Tiny Hands, Big Button

The President’s Nuclear Dick-Measuring Contest

This is language that would have been rejected from the script of ‘Dr. Strangelove,’ yet there are hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of lives at stake beneath the bluster.

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So this is where we are. On the first workday of his second year as president, Donald Trump went on a Twitter tirade that involved 16 different missives of escalating incoherence, targeting enemies within and without. It culminated—and let’s not feel obliged to use more diplomatic language than the president—by challenging North Korea to a nuclear warhead dick-measuring contest.

We can’t allow this to be normalized. This is not presidential. This is a portrait of a mind unencumbered by responsibility. It is childish. It is impulsive. It is idiotic. It is dangerous.

This is language that would have been rejected from the script of Dr. Strangelove, yet there are hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of lives at stake beneath the bluster.

Trump’s statements not only undercut his presidency, they undercut the presidency itself and American leadership around the world. It diminishes the office once held by Washington and Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and adds ballast to China’s simultaneously sinister and ludicrous argument that it is the new standard-bearer of global leadership and liberal values like free trade.

But Trump has the world caught in a contradiction between the character of our country and the character who is president. Trump is transparently unstable and yet massively powerful. His tweets must be taken seriously as statements of presidential policy, but they are fundamentally not serious. The man does not drink, but his tweets are not the product of a sober mind.

Whether it was yesterday’s attacks on his own Justice Department as being part of a treasonous “deep state,” calling for vanquished political opponents to be jailed, or announcing that he would be unveiling a fake journalism award on Monday night in conjunction with his campaign’s fundraising contest (which could violate campaign-finance laws), Trump has not apparently attempted to grow in office. He seems determined to further weaken public trust in our civic institutions. He talks like a carnival barker, or the reality-TV show host he was. Narcissism got him to the Oval Office but it’s not enough to sustain an administration. “L’Etat, C’est Moi” is not a good look for an American president.

This is a presidency without a bottom. But beyond the saccharine-smiling spin that tries to dismiss the president’s tweets as a matter of style, the rational response is a massive face-palm combined with a silent scream—though there are no doubt some sycophantic weasels inside the West Wing trying to reassure the man in the bully pulpit that he’s telling it like it is.

The most elevated way to interpret the president’s tweets is to say he’s engaging in Nixon’s “madman theory,” causing his enemies to question how stable he is as a matter of strategy. Looking to Nixon for inspiration is part of Trump’s problem. But what’s worse is that the president undercuts his own national-security team’s tough-minded strategy on North Korean nukes.

It is rational to believe that we cannot allow a cult-like dictatorship with a record of assassinations and provocations to possess a massive stockpile of nuclear weapons. It is rational to believe that confronting or containing that dictator’s nuclear ambitions now is vastly preferable to punting to the point where he can threaten any U.S. city with annihilation. But the president undercuts his national-security team and those patriotic nonpartisan professionals serving in his administration with his erratic actions and “deep state” accusations.

This is self-evidently not a presidency of “exquisite leadership,” as Speaker Paul Ryan disingenuously gushed. It is a ramshackle disaster, as anyone with a clear-eyed mind or a sense of presidential history can see. But just because insane is the new normal doesn’t mean we need to accept it as normal. President Trump does not represent the best of our country or even the best of his administration.

The core problem with the Trump presidency is Trump himself. We just haven’t yet had to confront that fact with a death toll attached.