After years as a back-burner public issue, the terrible specter of nuclear war has come into focus as a first-order concern for the American electorate. This is due in part to rising tensions in recent years between the United States and Russia. But the most combustible fuel for this anxiety is the unlikely rise of Donald J. Trump.
Since Marco Rubio first opened this line of attack in late February — calling him “a lunatic trying to get ahold of nuclear weapons” — the unsettling prospect of Trump’s finger on the proverbial Red Button has steadily gained attention.
Unique among issues in these polarizing times, this concern now cuts across partisan divides. Scores of political leaders and national security experts from both political parties are questioning whether the Republican nominee has the experience, temperament and judgment to have his finger on that button. This view is shared by a substantial majority of the American public: only 27% trust him to make the right decisions about the use of nuclear weapons. Large blocs of voters now rate the handling of nuclear weapons as a top issue of concern for them in the election.
If you find the thought of Trump’s finger on the Red Button alarming, there is good reason. Just last month, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported Trump asked three times in a one-hour policy briefing, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?”
More importantly, that button is shorthand for a deadly-efficient system built for blind deference and speed. It is extremely vulnerable to accidents, false warnings, rushed decision-making and bad judgment. There are no firewalls — legal, political, operational or otherwise — between a president’s itchy trigger finger and civilization-ending weaponry.
The thousands of nuclear weapons at the president’s disposal — each one 10-20 times more powerful than the bomb that obliterated Hiroshima — are locked in attack-mode, ready to fire at any moment. That adds the potential for catastrophic nuclear violence to every geopolitical conflict, every crisis, every misidentified flock of geese (seriously, it’s happened). Within minutes of receiving a short burst of computer code, they will launch from their silos and can’t be recalled.
Once a president makes that decision, no one can stop it.
Certainly, Trump is unfit for the task. His deficiencies on that score could fill a book. Time and again, he has shown himself easily baited and quick to lash out, dismissive of expert consultation, ill-informed of even basic international and military affairs — including, most especially, nuclear weapons (dropping them on Europe isn’t “off the table”).
But that critique, however accurate, misses the point: The problem is larger than any individual candidate or president.
Trump has single-handedly, albeit inadvertently, drawn the spotlight to the little understood danger inherent in continued U.S. reliance on a Red Button nuclear weapons strategy — one that’s geared for first-strike and quick-launch, with autocratic control in the hands of the president. For that, I suppose we should thank him — even as we mobilize to keep his finger as far away from the button as possible.
But we should bear in mind that this catastrophic threat didn’t end after the Cold War, and it won’t end after the fall of Donald Trump. We must dismantle the unjust, undemocratic and terrifyingly absolute power bound up in that button and the insane system it represents. It shouldn’t be harder for the president to appoint a mid-level bureaucrat than it is to kill hundreds of millions of people.
Fortunately, we can reform — and end — the Red Button nuclear system. Progress on this front can take a number of forms. We can ban the first use of nuclear weapons in a conflict, take our arsenal off hair-trigger alert, or even eliminate altogether the categories of weapons (land-based missiles) that are geared only for a quick-launch, first-strike attack. Any of these steps would make us safer and more secure. All of them have the backing of credible nuclear security experts.
At the Republican primary debate in December, Trump pointed to the possibility of a “madman getting his hands on a nuclear weapon” as the biggest problem the American people would face. He had it partly right. It’s not just the madman from a rogue nation we should lose sleep over. It’s the idea that any single person anywhere — including in the United States — has a Red Button at their fingertips and the power to light the world on fire.
Derek Johnson is the executive director of Global Zero Action, the U.S. advocacy arm of the international Global Zero movement to eliminate nuclear weapons, and spokesman for the #NoRedButton campaign. For more information, visit www.noredbutton.org.