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?)

Published in Foreign Policy, General, History
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  1. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Kate Braestrup: 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.

    It could be worse.  He could be an actor…

    • #31
  2. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    I’m currently reading Ms. Berlinski’s book, “Loose Lips” and admiring her writing skills (having much enjoyed her other book, “Lion Eyes” also a couple years back).  It is with that backdrop that I grieve for what has become of her recently on Ricochet.  She seems to have become totally unhinged.  Very sad.

    I would suggest she abandon this exercise in crack-pottery, this complete waste of time, and apply her analytical skills to analyzing why Russia is leaving Syria?, or whether the global debt bubble spells doom (as David Stockman proclaims) or can be pricked gently? (and if former, what we Rico’s should do with our money) or what oil prices will be in 2 years? or what Iran will do after its pact with Obama? or what looms for China as its financial crisis unfolds?  or declaim on David P. Goldman’s contention that the West’s main hobby over the next several decades is going to be managing the death spiral of Muslim Civilization in the Middle East.  You know, sane worthy stuff.

    • #32
  3. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    TuckTrump’s no more of a fascist than anyone else who’s been President since Wilson, and less than quite a few

    That’s a very relative definiiton.

    • #33
  4. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Zafar:

    TuckTrump’s no more of a fascist than anyone else who’s been President since Wilson, and less than quite a few

    That’s a very relative definiiton.

    We’ve got all of those, except number 5 is here against men.

    • #34
  5. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Zafar:

    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.

    I am not suggesting it s a good one.

    • #35
  6. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Kate Braestrup:

    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.

    Way too many people forget how hard Bush campaigned against Clinton’s adventurism and interventions around the world. I remember him specifically saying we would no long be the world police and that the military would only be used in our interests against active threats to our security.

    • #36
  7. Zafar Member
    Zafar
    @Zafar

    BrentB67:

    Zafar:

    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.

    I am not suggesting it s a good one.

    It’s not an entirely bad one for the US either, Brent, but I thought there might be some others as well which were less good.

    • #37
  8. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    A cautionary note: one doesn’t simply point to a place on the map and have it nuked. That is not how our systems are designed.

    • #38
  9. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    Manfred Arcane: I would suggest she abandon this exercise in crack-pottery, this complete waste of time…

    Perhaps she’s fleshing out her next work of fiction.

    • #39
  10. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Tuck:

    Manfred Arcane: I would suggest she abandon this exercise in crack-pottery, this complete waste of time…

    Perhaps she’s fleshing out her next work of fiction.

    Hopefully.  We could always use another of those.

    • #40
  11. Tuck Inactive
    Tuck
    @Tuck

    The King Prawn:A cautionary note: one doesn’t simply point to a place on the map and have it nuked. That is not how our systems are designed.

    Well then what the heck are we supposed to worry about?  You’re no fun. ;)

    • #41
  12. FreeWifiDuringSermon Inactive
    FreeWifiDuringSermon
    @FreeWifiDuringSermon

    Michael Brehm: 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!

    Can we wear mismatched bits of old athletic gear? I’ve got some golf shoes and an old tennis racquet.

    • #42
  13. Jager Coolidge
    Jager
    @Jager

    Tuck:

    The King Prawn:A cautionary note: one doesn’t simply point to a place on the map and have it nuked. That is not how our systems are designed.

    Well then what the heck are we supposed to worry about? You’re no fun. ;)

    This is where I am hung up and thus looking forward to the series of articles. If the argument was simply Trump would be bad on foreign policy or make the world less safe, I would shrug my shoulders and accept the argument. (I think the same thoughts about Trump and Clinton on this).

    By suggesting Trump makes nuclear war more likely I think the bar is raised. It should take a higher level of proof to reach this extreme out come.

    • #43
  14. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    I am interested in 1, 2, 5, and 7. Heck, I’ll even offer to help you as you explore the

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: “How many steps does it take to launch a nuclear weapon?”

    and the

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: (Tangential: Why do we call it a “near-miss?” Surely we mean a “near-launch?” Anyone know?)

    Just let me know.

    • #44
  15. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Instugator:I am interested in 1, 2, 5, and 7. Heck, I’ll even offer to help you as you explore the

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: “How many steps does it take to launch a nuclear weapon?”

    and the

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: (Tangential: Why do we call it a “near-miss?” Surely we mean a “near-launch?” Anyone know?)

    Just let me know.

    Do you mean, you know the answers? I’ve spent the morning with Google trying to figure out the etymology of the phrase “near miss.” Every native English speaker knows what it means, but the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

    • #45
  16. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    I don’t believe there has ever been a near launch – but here is a pretty good description of a near miss. From CNN.

    On a January night in 1961, a U.S. Air Force bomber broke in half while flying over eastern North Carolina. From the belly of the B-52 fell two bombs — two nuclear bombs that hit the ground near the city of Goldsboro.

    Declassified documents that the National Security Archive released this week offered new details about the incident. The blaring headline read: “Multi-Megaton Bomb Was Virtually ‘Armed’ When It Crashed to Earth.”

    Or, as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara put it back then, “By the slightest margin of chance, literally the failure of two wires to cross, a nuclear explosion was averted.”

    • #46
  17. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    I’ve spent the morning with Google trying to figure out the etymology of the phrase “near miss.” Every native English speaker knows what it means, but the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

    Best example I have found is this one.

    In all the examples cited, “Near Miss” has one interesting connotation – the observing party perceives it to be a fortuitous event.

    • #47
  18. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Instugator: here is a pretty good description of a near miss

    We’re actually quite accident-prone. And these are just the ones we know about.

    • #48
  19. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    Near miss generally speaking (in the realm of accidents rather than intentional actions) means we were perhaps on a path to stupid but someone caught the error, made the appropriate notifications, and the course of events was altered. In the strategic weapons world these things are tracked because it is useful data to prevent future instances of even starting down those paths. We joke about it for having to tell on ourselves over not doing anything dumb, but it an effective tool that helps keep us safe and secure.

    • #49
  20. The King Prawn Inactive
    The King Prawn
    @TheKingPrawn

    For a silly example of what I’m talking about: a truck driver once nearly disconnected from an empty trailer without putting down the landing gear. One of the sailors who worked for me saw him doing this and stopped him from doing the dumb. In any normal reality this would be a good thing, but because we didn’t stop everything we were doing, inform the chain of command, and wait for permission to resume our work we were chastised for failing to report the “near miss.” We put the hyphen in anal-retentive.

    • #50
  21. Kate Braestrup Member
    Kate Braestrup
    @GrannyDude

    Tuck:

    Kate Braestrup: 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.

    It could be worse. He could be an actor…

    Meaning the guy who left acting and became the Governor of California?

    • #51
  22. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: here is a pretty good description of a near miss

    We’re actually quite accident-prone. And these are just the ones we know about.

    I disagree with “quite accident prone” – 70 years and 9 10 incidents is a pretty good record. Actually there is only 1 more that I know about, a fire on a B-52 sitting nuclear alert at Grand Forks.

    The article about Grand Forks AFB is a bit over the top – The writer should have done a little research in to the concept of “insensitive high explosive” and note the research done by DOE and DOD in the 1950’s.

    • #52
  23. David Knights Member
    David Knights
    @DavidKnights

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator:I am interested in 1, 2, 5, and 7. Heck, I’ll even offer to help you as you explore the

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: “How many steps does it take to launch a nuclear weapon?”

    and the

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: (Tangential: Why do we call it a “near-miss?” Surely we mean a “near-launch?” Anyone know?)

    Just let me know.

    Do you mean, you know the answers? I’ve spent the morning with Google trying to figure out the etymology of the phrase “near miss.” Every native English speaker knows what it means, but the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.

    I don’t think the people who know what steps it takes are supposed to talk about what steps it takes.  At least that is what my brother tells me, right after he tells me that, “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” :)

    • #53
  24. David Knights Member
    David Knights
    @DavidKnights

    Instugator:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: here is a pretty good description of a near miss

    We’re actually quite accident-prone. And these are just the ones we know about.

    I disagree with “quite accident prone” – 70 years and 9 10 incidents is a pretty good record. Actually there is only 1 more that I know about, a fire on a B-52 sitting nuclear alert at Grand Forks.

    These aren’t near misses, they are “bent spears” and “broken arrows” and they can happen no matter who is President.

    I think what you are should be focusing on are things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Pueblo, The Liberty and events of that ilk.

    • #54
  25. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    David Knights:

    Instugator:

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: here is a pretty good description of a near miss

    We’re actually quite accident-prone. And these are just the ones we know about.

    I disagree with “quite accident prone” – 70 years and 9 10 incidents is a pretty good record. Actually there is only 1 more that I know about, a fire on a B-52 sitting nuclear alert at Grand Forks.

    These aren’t near misses, they are “bent spears” and “broken arrows” and they can happen no matter who is President.

    I think what you are should be focusing on are things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Pueblo, The Liberty and events of that ilk.

    True to all of that.

    • #55
  26. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Instugator: quite accident prone

    It’s a term that has to be scaled to the consequences of an accident. There’s a big difference between “that cat’s worryingly aggressive” and “That lion’s worryingly aggressive.” I wouldn’t say a cat who took a good swipe at me every now and again was worryingly aggressive. In fact, I’d say a cat who only did that once a decade or so was a remarkably gentle cat. Totally suitable as a family pet. A lion on the other hand …

    • #56
  27. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    David Knights:

    These aren’t near misses, they are “bent spears” and “broken arrows” and they can happen no matter who is President.

    I think what you are should be focusing on are things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Pueblo, The Liberty and events of that ilk.

    More on the terminology here.

    • #57
  28. Instugator Thatcher
    Instugator
    @Instugator

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Instugator: quite accident prone

    It’s a term that has to be scaled to the consequences of an accident. There’s a big difference between “that cat’s worryingly aggressive” and “That lion’s worryingly aggressive.” I wouldn’t say a cat who took a good swipe at me every now and again was worryingly aggressive. In fact, I’d say a cat who only did that once a decade or so was a remarkably gentle cat. Totally suitable as a family pet. A lion on the other hand …

    Which is why DavidK pointed you to nuclear terminology.  “Quite accident prone” refers to the rate at which accidents occur and is independent of consequence – at least to any context I am familiar.

    • #58
  29. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    David Knights:

    These aren’t near misses, they are “bent spears” and “broken arrows” and they can happen no matter who is President.

    I think what you are should be focusing on are things like the Cuban Missile Crisis, The Pueblo, The Liberty and events of that ilk.

    Agree completely. I used the term colloquially and found myself wondering why we say that; what I have in mind is that kind of geopolitical crisis.

    • #59
  30. Tim Wright Inactive
    Tim Wright
    @TimWright

    Claire…
    I really don’t get it. As bad as Trump is, and I don’t support him and might not vote for him, could you really see yourself casting a vote for Clinton? My god, the woman is a power hungry, corrupt, vicious, amoral scoundrel. Even the word scoundrel minimizes her corrupt nature. One would like to think she has some redeeming virtue of competence to justify a consideration of support, but she lacks that. She is an utter incompetent, who hates the military and would happily destroy this country’s international aims if it meant she could bury republicans.

    I get not supporting Trump. But how could you justify even considering Clinton?

    Tim

    • #60
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