Source: National Archive/Newsmakers
2016 Elections

Two Words to End All Consideration of Voting for Trump

Nuclear holocaust.

At the beginning of September, an anonymous conservative writing under the pseudonym Publius Decius Mus published an essay in the Claremont Review of Books laying out his reasons for voting for Donald Trump. The name presumably comes from the famed Roman consul who performed the devotio ritual, dedicating himself to the god of the underworld and covering his head with his toga before sacrificing himself in a spectacular feat of heroism at the Battle of Sentinum. “Dedicated to the Lords of Hell” seems an apt summary of the reaction to this essay.

It argues that America is now so decadent that it trembles on the brink of collapse into progressive decadence, the way the Roman Republic trembled on the eve of Caesar -- and the Goths.

 “To ordinary conservative ears, this sounds histrionic,” the person wrote, as indeed it does. “The stakes can’t be that high because they are never that high -- except perhaps in the pages of Gibbon.”

Much ink has been spilled arguing against the piece and defending it. Those who say this writer is right say "something must be done." Well, Trump is something -- though just what he is is not clear.

I am not going to dive into the argument about whether Western civilization is facing an existential threat from the forces of progressivism. There is, as Adam Smith once observed, “a great deal of ruin in a nation,” but there is also W.H. Auden’s injunction:

Remember when
Your climate seems a permanent home
For marvelous creatures and strange men,
What griefs and convulsions startled Rome,
Ecbatana, Babylon.

Mediating between these two indisputably true sentiments is far above my pay grade.

But I will concur civilization does indeed tremble on the brink of destruction. We have been clinging to that precipice with shaky fingers since Aug. 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb was dropped on a human population. Since that day our world has been one in which the death of millions, even the extinction of all human life, became possible.

We have done some crazy things in our quest to keep nuclear weapons from being used. Mutually Assured Destruction is indeed a mad doctrine, but it was the best we could come up with in the face of an existential threat. The one crazy thing we have not done is to pass control of our arsenal to someone obviously unstable. With the brief exception of Stalin, who died a few years after the first Soviet nuclear test, leaders on both sides have been relatively sober types who could be relied on to take a judicious attitude toward the nuclear arsenal, or at least, to be constrained by more sober-minded advisers. Now we have Trump, who in addition to his other worrying character flaws, is apparently fascinated by the possibility of using nuclear weapons. He told John Dickerson that when it comes to their use, “You want to be unpredictable.”

If those words do not terrify you, I suggest you think about them harder. A contender for the presidency has just suggested that the American electorate should not be able to tell what he will do with the power he is asking us to entrust to him.

According to many of Trump’s supporters, this sort of talk is what we are supposed to like about him: He might do anything, and will very probably heedlessly smash things up in a city that desperately needs some smashing. “Aggressive,” “unpredictable” and “poor impulse control” are terrific qualities for the star of a reality show, but they are troubling qualities in the person at the head of your nuclear chain of command.

I recently asked a foreign policy expert what sort of mechanisms there are to stop a future president from launching nuclear weapons unwisely. He gave me a weak smile and said: “I’m sorry to tell you this, but the system is optimized to allow the president to launch without much interference.”

That argument in the Claremont Review, that dwelled on progressive decadence, may make some sense if you think primarily about domestic policy. As American elections normally do -- precisely because normal American elections feature two candidates who are both pretty predictable about how they’d handle America’s nuclear arsenal. But when one of the candidates shows signs of untrustworthiness with nuclear weapons, we have to think about that above anything else.

If Trump used a nuclear weapon, breaching the taboo that has controlled their use since World War II, he would open a path to further breaches of the taboo. Conservatives especially should recognize the danger of moral slippery slopes.

Perhaps even under President Trump, the risk of a nuclear exchange is very small. But the possibility of a nuclear exchange is so devastating that even a tiny probability, multiplied by the scale of the destruction, dwarfs any negative outcome on any other issue.

Say that you support Trump because you think he’s a wild force unbound by the normal conventions of Washington-as-usual. Great. But can you make the necessary logical leap to conclude that he is unbound by normal conventions … except when it comes to nukes? Because we want those normal conventions to bind us. They have kept humanity alive for the past seven decades. We'd like many more decades.

It's not safe to assume that Trump will keep his finger off the red button. He is aggressive, he does have poor impulse control, and he is not bound by normal conventions along any dimension, nor does he show any evidence of listening to his advisers. In addition, he seems to see everything he touches -- his businesses, his primary supporters, the Republican Party -- as extensions of himself. Worse still, he seems to be constitutionally incapable of shrugging off even the smallest slight to either his person or his extended self. He wildly overreacts even when the reaction is obviously going to hurt him, and what we must assume to be the heroic efforts of his political advisers have failed to curb him of this tendency.

In his most recent campaign column, the New York Times’ Ross Douthat talks about abortion, and why even that is not necessarily a reason to vote for Trump. (Douthat is an ardent opponent of abortion.) Douthat delves into Catholic "just war" theory, which states that no matter what the provocation, you do not go to war unless you have exhausted every other means, have a reasonable chance of winning, and do not stand to do more damage with the war itself than you are trying to avert.

“So long as your polity offers mechanisms for eventually changing unjust laws,” Douthat writes, “it’s better to accept the system’s basic legitimacy and work within it for change than to take steps, violent or otherwise, that risk blowing the entire apparatus up.”

To which we might add: especially not if we are talking about literal explosions, and big ones.

A conservative who agrees with Decius on everything might therefore read the essay and come to a very different conclusion: that the times might, in fact, be so desperate that they call for Republicans to offer their soul to the underworld, pull their toga over their head, and vote for Hillary Clinton.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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