The problem with Trump's "madman" act with North Korea

National security expert Tom Nichols on why Trump needs to "stop making threats you're not going to fulfill"

Published October 29, 2017 10:30AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci)
Donald Trump (AP/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump is the commander-in-chief of the United States military. In that role, he has the ability to unleash unimaginable destruction upon the world. Unfortunately, Donald Trump's behavior suggests that instead of being a leader who provides a sense of security and stability for the international community he revels in creating fear, chaos, and confusion.

While president and also during the 2016 campaign, Trump has made statements such as, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump has also engaged in juvenile male ape posturing and name-calling with the leader of North Korea, calling him "Rocket Man" while threatening to incinerate millions of people. Trump repeatedly says that America's enemies will suffer some deadly punishment at some undetermined time in the future. He has praised autocrats such as Vladimir Putin and boasted that America, like Russia, has done lots of killing too. Trump wants to increase America's nuclear arsenal by 10 times — this would violate nuclear arms agreements and put the country on a war footing not seen since the 1960s. Former Trump ally Tennessee Senator Bob Corker believes that the president is creating the conditions for World War 3.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists — the watchdog and advocacy group that maintains the infamous "Doomsday Clock" — believes that Trump represents one of the greatest threats to world peace in recent memory. In their announcement earlier this year before changing the time on the Doomsday Clock to the closest it has been to midnight (disaster) since the 1950s, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists issued the following statement:

Over the course of 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come effectively to grips with humanity's most pressing existential threats, nuclear weapons and climate change ... This already-threatening world situation was the backdrop for a rise in strident nationalism worldwide in 2016, including in a U.S. presidential campaign during which the eventual victor, Donald Trump, made disturbing comments about the use and proliferation of nuclear weapons and expressed disbelief in the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists continued with their warning about Donald Trump, stating that, "even though he has just now taken office, the president's intemperate statements, lack of openness to expert advice, and questionable cabinet nominations have already made a bad international security situation worse."

National security and other experts are very concerned about Trump's behavior. But as viewed by his defenders, Trump is actually engaged in some type of genius strategy known as the "madman theory."

What is the actual likelihood of Donald Trump starting a war with either North Korea or Iran? Is it too easy for a president to use nuclear weapons? Should it be made more difficult for an American president to launch a nuclear attack? Are Trump's unpredictability and verbal taunts actually part of a larger and more elaborate strategy? What is the "madman theory?" Is Trump actually using it to guide his approach to other countries?

In an effort an answer these questions, I recently spoke with Tom Nichols. He is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College and also teaches at the Harvard Extension School. Nichols is the author of seven books, including "No Use: Nuclear Weapons and U.S. National Security" and “The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters.

In our conversation on this week's episode of my podcast "The Chauncey DeVega Show," Nichols explains the "madman theory" as:

...a notion of deterrence in which you want to convince your opponent that you're more reckless than he is. Deterrence in its simpler version is like a game of chicken. So if that's the paradigm, the madman theory is like downing a bottle of vodka in front of your opponent and saying, "You know what, dude, I don't care if I live or die. I'm crazy. I'm nuts." On that concept, the other guy is going to swerve first, because he is going to say, "My opponent just isn't rational." The problem with the madman theory is that it also makes your opponent very nervous and prone to want to attack first, because you cannot be reasoned with. The biggest problem with Trump has been that if you tell people, "Hey, I'm doing the madman thing," then you've blown the whole idea. You don't publicly say, "Hey, I'm just trying to appear unreasonable." Because then your opponent says, "OK, not only are you reckless, you're stupid."

Nichols also has the following advice for Donald Trump and his inner circle:

I would say stop making threats you're not going to fulfill. You're not going to drop nuclear weapons on North Korea. You're not going to drop nuclear weapons in the Middle East. So get over that. Start making an alternative plan for dealing with a nuclear North Korea, including containment. My argument all along, and I've been saying this for years, is that the United States needs a much stronger conventional military. The United States spends its money on high-end weapons systems when in fact what's really going to deter people is people in uniform carrying guns.

During this week’s episode of the podcast, you'll also hear my thoughts about how Donald Trump uses empathy to manipulate his supporters.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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