How Trump Could Realistically Start a Nuclear War
He wouldn’t start Armageddon on purpose, but would drive out the cool heads needed in a crisis
One reason towers above all others why Donald Trump must not be President: his unfitness to command America’s nuclear arsenal. Yet nuclear war is so frightening and cataclysmic that it is hard to think about rationally, or to grasp as a real possibility. Even Trump’s harshest critics can’t see him waking up one morning and deciding to annihilate Mexico. So where’s the danger? What follows is one plausible scenario, based on the judgments of veteran security experts.
It’s November 9. The polls badly misjudged turnout, and Trump has pulled off a stunning victory. Transition team Chairman Chris Christie’s first task is assembling a solid national security staff, but most of the top officials who would normally serve in a Republican administration refuse to serve under Trump (many have already stated this publicly).
So instead of the smartest and ablest leaders, Trump is forced to fill essential defense and intelligence posts with hacks — the B-level talent whose ambition overcomes their objections, and the C-level talent whose loyalty wins them undeserved appointments. Some good people do go to work in the Trump White House, judging they’d rather be in the Situation Room than the alt-righters who’d otherwise get their jobs. Maybe, they think, they can influence Trump for the better.
By the end of Trump’s first 100 days, though, it’s clear that his lifelong leadership style will not change. First, he surrounds himself with people who flatter him and tell him whatever he wants to hear, because he is a “great loyalty freak.” Second, he can’t take criticism or dissent, and sees these as disloyalty that must be punished. Third, he has a profound insecurity that cannot tolerate advice from big minds and strong personalities. Instead, he famously said, “Always be around unsuccessful people because everybody will respect you.” Over Trump’s first years in office, these traits force more good people out of government, replaced by those willing to follow Trump blindly.
Meanwhile, just as Trump boasted during the campaign that he knew more about ISIS than the generals, he now demoralizes top military leaders, publicly denigrating their competence even as he thwarts them with meddling and micromanagement. Trump continues to alienate the CIA, just as during the campaign he ignored consensus assessments by U.S. intelligence agencies in their briefings to him, instead bizarrely insisting that the DNC hacks weren’t the work of Russia, but perhaps a “400-pound man sitting on his bed.” Under these conditions, many of the best people in the Pentagon leave, and Trump makes good on his campaign statements by firing others.
On an October afternoon in 2019, terror strikes again — this time, a truck bomb in Jersey City kills almost a hundred people. Trump’s first instinct — as it has been throughout his long and well-documented life — is immediate and overwhelming retaliation. Despite contemplating nuclear counterattacks during the campaign (“Somebody hits us within ISIS — you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?”), Trump now orders conventional punitive airstrikes on civilian areas in Raqqa, Syria. “We have no choice, people,” Trump says. Trump’s Justice Department insists that the strikes are legal, but as images of maimed children fill the airwaves, officers of conscience start retiring or resigning rather than participate in what they see as war crimes.
Then, on a sleepy summer morning in 2020, Chinese jets make simulated attack runs against the USS Ronald Reagan, operating in the South China Sea. Trump’s pride is pricked. Officials in Beijing have been bragging about how the SCS is becoming a Chinese lake. It makes him look weak. So Trump orders the jets shot down (which he has already said he would do in similar circumstances). Several Chinese airmen die. China responds by shooting down a B-1 bomber off Taiwan.
Trump orders the carrier to enter Chinese waters in a show of force to reassert American might in the region. The admirals who would have resisted such recklessness have already left or been muscled out. Chinese warships intercept, and in the tense and confused standoff, someone starts shooting. American firepower blows the smaller Chinese vessels out of the water. In minutes, DF-21 carrier-killer missiles rain down on the U.S. strike group, and when the smoke clears, the Ronald Reagan is on the bottom along with a couple thousand American sailors. Unconfirmed reports suggest that Beijing has ordered its nuclear forces to maximum alert in preparation for a first strike.
6,500 miles away in Washington, an admiral approaches President Trump as an aide unlatches the nuclear football. “Well, Mr. President. Here are your options…”
The scenario above illustrates how Trump would gradually force prudent and principled people out of our military and intelligence communities, and surround himself only with people who defer to his darkest instincts. Under those conditions, with 1,367 nuclear warheads at his sole command, Trump’s morbid impulsiveness and urge for immediate and overwhelming retribution create enormous risk.
A bluff or miscalculation can escalate with terrifying speed, and this is made much more likely because Trump’s instability would send mixed signals to foreign powers. One week, he might allow the Russians to provoke him in the Baltic, and the next week decide it’s worth risking war. Uncertainty breeds danger.
One need not accept that a scenario like this is actually probable to still find Trump unacceptable. Even a 10 percent chance of the casualties and costs of a nuclear catastrophe is more ruinous than any plausible corruption that might be perpetrated by his opponent.
This is an issue that transcends policy and transcends politics. If you agree, please share this warning as widely as you can during these final days before the election—what might be America’s final hours to prevent this scenario from coming to pass. It may be uncomfortable, and it may feel futile, but each of us has a responsibility to make sure that everyone we know who still reluctantly supports this man runs this terrible calculus before casting their vote.
John-Clark Levin is the author of Private Anti-Piracy Navies: How Warships for Hire are Changing Maritime Security, and a PhD student at the University of Cambridge.