Trump, Nuclear Weapons and the Human Future

Donald Trump and the Bomb are nearly the same age.  Which of them will prove to be more destructive remains to be seen, but in combination they are terrifying.

Trump was born on June 14, 1946, less than a year after the first and, thus far, only nuclear weapons were used in war.  Given Trump’s surprising recent election as president of the United States, his fate and that of the Bomb are about to become seriously and dangerously intertwined with the fate of all humanity.

On January 20, 2017, Trump will be sworn in as the 45th president of the United States, and he will be given the nuclear codes and the power to launch the U.S. nuclear arsenal, which is comprised of some 7,000 nuclear weapons.  A military officer will always be close to Trump, carrying the nuclear codes in a briefcase known as the “football.”  What does this portend for civilization and the future of humanity?

The Singular Positive

The most positive policy proposal Trump will bring to the table as president is his desire to improve and strengthen relations between the U.S. and Russia, which have deteriorated badly in recent years.  This is one hopeful sign that could lead to renewed efforts by the two countries to reduce their nuclear arsenals and reverse current plans to modernize these arsenals.

The Numerous Negatives

Trump’s behavior during the presidential campaign was often erratic, seemingly based on discernable personality traits, including narcissism, arrogance, impulsiveness, and a lack of predictability.  If these traits provide a fair characterization of Trump’s personality, what do they suggest for his control of the U.S. nuclear arsenal?

Trump’s narcissism seems to be reflected in his need to be liked and treated positively.  During the primaries, if another candidate criticized him, Trump would respond with even stronger criticism toward his attacker.  On the other hand, if someone praised Trump, he would respond with praise.  This could result in creating a spiral in either a positive or negative direction.  A negative spiral could potentially get out of hand, which would be alarming with regard to anyone with a hand hovering near the nuclear button.

His narcissism was also reflected in his need to be right.  Even though Trump is reported to not read very much and to have a limited range of experience, he is often certain that he is right and boldly asserts the correctness of his positions.  At one point, for example, he argued that he knew much more than military leaders about the pursuit and defeat of ISIS.  His assuredness of his own correctness seems also rooted in arrogance reflecting his fundamental insecurity.  This insecurity and his belief in his own rightness, when combined with his success at making money, leads him to be self-reliant in his decision-making, which could result in his taking risks with threatening or using nuclear weapons.  He said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program, “My primary consultant is myself.”  While this may make consensus easy, the range of perspective is dangerously narrow.

Two other personality traits could also make more likely Trump’s use of nuclear weapons: his impulsiveness and his lack of predictability.  Impulsiveness is not a trait one would choose for a person with the power to launch the U.S. nuclear arsenal.  When it comes to deciding to use the Bomb, a personality that is calm, clear and measured would seem to inspire more confidence that caution would be employed.  Predictability would also seem to inspire confidence that a President Trump would refrain from deciding to respond with overwhelming force when he is in a negative spiral and out of patience with a country or terrorist organization that is challenging the U.S., which he may interpret as mounting a challenge to himself personally.

Where Does Trump Stand?

On many issues, including on the use of nuclear weapons, it is not clear where Trump stands, due to his contradictory statements.  Here is what Trump said in March 2016 at a town hall event when host Chris Matthews asked him if he might use nuclear weapons:

Trump: “I’d be the last one to use the nuclear weapons, because that’s sort of like the end of the ballgame.”

Matthews: “So, can you take it off the table now? Can you tell the Middle East we are not using the nuclear weapon on anybody?”

Trump: “I would never say that. I would never take any of my cards off the table.”

Matthews: “How about Europe? We won’t use it in Europe.”

Trump: “I’m not going to take it off the table for anybody.”

Matthews: “You might use it in Europe?”

Trump: “No. I don’t think so, but — I am not taking cards off the table. I’m not going to use nukes, but I’m not taking cards off the table.”

Trump has also said that he would do away with the Iran Deal negotiated by the U.S. and five of its allies with Iran, and yet he recently backed away from vowing to scrap the Iran Deal for now.  He also said that he would encourage Japan and South Korea to develop their own nuclear arsenals to lower U.S. costs, and then has denied that he would encourage nuclear proliferation to allies (although he did say so).  He supports the modernization of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while complaining about budget expenditures.  He presumably intends to go forward with the $1 trillion nuclear modernization plan.


Perhaps the singular positive of Trump’s desire to improve the deteriorating relations between the U.S. and Russia will lead to achieving progress toward a world free of nuclear weapons.  A lot will depend on who Trump chooses for key cabinet positions, but even more will depend on his consultations with his key advisor (himself).

That so much power over the U.S. nuclear arsenal is placed in the hands of one man – any man – bodes ill for humanity, while completely undermining the war power granted to Congress in the U.S. constitution.  That the man in question should be Donald Trump, with all his personal flaws, challenges the United States and the world as never before in human history.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). 

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David Krieger is President of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org). 

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