now officially in opposition to self-proclaimed facism. The normal rules of decorum no longer apply.

Above all, don't despair. Overt demagoguery tends to have a short shelf life in American politics. The First Red Scare whipped up fears of bolshevist revolution in the United States, resulting in race riots and 1918 Sedition Act--a rather conspicuous violation of the First Amendment. But when Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, the architect of much of the Red Scare, warned the nation of a communist uprising planned for May Day 1920 and it didn't happen, he was laughed off the public stage and the Sedition Act was repealed. When Joseph McCarthy first burst onto the scene in 1949, he turned the federal government inside out, cynically repurposing genuine American fears about communism into a seemingly invincible partisan weapon. (Notably, Roy Cohn, who was McCarthy's odious chief counsel, was also a legal representative and close advisor to Donald Trump until Cohn's death in 1986.) But Joseph McCarthy also ultimately failed. The moment of his public demise, which came during the Army-McCarthy hearings, was recorded for posterity. Written on his political epitaph were Senator Joseph Welch's famous words, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" It's a powerful reminder of where we've been, and it's worth rewatching this week.

By some measures at least, we've now entered a far darker time than either of the Red Scares. If you care about the environment and climate change, human rights, income inequality, the alleviation of poverty, national security, equal protection, racial equality, gender equity, public lands, government transparency, civil liberties, public health, financial and industrial regulation, the integrity of our elections, public safety, the future of American democracy, or just the basic Golden Rule, the next four years are going to be agonizing to witness, and for many, to endure. The white backlash has now been mainstreamed, and Trump's election will uncork a flood of racial and gender-based aggression and cruelty. But we are still free to assemble, still free to give of our time and our money, still free to speak. We are free to stand up for one another, to protect each other. And now we have to do all of those things like we have never done them before.

There will come another Joseph Welch moment. It won't come without effort, without concerted and dogged resistance. I don't know when, or how much damage Trumpism will do beforehand. And it may not be a moment at all, but rather a gradual and accumulating diminution of Trumpism's ability to inflict further harm on our body politic. Beneath Donald Trump and his party is the dustbin of history--silently awaiting their inevitable fall. And when it happens, Trumpism won't be a thing anymore. It will be an epithet.

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