Fans of disturbing discussion of nuclear warfare must’ve enjoyed the third and final presidential debate, because there was an alarming discussion of how the apocalypse would go down.
Four minutes is what it takes between the president’s decision to fire nuclear missiles, Clinton claimed during the debate, and their launch. She mentioned this detail along with bromides like “America is great because America is good.” Trump said our allies should start paying for our protection. Bada bing, etc. Polls show Trump could lose by a stinging landslide after a string of accusations of sexual assault. He has said the election is rigged by Democrats. Moderator Chris Wallace asked Trump if he would accept the outcome of the vote on November 8. Trump demurred.
“I will tell you at the time. I’ll keep you in suspense,” he said.
Amid this troubling discussion about how to transfer power without a civil war (which is what democracy is all about), there was plenty of talk about weapons of mass destruction. Here is the most illuminating exchange on nuclear weapons, according to a transcript published by the Washington Post. Clinton gave a clinical description of how fast nuclear weapons can be fired away at a president’s command. That information was perhaps a subtle way of warning Russian president Vladimir Putin that we remain the fastest guns in the West.
CLINTON: “I — I find it ironic that he’s raising nuclear weapons. This is a person who has been very cavalier, even casual about the use of nuclear weapons. He’s advocated more countries getting them, Japan, Korea, even Saudi Arabia. He said, well, if we have them, why don’t we use them, which I think is terrifying.
But here’s the deal. The bottom line on nuclear weapons is that when the president gives the order, it must be followed. There’s about four minutes between the order being given and the people responsible for launching nuclear weapons to do so. And that’s why 10 people who have had that awesome responsibility have come out and, in an unprecedented way, said they would not trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes or to have his finger on the nuclear button.
TRUMP: I have 200 generals…
WALLACE: Very quickly.
TRUMP: … and admirals, 21 endorsing me, 21 congressional Medal of Honor recipients. As far as Japan and other countries, we are being ripped off by everybody in the — we’re defending other countries. We are spending a fortune doing it. They have the bargain of the century.
All I said is, we have to renegotiate these agreements, because our country cannot afford to defend Saudi Arabia, Japan, Germany, South Korea, and many other places. We cannot continue to afford — she took that as saying nuclear weapons.
What Trump doesn’t seem to understand that defending Saudi Arabia, Germany, Japan and South Korea means defending major trading partners and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, a sand seared ocean of oil. But if the American nuclear umbrella suddenly closed, all of those countries could have nuclear weapons ready within weeks or months. The details are unimportant. What’s nauseatingly disturbing is that we are discussing the possibility of nuclear war at all. After all, this is 2016, right? If the arc of history bends towards justice, a nuclear holocaust is the thing that would blow that arc to smithereens. The real end of history.
Clinton, for her part, recommitted herself to a no-fly zone in Syria, a provocation to Russian air forces the U.S. blames for bombing civilians and Western-friendly rebels. She also said that the occupation of Iraq would “not be in our interest,” while not mentioning that the Iraqis also have their objections to American military occupation. Classic Clinton.
This is all happening while thousands of nuclear weapons in the United States and Russia stand waiting to incinerate you and your family, if necessary. And with tensions between the two countries going from cold to hot in Syria, I decided to ask viewers of the debate what they thought about nuclear war. Because it affects them, as biological organisms allergic to gamma radiation.
The bar where I watched the debate is in my hometown, Washington, D.C.; well within the zone of annihilation for a nuclear strike. It’s always been the top target for any enemy’s Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. I remember my dad telling me as a kid that we would be the lucky ones after a nuclear war: vaporized instantaneously instead of doomed to envy the dead as wretched, radiation-ravaged survivors scrounging for food, cockroach-like, among the endless rubble of a civilization lost to atomic murder-suicide.
“Would you want to survive a nuclear war?” I asked Washington D.C. resident Don Undeen, 41.
“Would I end up with superpowers, or would I die of radiation poisoning?”
“The second one,” I clarified.
“OK then definitely no,” he added.
Another was skeptical of a nuclear war breaking out at all.
“I think Mutually Assured Destruction will stop Russia and the United States. I’m more worried about small, unstable countries,” said Ade Sawyer, 27.
Paige Travis, 24, another Red Derby patron, said that Americans and Russians “live in two different worlds.” Having visited Russia, she said: “I think the Russian people are very nice and hospitable. But we’re a powerful country, and that’s intimidating to them. And we’re in competition.”
Intellectual progressivism and strongman traditionalism are coming to a head both in the United States and around the world. It’s an age-old argument, but this time with potentially apocalyptic stakes. Trumpist Americans see Russia as a potential sidekick in a movie where all they do is “kick ISIS ass,” as Sarah Palin once put it. The battlelines of American politics, drawn over old Civil War rivalries, are expressing themselves in international relations, with the axis between traditionalism and the Enlightenment. Rule by charisma and ruthlessness, or rule by adherence to rules.
The debate was tedious and obnoxious to watch in many respects, and harrowing in its horrifying revelations of just how thin the ice is upon which our democracy treads. Trump will say he’d have to wait and see if he will accept the results of this year’s election, a practically unprecedented statement by a presidential candidate. With Clinton and Trump collecting opposing phalanxes of retired generals, who speak by proxy for their serving colleagues, United States appears to be closer to a civil war than it has in a hundred and sixty years. Right now, it looks like any secessionist impulse is confined to the likely loser, Trump, and his ardent fans who have embraced his boorishness and echoed his racist remarks online and off. This is my conclusion after watching three of these debates. We will be lucky as a country if violence at the polls does not mar our attempt to exercise our rights to vote. It is that bad.
But an American civil war would not confine itself to the United States. The politics of this civil war are global, with Trump accusing a “global establishment” of being arrayed against him. In the same way, Russia sees the West as the eternal meddler, the fay mocker of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s masculinity. In the same way, American conservatives are reacting against what they see as the tyranny of progress, the Daedalus-like failure of the Enlightenment. What the world has in Trump, Putin, and the Philippines’ brutal president Rodrigo Duterte, are representatives of a much older, much more simple way of ordering society, one where hierarchy is absolute and religion respected, instead of the self-indulgent atheistic anarchism of the far left running the show. Why take a bet on some eggheads when you could trust the kind of old fashioned common sense that’s been around for ages: zealous xenophobia.
The faith and practice of multicultural democracy has had less time to catch on, really less than a couple hundred years at most, but the petty balance of our own lives makes it seem like modern, progressive values have been around forever. They haven’t, and remain fragile figments of our social imagination; ideas like humans deserving rights solely because they are humans. This is a new idea in human history, and who knows if it won’t wither on the vine? Remains to be seen. I’ll keep you in suspense.