When the American president tweeted on Tuesday evening that his “Nuclear Button” is “bigger & more powerful” than the North Korean leader’s, and that “my Button works!” unlike the desktop button that Kim Jong Un had just threatened the United States with in a New Year’s speech, Twitter naturally exploded with angst.
People wondered whether they were hallucinating, whether their final moments would involve “reading Twitter hot takes as nukes rain down.” “Folks ... are freaking out about the mental instability of a man who can kill millions without permission from anybody,” one former Obama administration official wrote. Setting aside the technicalities of Donald Trump’s boast (he has a briefcase, not a button), the commander in chief was casually sounding off on social media about war with the world’s deadliest weapons, apparently after watching Fox News. He was daring Kim to prove that his “nuclear button” works by, for example, testing a missile with a live nuclear weapon over the Pacific Ocean—the kind of scenario that the Republican Senator and Trump confidant Lindsey Graham recently told me would dramatically increase the chances of a U.S. attack on North Korea.
But lurking behind the freakout was a profoundly uncomfortable fact: Trump was stating, in the crudest possible form, what U.S. officials have said for decades. Kim Jong Un had argued that his capability to hit the United States with nuclear weapons would dissuade the U.S. from waging war against North Korea. And Donald Trump seemed to be reminding Kim that he best not consider a nuclear strike—since America’s nuclear-weapons arsenal is superior to North Korea’s and America isn’t afraid to use it. This was nuclear deterrence, in 280 Trumpian characters. Stripped of the usual abstraction and euphemism, it was terrifying to behold.