President Trump got into one of his trademark Twitter slap-fights over the weekend — this time with a member of his own party, Sen. Bob Corker (Tenn.). After Trump attacked him for being a "negative voice," Corker responded:
Corker then went nuclear, telling The New York Times that Trump's big mouth and constant provocations put the country "on the path to World War III." The Times further reported that many Senate Republicans are saying similar things in private.
But so far, Corker's confrontation with Trump is a complete sham. Until Republicans are willing to do something meaningful about Trump's erratic behavior — namely, removing him from office — statements like Corker's will remain nothing but hot air.
Think about Corker's statement again. The American presidency vests a gigantic, almost absurd amount of power in a single person. Aside from the immense authority granted through appointments, executive orders, and control of the U.S. Armed Forces, President Trump could — on his word alone — direct a nuclear strike at any point on the globe in a matter of minutes.
This is a perilous state of affairs even for a president who isn't a confused, angry, thin-skinned old man who is completely intolerant of criticism. A full-blown nuclear exchange would kill the vast majority (if not 100 percent) of the U.S. population, destroy America's institutions forever, and disrupt world society so much as to threaten total human extinction. Even a single warhead striking a major U.S. city would be an unimaginable disaster — far exceeding the death toll from any previous American conflict, and probably all of them put together.
As Robert McNamara put it:
The major lesson of the Cuban Missile Crisis is this: The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations. Is it right and proper that today, there are 7,500 strategic offensive nuclear weapons, of which 2,500 are on 15-minute alert, to be launched by the decision of one human being? [The Fog of War]
The numbers have changed somewhat from 2003, but the basic point remains. Even a very tiny chance that the president will spark off nuclear war — through some combination of stupidity, incompetence, and petulant belligerence — is a screaming national emergency. It is, in a quite literal sense, about the greatest possible threat to national security.
And there is a very obvious solution, provided in the Constitution: Remove the president from office. Either through impeachment and conviction, or the 25th Amendment option, get rid of Trump and replace him with Vice President Mike Pence. He's a man who, despite his extensive personal flaws, seems at least not nearly so prone to being baited into high-stakes nuclear standoffs.
But there is not even a whisper of a suggestion from Pence or any other congressional Republicans near the leadership that they are seriously considering the idea — despite the fact that Trump has been angrily feuding with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell off-and-on for months now.
The reason for this, I believe, is that much of the Republican congressional caucus is now composed of "riled-up kooks" who are completely incapable of thinking about things like the dangers of nuclear Armageddon in a measured or realistic fashion, and whose major political instinct is fear of the right-wing fever swamp. Indeed, Bloomberg reports that former Trump adviser Stephen Bannon is planning to support primary challengers to almost every Senate Republican, supposedly in an effort to depose McConnell and get rid of the filibuster.
The fact that conservative media is constantly enraged about "betrayal" from the party's congressional leadership reflects, I think, the fact that the Republican policy agenda benefits the ultra-wealthy, and is so hideously unpopular that they haven't been able to pass most of it despite control of all three branches of the federal government. Republicans have achieved great political success by whipping their base of resentful retired white people into an insane fury. But that means they need a constant series of distractions, conspiracy theories, and identity politics grievances to stand in for a substantive agenda that would help the party's voters.
Indeed, for most of the party, including Trump himself, these sort of distractions have become the near-totality of politics itself. Removing Trump simply to reduce the risk of nuclear fire would smack too much of another betrayal by the party elite.
There is simply no space in the Republican imagination anymore for an idea like "responsible statesmanship." We'll just have to cross our collective fingers.