Trump wishes us all a happy thermonuclear new year
Now that the presidential election is over, will it ever really end? Not if Donald J. Trump and the cable news networks get their way. Having made the election into a pro-wrestling spectacle, the Twitter-addicted president-elect and his ratings-hungry enablers at CNN, Fox News, etc. appear determined to turn the United States government into an endless reality TV program.
The hallmark of reality TV, of course, being sheer unreality. Absent terrorist attacks and weather-related catastrophes, however, political melodrama is the best known way to keep people watching what we quaintly call "news."
CBS Chairman Les Moonves admitted as much last February. "It may not be good for America," he said of the GOP primary contest, "but it's damn good for CBS."
Trump's role in the spectacle, he said, was great for ratings.
"Man, who would have expected the ride we're all having right now?" Moonves added. "The money's rolling in and this is fun ... I've never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It's a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going."
Well, Trump kept it going, all right. All politicians are egomaniacs, but the president-elect's need for attention makes, say, John McCain or Joe Biden look like Trappist monks. Trump with a Twitter account is like a Labrador retriever with a basket of tennis balls: amped-up and easily distracted.
Even so, the time could be coming when the rest of us need to start treating his 140-character outbursts as more symptomatic than substantive.
Consider Trump's ambiguously worded Dec. 22 tweet: "The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes."
And a very Merry Thermonuclear Christmas to you, too!
But what does that even mean? Aides floundered to explain. We have to build more and better bombs until everybody agrees to disarm? By the following morning, Trump had reportedly telephoned the decorative but often confused Mika Brzezinski, of MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
Seemingly under the impression that his new best friend Vladimir Putin had threatened to ramp-up Russia's nuclear arsenal, Trump vowed, "Let it be an arms race because we will outmatch them at every pass and outlast them all."
In short, a standard Trump boast: Big me, little you. Surrounded by bodyguards all his life, it's a pose that comes naturally to him.
From CBS News to CNN, the New York Times to The Washington Post, it played as a very big deal. Cable networks found the excitement hard to resist. "Trump tweet startles with apparent nuclear policy reversal," was Rachel Maddow's take on MSNBC. Social media exploded.
A new nuclear arms race! Was this what Trump meant by making America great again? A return to those halcyon days of schoolchildren hiding under their desks, building fallout shelters in the yard, stockpiling canned goods and arguing about the ethics of shooting desperate neighbors who'd failed to construct their own hideaways?
Had Putin even made such a threat? If so, it would have been unusual, as the Russian strongman had that very day sent the president-elect "warmest Christmas" greetings along with hopes that Trump would "bring our level of collaboration on the international scene to a qualitatively new level."
Indeed, Putin subsequently went out of his way during his annual year-end press conference to deny that there was anything alarming in Trump's pronouncements. "There is nothing new" to Trump's comments, Putin told reporters in Moscow. Nothing at all.
He also chided Democrats as sore losers.
To Slate's estimable Fred Kaplan it appeared likely that the inexperienced Trump had simply overreacted to remarks Putin had recently made to the Kremlin Defense Ministry -- political boilerplate about Russia not allowing anybody to get the nuclear drop on them.
The concept is "mutual assured destruction," and the reasoning, Kaplan explains, is "straight out of Nuclear Strategy 101." (A course we can be confident Trump has never taken.) When it comes to nukes, offense is defense, and vice-versa. The key to everybody's survival is that no country deceive itself into believing it has achieved "first-strike" capacity, i.e. succumb to the world-destroying delusion that it can win a nuclear war.
Does Trump even know that the U.S. under President Obama has already embarked on a "nuclear modernization" plan costing roughly $35 billion a year? Probably not. Command and control systems are dangerously outmoded, making accidental launches a terrifying possibility. Deployment remains at least 10 years in the future.
Does Trump understand Russian anxieties that American missile-defense systems installed in Eastern Europe under George W. Bush can be seen as offensive threats? (The reason Putin needs to reassure Russian audiences.)
Again, probably not.
Very likely our feckless, blowhard president-elect simply went off half-cocked, something the Russians appear to understand even if Mika Brzezinski does not.
Email Gene Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2016, Universal