Trump –> Armageddon: A Few Scenarios

 

The Sweet Meteor of Death. Credit: @smod2016Yesterday Genferei made a request:

Claire: Try to write a scenario where Trump causes Armageddon. Don’t leave out any steps or resort to hand-waving or amateur psychology or appeals to authority. Don’t forget there are a squillion hangers-on, advisers and career civil servants and/or soldiers involved. Perhaps you’ll convince us. The “I don’t know but it feels scary” isn’t convincing me.

Great question, and exactly why I love Ricochet: Sooner or later, someone’s going to point out exactly where your argument’s a little vague or flabby, and you’ll either tighten up your argument or change your mind, both or which are good outcomes.

It’s going to take me a couple of weeks to make this case, because I want to do this carefully. I don’t want to write a book in a single post, then come back to see all the tl;drs at the end. So here are the the argument I’ll make in the coming weeks, not necessarily exactly in this order:

  1. I’ll argue that a nuclear war, even a limited one, would be a catastrophe for the United States, as would a major global war like the First or Second World War. I’ll also note that we now face a number of other, very serious, national security threats.
  2. I’ll argue that the probability of the outbreak of such a war in the next president’s term or terms is greater than it has been since the end of the Cold War, and greater than at many points during the Cold War. I believe the probability will be unusually high no matter who’s elected president. My argument will be based on fairly standard and widely-accepted theories about why wars among great powers break out.
  3. To draw analogies that may be relevant, I’ll look at the origins of previous great-power conflicts, particularly the First and Second World Wars, but also at other unusually catastrophic and costly wars that broke out among powers akin to the United States and its present-day competitors. (I’ll also explain why I think they’re relevantly similar.)
  4. I may also consider the risk of civil war, and why it might be slightly higher under Trump than other presidents, although I still think it’s quite unlikely.
  5. I’ll describe in some detail the nuclear near-misses of the Cold War, some of which may still be unknown to all of you, and more of which, I’d assume, are unknown to all of us. I’ll see if we can draw relevant conclusions about why these near-misses didn’t become misses. (Tangential: Why do we call it a “near-miss?” Surely we mean a “near-launch?” Anyone know?) I’ll argue that because we’ve been very lucky from 1945 to the present, we tend to underestimate the risk and see such a war as impossible. I’ll argue that it’s not.
  6. I’ll make the argument that in matters of foreign policy and war, the US president is far less constrained by institutional checks and balances than he is in matters of domestic policy. Moreover, the powers of the executive during wartime were markedly enlarged after September 11, and few of these powers have been withdrawn.
  7. I’ll ask how many advisors, staffers, bureaucrats, hangers-on, advisers, or DoD officials truly have the power to interfere with the commander-in-chief should he make a decision they think unwise. I’ll ask, for example, “How many steps does it take to launch a nuclear weapon?” (fewer than you’d think), and ask as well what we know, historically speaking, about the willingness of soldiers to follow illegal or unwise orders. I’ll try to come up with an estimate — based on what we know of similar situations in the past — of the likelihood that his bad judgment would be questioned or his orders disobeyed in an ambiguous situation that’s widely and plausibly perceived as a great threat.
  8. I’ll walk you through several plausible scenarios in which the president would have to make very quick decisions in response to an emergency, scenarios in which the making the wrong decision would be catastrophic.
  9. I’ll sketch out what the president might do using several hypothetical versions of Donald Trump, all based on things he’s said during the campaign or my observations of him in “The Apprentice.” We don’t know which things he really means, and they often contradict each other, so I’ll try creating a number of plausible Donalds. They’ll range from “Secret-Churchill Donald” — someone who campaigns as a lying fool because he knows this is effective, but unknown to the public has an alter-ego who’s a highly-informed strategic genius surrounded by competent and experienced foreign policy advisors who challenge his assumptions ruthlessly. For this Donald I’ll assume he and his advisors share the goal of furthering American interests. On the other end of the spectrum might be “Psychopath Donald,” a man who would score a full 40 on Hare’s Psychopathy test (click the link to read what that is), and who would neither surround himself with competent advisers, nor take anyone’s advice, nor act toward any goal save that of keeping himself entertained and stimulated. I’ll then try to estimate the odds of his being or behaving as these different alters, and I’ll ask how these alters would be apt to handle the scenarios I’ve suggested in Step 7. I’ll try to sketch out a more rigorous way of calculating “odds of Armageddon” based on that.
  10. I’ll also sketch out what the world might look like if he followed through with various things he’s said he’ll do, using the most common-sensical, plain-English interpretation of his words, and argue that some of these things would be likely to raise the risk of global or thermonuclear war even higher than it already is. Some of the things he’s said are contradictory, so I’ll sketch out both or all three or four scenarios. I’ll predict the effect these actions would be apt to have based on the best historical analogies I can find. I’ll offer some evidence of how these statements, even if he has no intention of acting on them, have already changed the perception of America among its allies, enemies, non-aligned states, and terrorist entities, making us less secure. I’ll outline how they would change even more dramatically if in office he acts on his campaign promises (as best I understand them), and what the implications of this would be. I’ll make the case that even if judgements such as these are incorrect or unfair, other states will be obliged, out of an abundance of caution, to prepare for worst-case scenarios, and thus their fear of him will tend to be self-fulfilling.
  11. I’ll look at two ways he could end up making decisions, good or bad, unconstrained by the usual checks on a president’s power. The first is the “sudden shock” scenario — something like September 11, or another highly traumatic event, after which the checks on his power might literally be gone (a plane hits Congress while it’s in session, or a bomb takes out the Supreme Court), or easily overridden (think of Trump’s gift for demagoguery, of our known willingness to accede to all kinds of liberty-killing legislation in the wake of a terrorist attack, our generally poor understanding of how our government is supposed to work and the importance of checks and balances, and how easily that combination could be exploited if Americans were even more frightened than they were on September 11.).
  12. The second is the “slow accretion of untrammelled power” scenario to which I alluded in a comment yesterday. As I wrote, “His personality reminds me [not so much as Hitler but of] Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. … If you look at the last line [of a piece I wrote for City Journal about Istanbul in 2010], you’ll see I wrote it when we didn’t yet know what would happen next. That what happened next has been catastrophic makes me all the more uneasy about Trump’s personality. We may have checks and balances sufficient to contain him for a while, but over the course of two terms, even enormously secure restraints can wear thin. Tayyip managed seriatum to discredit the military and imprison the top brass, stack the courts, stack the bureaucracy, quash the press, transform the Constitution, and ultimately make it impossible to get rid of him. It’s easier to do than you’d think.” In other words, I’ll sketch out the way I’ve personally seen a charismatic, shrewd and power-hungry leader undermine checks on his power that were widely believed to be nearly-failsafe.

That’s twelve posts, which I’ll work through over the coming two weeks. Genferei, would you consider the challenge met if by this line of reasoning I derive, “Armageddon is a higher risk with Donald Trump in office than it is with any other plausible aspirant to the presidency?” If not, does this mean that no argument would convince you, or does it mean you’re looking for a different kind of argument? If so, what kind of argument would that be?

(A closing thought: I’ll make the argument more fully and seriously in days to come, but how do you reckon Donald would score on the Hare Psychopathy test? Genferei asked me to eschew amateur psychology — as would Hare himself — but I reckon Trump won’t be sitting down with a professional psychologist anytime soon, so what choice have we but to practice amateur psychology? Run Trump through the scale as dispassionately as you can. What number do you get, roughly?)

There are 170 comments.

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  1. BrentB67 Inactive

    This should be fun.

    I am not clear on the overall thesis of thesis of the project. Is the point being made that these things are more likely with Trump in office rather than Cruz or Clinton or is the point that it is likely Trump will do these things?

    Those are different propositions in my mind.

    • #1
    • March 18, 2016, at 3:32 AM PDT
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  2. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    BrentB67: more likely with Trump in office

    “More likely,” and “risk high enough such that reasonable people would not take it.”

    • #2
    • March 18, 2016, at 3:43 AM PDT
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  3. Merina Smith Inactive

    I’m looking forward to this, Claire, and yet dreading it too. I want to have some hope to cling right now, but hope is scarce. I know that plausible scenarios are not certain by any means, and yet Trump is such a loose cannon and so stupid about the world that I think bad things, but who knows what, are almost certain. I trust your educated guesses, and that is why I dread the series. I so want my darling grandchildren to have happy lives in the wonderful country I have known, and yet we see it slipping away before our very eyes.

    • #3
    • March 18, 2016, at 3:50 AM PDT
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  4. BrentB67 Inactive

    Thanks Claire. I think that is the more challenging of the two positions I described. One of the legion of criticisms of Trump is the lack of consistency of his positions. Given his penchant for opportunistically taking various positions it will be challenging to make a case based on his inconsistencies that he will be a threat to consistently perform toward some end besides self aggrandizement.

    • #4
    • March 18, 2016, at 3:55 AM PDT
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  5. Dave Sussman Contributor

    Looking forward to this especially the current parallels with lead ups to WW1&2.

    Is it 1938 again?

    • #5
    • March 18, 2016, at 3:57 AM PDT
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  6. Hartmann von Aue Member

    David Sussman:Looking forward to this especially the current parallels with lead ups to WW1&2.

    Is it 1938 again?

    No. 1914.

    • #6
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:04 AM PDT
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  7. Pilgrim Thatcher

    I score Trump a 28 based on his public personae. So he is not only not a psychopath, he doesn’t even play one on TV.

    • #7
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:06 AM PDT
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  8. I Walton Member

    How are we to know what Trump will do? His talk about deportation and muslim immigration are empty bluster; on the ground realities will determine these. And if he tightens up that’s not a bad thing. A trade war with China? That scares me, but not as much as protectionism in the Democratic party. We have to deal with this issue and to do so requires a domestic economic focus which the Democrats simply do not have. Their administrative state is the problem. The Republican party has some adults on trade and foreign policy. I don’t know about our left. Hillary is not a foreign policy adult. She studied under Bill, it’s all media cycle, photo ops and spin. The world is too dangerous for more of that. Building the military is a good thing, developing our energy is a good thing, making our adversaries nervous isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What’s dangerous is to be perceived as pusillanimous like Obama. We don’t know. That is scary. The exercise sounds important as it is valuable to lay out the risks and challenges the next President will face and then play with the different outcomes with a Democrat, a Cruz or a Trump. It is important to deal with all of them equally. I don’t think these bandwagon Trump fears serve the interests of defeating him in the primaries.

    • #8
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:14 AM PDT
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  9. Seawriter Member

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: “More likely,” and “risk high enough such that reasonable people would not take it.”

    What has Hillary Clinton done over the last 25 years which leads you to conclude she would be less disastrous than Trump?

    Her success in getting comprehensive health care reform passed during the Clinton Presidency?

    Her coolness under fire at Tuzla?

    Her successful and decisive handling of the situation when everything went pear shaped in Benghazi?

    Her willingness to place American national security over her own desire for contributions to the Clinton Foundation?

    Also, remember this is the woman who attempted to bring criminal charges against the head of the White House Travel Office to grease the skids for a favorite to take over.

    I agree Trump would be a constant train wreck, but someone needs to make the case to me that Hillary would be better. For every example of a potential issue with Trump, it is possible to point to an actual example of Hillary doing worse.

    Is it possible the Clintons have been around so long we have become inured to how bad they really are, whereas Trump’s shortcoming are new and we have not had a chance to balance them against the Clintons’?

    Seawriter

    • #9
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:18 AM PDT
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  10. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed. Post author

    Hartmann von Aue: No. 1914.

    Afraid so.

    • #10
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:23 AM PDT
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  11. Tuck Inactive

    Oh brother. Has Trump showed a hint of being a warmonger during his entire life? He’s on the isolationist side of things, isn’t he?

    And has there ever been a case of a businessman getting elected to high office late in life and then starting a war? Ever?

    • #11
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:23 AM PDT
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  12. Percival Thatcher

    I’m with Merina.

    For the sake of the country I’m rooting for “secret Winston Churchill.”

    I suspect “patent political Bernie Madoff.”

    I want to be wrong. Wanting to be wrong seldom works out for me.

    • #12
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:49 AM PDT
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  13. GrannyDude Member

    Tuck:Oh brother. Has Trump showed a hint of being a warmonger during his entire life? He’s on the isolationist side of things, isn’t he?

    And has there ever been a case of a businessman getting elected to high office late in life and then starting a war? Ever?

    I think the problem isn’t so much that Trump would initiate a war, but that he would react unpredictably and dangerously to events. I wouldn’t have said GWB was a warmonger and indeed, he sounded a pretty cautious, anti-interventionist note while on the campaign trail…and then came 9/11.

    • #13
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:53 AM PDT
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  14. Merina Smith Inactive

    Tuck:Oh brother. Has Trump showed a hint of being a warmonger during his entire life? He’s on the isolationist side of things, isn’t he?

    And has there ever been a case of a businessman getting elected to high office late in life and then starting a war? Ever?

    Isolationism isn’t very helpful right now either. There is no precedent for Trump. And I would turn your question around–has he ever shown any knowledge or wisdom about foreign policy? Or domestic policy for that matter. Or anything for that matter? From what I hear, he isn’t even a particularly successful businessman. Bluster counts for exactly nothing when you get to the hard task of governing. You are determined to downplay Trump’s negatives, but I think we may as well face them and do what we can to prepare.

    • #14
    • March 18, 2016, at 4:57 AM PDT
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  15. Tuck Inactive

    Kate Braestrup: I think the problem isn’t so much that Trump would initiate a war, but that he would react unpredictably and dangerously to events.

    That again…

    A pamphlet entitled ‘The Target is Your Family’ posed a stark question: ‘Governor Pat Brown or Actor Ronald Reagan?’ The latter was described as dangerous, unhinged and unpredictable, rather like Goldwater had once been.”

    I wouldn’t have said GWB was a warmonger and indeed, he sounded a pretty cautious, anti-interventionist note while on the campaign trail…and then came 9/11.

    Responding to an attack is hardly being a warmonger. Bush did go full Wilson in Iraq, but that was a bit of unfinished business that needed to be dealt with at some point. The mistake there was Obama’s not Bush’s.

    Speaking of Hitler comparisons, Saddam was the best one in recent memory, wasn’t he?

    • #15
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:00 AM PDT
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  16. GrannyDude Member

    Pilgrim:I score Trump a 28 based on his public personae. So he is not only not a psychopath, he doesn’t even play one on TV.

    I also scored Trump at 28…and immediately thought “whoa, that’s awfully close to the diagnostic threshold!” A reaction that is probably strongly influenced by my preexisting dislike and distrust of Trump, right?

    Just to check myself, I went back and tried it with Bill Clinton—whom I also dislike and distrust. I got a 20 for him (which surprised me a little). For Hillary (dislike, distrust) I got a 16.

    • #16
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:05 AM PDT
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  17. GrannyDude Member

    Tuck:

    Kate Braestrup: I think the problem isn’t so much that Trump would initiate a war, but that he would react unpredictably and dangerously to events.

    That again…

    A pamphlet entitled ‘The Target is Your Family’ posed a stark question: ‘Governor Pat Brown or Actor Ronald Reagan?’ The latter was described as dangerous, unhinged and unpredictable, rather like Goldwater had once been.”

    I wouldn’t have said GWB was a warmonger and indeed, he sounded a pretty cautious, anti-interventionist note while on the campaign trail…and then came 9/11.

    Responding to an attack is hardly being a warmonger. Bush did go full Wilson in Iraq, but that was a bit of unfinished business that needed to be dealt with at some point. The mistake there was Obama’s not Bush’s.

    Speaking of Hitler comparisons, Saddam was the best one in recent memory, wasn’t he?

    Exactly. Responding to an attack isn’t being a warmonger. Responding to an attack is responding to an attack: I’m not questioning the wisdom of Bush’s response, here. I’m asking whether Trump’s rhetorical isolationism is a reliable indicator of how he would behave if the U.S. were attacked or otherwise endangered. Trump himself has already declared that Bush’s response was wrong (and, he implies, sinister) so presumably he wouldn’t have “dealt with” Saddam. Based on what he’s said so far, what would Trump have done after 9/11?

    • #17
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:15 AM PDT
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  18. Fake John/Jane Galt Coolidge

    Answer to why you can not trust Clinton in commander and Chief matters.
    Benghazi
    Drops mic, walks away.

    • #18
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:25 AM PDT
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  19. GrannyDude Member

    Tuck: And has there ever been a case of a businessman getting elected to high office late in life and then starting a war? Ever?

    Name a few cases of businessmen who’ve been elected to be the leader of the free world without ever having held government office before? I’m not snarking—I honestly don’t know.

    I do know that one of the things I care about when it comes to the Commander in Chief is how he or she understands the military. It helps if he or she has actually served in the military, not just because s/he might be a little less apt to blithely fling young persons into harm’s way, but because he might have a sense of what the organization, culture and capability of the military actually are. If s/he hasn’t served in the military, I at least want him or her to humbly realize his own ignorance and take steps to mitigate it (that is, by studying military history, surrounding himself with experienced warriors, and so on). When Trump says “Oh, they’ll obey my orders, don’t worry…” I worry. 

    It reminds me of when, in the aftermath of a police use of deadly force, a civilian confidently declares “he should’ve just shot the guy in the leg.”

    He doesn’t know. And he doesn’t know he doesn’t know.

    • #19
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:25 AM PDT
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  20. Michael Brehm Member

    I’ve spent most of my life being told that this, that, or the other thing will bring about the end of life as we know it and, as a result, I’ve grown numb to doom. This series should be interesting.

    (Sidenote: After the Trumpocalyse happens, I think we should pivot this web community into a nomadic motor gang. We’ll knock over a few settlements, maybe plunder some gasoline and other commodities, it’ll be fun! Who’s in?)

    • #20
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:28 AM PDT
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  21. Tuck Inactive

    Merina Smith: …You are determined to downplay Trump’s negatives, but I think we may as well face them and do what we can to prepare.

    No, I’m trying not to be hysterical over the possibility of him becoming President. There’s a strong whiff of that both here at Ricochet and in the Republican party.

    The folks we’ve had who met the bar you set:

    “And I would turn your question around–has he ever shown any knowledge or wisdom about foreign policy? Or domestic policy for that matter. Or anything for that matter?”

    Have made a hash of things over the last few decades, now haven’t they? Hillary Clinton, for instance, now has loads of foreign policy experience. So what?

    I think a candidate who’s not beholden to the existing way of thinking might just be the medicine that’s required. I wish it were Cruz (who’s been criticized in the exact same way Trump has, I’ll note, especially in foreign policy), but it’s not.

    • #21
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:30 AM PDT
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  22. David Knights Member

    I’ll be particularly interested in #2 and #5. IMHO it clearly isn’t 1938 and I don’t think it is 1914 either. Unlike 1914 there aren’t a large number of fairly equal military powers. The U.S. military holds such an overwhelming advantage over the next 5 or 6 other powers combined that a 1914 style blunder into war is, in my view, very unlikely. That isn’t to say Iran or the Norks won’t do something stupid, but if they do they’d be crushed like a bug and none of the “large powers” would lift a finger to help them.

    I’d agree that brush fire wars and civil wars are more likely, even under Trump assuming he is isolationist, but the world consuming conflict isn’t in the cards.

    • #22
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:30 AM PDT
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  23. GrannyDude Member

    Fake John/Jane Galt:Answer to why you can not trust Clinton in commander and Chief matters.
    Benghazi
    Drops mic, walks away.

    It’s a problem, isn’t it? There are the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, as another Donald would say…

    Thought experiment: What would Trump have done, faced with the situation in Benghazi? Compared to, say, Cruz?

    • #23
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:33 AM PDT
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  24. BrentB67 Inactive

    Michael Brehm:I’ve spent most of my life being told that this, that, or the other thing will bring about the end of life as we know it and, as a result, I’ve grown numb to doom. This series should be interesting.

    (Sidenote: After the Trumpocalyse happens, I think we should pivot this web community into a nomadic motor gang. We’ll knock over a few settlements, maybe plunder some gasoline and other commodities, it’ll be fun! Who’s in?)

    I’m in. I will start bulking up at the gym, shave my chest, strap on the leather and old goalie mask.

    Let’s Roll!

    • #24
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:38 AM PDT
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  25. Zafar Member

    Tuck:

    I’m trying not to be hysterical over the possibility of him becoming President.

    This ad’ just got featured in a show “Planet America” here in Sydney:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oamj0rw-vHQ

    By his own party? Seriously?

    The only thing that could make this a good idea for any Republican is if Trump is a fascist and the US is really on the cusp of falling into that pit.

    Can it be?

    • #25
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:39 AM PDT
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  26. BrentB67 Inactive

    Kate Braestrup:

    Fake John/Jane Galt:Answer to why you can not trust Clinton in commander and Chief matters.
    Benghazi
    Drops mic, walks away.

    It’s a problem, isn’t it? There are the known knowns, the known unknowns and the unknown unknowns, as another Donald would say…

    Thought experiment: What would Trump have done, faced with the situation in Benghazi? Compared to, say, Cruz?

    Perhaps he would’ve lost his temper and paved the place with nuclear weapons. Then after the radiation levels returned to acceptable levels marched in, killed off the survivors and planted the America flag on live TV beamed directly at every known ISIS camp.

    • #26
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:40 AM PDT
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  27. Pilgrim Thatcher

    BrentB67:

    Michael Brehm:I’ve spent most of my life being told that this, that, or the other thing will bring about the end of life as we know it and, as a result, I’ve grown numb to doom. This series should be interesting.

    (Sidenote: After the Trumpocalyse happens, I think we should pivot this web community into a nomadic motor gang. We’ll knock over a few settlements, maybe plunder some gasoline and other commodities, it’ll be fun! Who’s in?)

    I’m in. I will start bulking up at the gym, shave my chest, strap on the leather and old goalie mask.

    Let’s Roll!

    Great! I have my eye on a Vespa

    • #27
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:45 AM PDT
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  28. Tuck Inactive

    Zafar:The only thing that could make this a good idea for any Republican is if Trump is a fascist and the US is really on the cusp of falling into that pit.

    Can it be?

    No. Trump’s no more of a fascist than anyone else who’s been President since Wilson, and less than quite a few (Wilson was fond of throwing people in prison for things we’ve never allowed since).

    I don’t quite understand what it is about this that’s caused so many people to become this unhinged. Maybe it’s simply disappointment, since we thought we’d get a good Conservative President this time around?

    • #28
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:46 AM PDT
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  29. Zafar Member

    BrentB67:

    Perhaps he would’ve lost his temper and paved the place with nuclear weapons. Then after the radiation levels returned to acceptable levels marched in, killed off the survivors and planted the America flag on live TV beamed directly at every known ISIS camp.

    That’s one possible outcome.

    • #29
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:48 AM PDT
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  30. BrentB67 Inactive

    Tuck:

    Zafar:The only thing that could make this a good idea for any Republican is if Trump is a fascist and the US is really on the cusp of falling into that pit.

    Can it be?

    No. Trump’s no more of a fascist than anyone else who’s been President since Wilson, and less than quite a few (Wilson was fond of throwing people in prison for things we’ve never allowed since).

    I don’t quite understand what it is about this that’s caused so many people to become this unhinged. Maybe it’s simply disappointment, since we thought we’d get a good Conservative President this time around?

    I think you are on to something.

    • #30
    • March 18, 2016, at 5:49 AM PDT
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