The sanest response to President Trump's bizarre remarks is usually one of detached equanimity. Being outraged daily, or even hourly, by quasi-literate tweets is not a recipe for health or sanity. The creature in the Oval Office lives for your indignation, lusting after it like honey. "DON'T FEED THE BEAR," as Disney's Rabbit once put it on a helpful sign.
I do not think, however, that this principle of detachment should apply to those occasions on which Trump threatens nuclear war.
The fact that the plural is necessary is instructive. Last summer the president told a journalist that if North Korea were to attack the United States, our East Asian enemy would "be met with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before." (This came only a few days after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, speaking on the 72nd anniversary of American war crimes against his country, rightly called on his fellow heads of state to help him realize "a world without nuclear weapons.")
This week, in the course of his intermittent WWE feud with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump suggested — not falsely — that the United States has a much larger nuclear arsenal than North Korea.
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the “Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.” Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 3, 2018
If there can be a moral equivalent of pissing the bed, Vox achieved it with an article in response pointing out that #actually there is no such thing as a nuclear "button" in real life, as if that were the most salient observation about geopolitical affairs to be made here.
What Trump's tweet tells us is that he does not take nuclear warfare, or the prospect of hundreds of thousands of civilian casualties, seriously. The idea of innocent men, women, and children having their skin turned to red leather or charcoal, their hands welded into hideous lobster-like appendages, their bone marrow microwaved in an instant is a joke, an opportunity for tough-guy bluster, an end-around the tedious, frequently unrewarding work of diplomacy.
This adolescent callousness is not unique to the president. Two years ago during the Republican presidential primary, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) casually pledged that he would bomb the Islamic State into "oblivion." "I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out!" he added with a quarter-smile. A decade back, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), that grave Ciceronian elder statesman, sang a tuneless rendition of a Beach Boys classic with the chorus changed to "Bomb Iran." When asked by a journalist about the tastefulness of his remarks, McCain played his always-ready veteran card and told his interlocutor to "get a life."
Disgraceful as they are, I think there is something welcome about these and other insipid remarks from our leaders. If nothing else, they serve to remind us of the unreality of post-nuclear human life.
The relative peace that has existed between the world's major powers since 1945 is a sham, a pasteboard fantasy as glitteringly unreal as the digitized existences we are all leading in front of our screens. The truth is that there is, and has been, no peace at all. A peace built upon the implicit promise that all of us could be dead in five minutes and the charred remains of creation uninhabitable by everything save the more resilient varieties of archaebacteria is not a true peace any more than a prosperity built, as ours is, upon the exploitation of unseen laborers half a world away is true prosperity.
The other lesson we can take away from Trump's online brinksmanship is that nuclear war is impossible, at least if by "war" one means a conflict that can be entered with the object of victory. Just as there can be no health or wealth for some made possible by the misery and spoliation of others, there can be no victory incumbent upon the complete abnegation of good. Any nuclear war would be a defeat from the moment it was conceived, for all sides.
At some level, I think, we all recognize this, which is why it is possible for the president of the United States to discuss chthonic horrors with all the gravity of a yo mama joke. The proper response from the rest of us should be righteous anger at principalities, powers, and the rulers of the all-too-visible darkness of this world, not complacency.