Weighing the cost of Chinese entry into the Korean War half a century ago, Mao was sanguine about the consequences of any nuclear escalation. “The atomic bomb is nothing to be afraid of,” he remarked to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954, shortly after the war’s close. “China has millions of people. They cannot be bombed out of existence. If someone else can drop an atomic bomb, I can too. The death of ten or twenty million people is nothing to be afraid of.” Perhaps Mao was blustering—but from his perspective, war with the US would have appeared less a new conflict than another installment in a war against imperialism that had already been going on for decades, that had already resulted in the deaths of tens of millions.
Donald Trump, by contrast, has seen no such carnage firsthand. He has waged a war of liberation not against Japanese or Kuomintang armies, but against media talking heads and the specter of his predecessor. Yet this did not prevent him threatening, during a brief break from golfing, to unleash “fire and fury like the world has never seen” in a geopolitical tinderbox inhabited by seventy-five million people. The proximate cause is hardly as clear or dramatic as UN troops on the banks of the Yalu: it is more reports, still uncertain, of supposed increases in DPRK missile capabilities. On the heels of yet another punishing round of UN sanctions, one has to wonder if the President’s remarks, which in their ghoulish melodrama mirror the bombast and absurdity of North Korea’s own state media, are—like so much else with Trump—a form of venting. Throughout the long 201 days of his presidency, Trump has often expressed great frustration at the existence of problems he cannot fix through petulant fiat or vulgar threats.
Perhaps we are supposed to find consolation in this. It’s just the President mouthing off again! Trump is being Trump. Earlier today, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seemed to say as much: “I think Americans should sleep well at night, have no concerns about this particular rhetoric of the last few days.” And there are other voices urging calm, reminding us, for example, that upcoming joint American-South Korean military exercises, an annual occurrence, routinely produce escalations in bellicose posturing across the DMZ. Or that life in Seoul goes on, or at least as much as it can in a city of ten million that sits in range of thousands of pieces of North Korean artillery.
Into this moderation steps Trump himself, raging into the ether again this morning. “My first order as President was to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal,” he tweeted. “It is now far stronger and more powerful than ever before. Hopefully we will never have to use this power, but there will never be a time that we are not the most powerful nation in the world!” Yoked to the “hopefully” of “never hav[ing] to use this power” the last sentence contains all the portent of a threat: that the weapons will be used against the possibility that we might ever be “not the most powerful nation in the world.” The underlying logic is quite uncomplicated: unless America is the best and the most powerful, the entire world is forfeit. This is of course the brutish proposition that sustains American hegemony—that has sustained since it since the get-go. It’s the same threat whether it’s mouthed colorfully by Trump, or stated matter-of-factly by a career military officer like Defense Secretary James Mattis, who warned that “the DPRK should cease any consideration of actions that would lead to the end of its regime and the destruction of its people.” But as with so much else, hearing it laid out so baldly, in yet another unplanned and unvetted Trump ad-lib, has an arresting effect. As out of the mouths of babes, so out of the mouth of our President: the truth brings us up short. We move from an initial, disavowing reaction of “This. Is. Not. Normal” to a nauseous, self-implicating “Oh God, this is what normal always was.”
With Trump as the messenger—rather than some generic general or RAND Corporation bureaucrat—we can clearly see that this apocalyptic solipsism feels like a familiar American story. It’s James Cagney at the end of White Heat, immolating himself by firing a gun into a gas tank: “Made it, Ma! I’m on top of the world!” Or Michael Douglas in Falling Down, that archetypal Angry White Man Who’s Finally Had Enough, whose rampage audiences cheer even as, or precisely because, they know it will end in a bloodbath. This last filmic icon gets at another type—the Family Annihilator, that all-too-real culture-specific disorder of the failed patriarch who, facing financial ruin or other humiliation, decides on suicide while taking his wife and children with him like so many ritual objects he can throw on his own funeral pyre out of spite. “There will never be a time that I am not the best father, with the happiest family, and the finest lawn,” sobs the annihilator as he loads his rifle in the den. For such selfishness, a world unworlded is self-evidently preferable to a world in which you are not the best, the most special, the most praised. America (and I) Will Be The Greatest Forever, Or We’ll Burn The World To Ashes.
The deaths of other people may truly be a matter of utter indifference to Donald Trump. But how does he think of his own death, if he does at all? Certainly his body will fail him, eventually, as it must. And, contra the protestations of his muppet of a doctor, Trump must already feel its growing limits, the indignities of age. But I am hard pressed to think of an occasion where he has spoken of what he hopes his posthumous legacy will be, of how he hopes to be remembered. Trump’s care for the regard of others appears to be confined to the timeline of the news cycle, not history. Even his proud boasts of personal impact seem wholly concrete, woefully short-term: “I’ve created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I’ve done, I’ve had tremendous success.” Trump must know that these “great structures” are no pyramids or triumphal arches, just casinos and condos, shoddy and ephemeral, some sinking into rising seas even now. And he certainly knows, as his leaked diplomatic calls reveal, that even his signature “great wall” will likely never happen—if not thanks to the laws of physics, but because he can’t face the political consequences of being unable to make the Mexican government pay for it.
This is the man who now controls the largest military on the planet, with some 6,800 nuclear warheads at this disposal. And what about us? Faced with our powerlessness in the face of opaque and ominous geopolitical calculi, we seek consolations wherever we can find them. On social media—our collective engine for expressing agita, coping, and working-through—the expressions of panic have already given way to backlash, and to backlash-against-the-backlash. From the sky-is-falling wails to moralizing pushback to expert pronouncements to calm retweets in twelve hours or less. Everything is back to normal, whatever normal happens to mean at the moment. And anyway, it’s only Twitter—history doesn’t happen on Twitter, no matter how much our weakened President wishes it were otherwise. Yet even as we say this, we know that it is also a kind of arrogance to dismiss the possibility that the same nation that first split the atom and dropped the bomb, and that also invented Twitter and elected a thuggish TV clown as its President, might not wed those grotesque achievements in world-historical catastrophe. Trump’s fire and fury may just be sound and fury, signifying nothing—but it also reveals how much our vaunted global order has always been teetering on the edge of the bleakest nothingness. Much has been clarified in recent months—why not, as well, this state of affairs, for which we are singularly responsible?