The Many Possible Meanings of Trump’s Nuclear Tweets

Trump’s recent tweets about expanding the US nuclear arsenal and “let there be an arms race” have aroused fears across the world — not only here in the United States. Over the past year, we have also learned that Trump lies out of every side of his mouth, and that what he says today may not apply tomorrow.

Like a chemist, I find myself deeply concerned about what happens when three elements that are fundamental to Trump’s personality are combined. The first is his ignorance. Recall that months ago during a campaign debate, Trump did not know what the nuclear triad (land-, sea- and air-based nuclear weapons) is. This is a man who has no comprehension of the nuclear hell inflicted on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or of the meanings of nuclear winter.

Second is Trump’s insecurity, which leads him to emotionally need to dominate all others in authoritarian ways.

Third is the man’s militarism, as we see in his appointment of an unprecedented number of generals to senior positions in what is a plutocratic military government. (And we should never forget his racism.)

Trump’s tweets are actually quite ambiguous and can be read in many different ways. It should be noted that they came after President Putin (who fears NATO’s expansion and US nuclear, conventional and high-tech military superiority) stated that Russia’s nuclear-armed missiles can overcome any defenses. In this regard, Trump’s tweets can be read as bravado and little more, designed to reinforce his image as a strong man to both domestic and international audiences. The tweets could have also been designed to reassure and possibly to deceive domestic audiences which are deeply concerned about the deep and corrosive ties of Trump and his associates to Putin and his corrupt crony capitalists.

You will note that there is little that is specific in these tweets. Another way of reading the them is that, after meeting with his top generals, Trump’s messages were a way to reassure the military-industrial-congressional complex that he fully supports the spending of $1 trillion to upgrade the US nuclear arsenal and their delivery systems to reinforce US global dominance (and corporate profits) throughout the 21st century. (It is also worth noting that while Trump’s “hotheaded” National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn may want no limits to US militarism, “Mad Dog” Gen. James Mattis, who will be secretary of defense/war, has in the past raised questions about the need for US land-based ICBMs.)

The final interpretation is, of course, the most frightening: that Trump actually might mean what he tweets. We won’t know for a while, but if this is the case, the buildup would be targeted at least as much against China (for which he has a deep and possibly racist animus) as against Russia. It would take us much deeper into nuclear brinksmanship and the accompanying dangers of nuclear war brought on intentionally, accidentally or through miscalculation.

As the old saying has it, in danger, there is opportunity. Trump’s ignorant and dangerous tweets have re-illuminated the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear war. People who have long wanted to avoid thinking about these dangers are beginning to engage with the meanings of the atomic scientists having moved the hands of their Doomsday Clock to three minutes to midnight. And, much as was the case with Ronald Reagan’s reckless nuclear buildup and dangerous rhetoric in the 1980s, Trump may have ignited what will become massive pressures for nuclear disarmament.

Let’s hope so, and that with the coming disarmament negotiations in the UN in March and June, and our popular mobilizations, we can apply the necessary pressure to reverse the nuclear arms race that is already under way and lead the world to the security of a nuclear weapons-free world.