Gov. Jerry Brown, who has seen much to worry about in his five decades in public office, said recently that he had a particularly heavy concern: the nation’s obliviousness to how close it is to nuclear catastrophe.
“There is virtually no conversation about this, and it is damned dangerous,” Brown said to journalists and politicians in Philadelphia last month, after steering the conversation to the threat of nuclear warheads exploding. “We really ought to wake up.”
Soon, the public did wake up. Donald Trump saw to it.
Trump has suggested America use nuclear weapons to bomb Islamic State. He has proposed that Japan and maybe even Saudi Arabia build their own arsenals. And he may have weakened the deterrent effect of nuclear bombs in Europe by suggesting a Trump administration would not come to the aid of NATO members who owe the alliance money.
But the public most took notice, perhaps, when MSNBC host Joe Scarborough told an anecdote about Trump asking a foreign policy expert three times during a briefing why the U.S. doesn’t use its nuclear weapons. Trump’s campaign denies any such query took place.
Not since Ronald Reagan’s reelection at the tail end of the Cold War have nuclear weapons played so big in a presidential race. Historians have to reach back even further, to decades before Reagan, to find a nominee who has talked about nuclear war as loosely as Trump does.
Until Trump came along, voters had largely shifted their worries elsewhere, away from the sobering reality that nuclear warheads can pulverize entire cities in an instant, that they are so powerful that merely possessing them is a deterrent to war, and that presidents can order, on their own, that a nuclear weapon be launched.
“It’s been shock therapy for the American public,” said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, which promotes nuclear disarmament. “Up until last month, most Americans did not even know a president could launch a nuclear war on their own authority.”