I had a long discussion the other day with my friend, the psychotherapist, about Trump cultists. You’d have been welcome to join in.
She is of the opinion that there is absolutely nothing Donald Trump could do that would cause the Trump cultists, and maybe even much of the non-cultist share of his base, to abandon him. In other words, she has adopted the Trump Fifth Avenue theorem, which holds that Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and it would not cost him a single vote.
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She pointed to the January 6 assault on the Capitol, the classified-document mess in Mar-a-Lago, which Trump now wants to take to the Supreme Court, the various failed impeachment trials and the many investigations — some civil, some criminal — Trump is facing, all the while basically looking like a sure thing to be nominated if he chooses to run for president again. She also added, for good measure, that Trump received 73 million votes in 2020, even after spending all these years doing what he could to subvert American democracy.
Finally, she pointed to the fact that the non-Cheney-Kinzinger political wing of the mainstream Republican Party remains in Trump’s thrall. And we didn’t even get into the latest news from the Oath Keepers’ January 6 trial.
But there is another side to this argument. And sadly, this isn’t some hypothetical discussion. It’s one that Americans may have to face, and with real-time consequences.
And it’s not some joke like, say, Heidi Ganahl’s delusions of furries and school children and litter boxes. Sure, she said — to much derision — that children all over Colorado were using litter boxes. I’m waiting, with no expectation, to see some actual examples of classroom cat scratch fever. And yet, the fact that this story has been thoroughly debunked didn’t stop the GOP candidate for governor in Minnesota from following Ganahl’s lead in making the same absurd furry charge.
The thing is, though, I do have an ace in the hole, even if it’s not a card I’d enjoy playing. What, I asked, if Trump’s buddy, Vladimir Putin, were to actually — as he threatens and some believe — use tactical nuclear weapons in an attempt to change the humiliating course of his entirely unnecessary war in Ukraine?
Would Trump cheer him on? Would Putin’s boy toy, Tucker Carlson? I don’t know what they’d do. My guess is that, whatever the case, they would do their best not to condemn Putin. But those questions are a lot less important, I think, than what the Trump base would do. If Trump were to support Putin — noting, of course, that America is the only country to have ever dropped nuclear bombs — would tens of millions of Americans go along with him?
For that matter, how would the saner parts of America and the rest of the West respond? It has basically been uncharted territory since the days of mutually assured destruction.
Would more sanctions be enough of a response? I doubt it. If Putin fired a nuclear weapon on a Ukrainian city or military base, would America have to come into the war and drop — I’m guessing — a powerful, but non-nuclear, bomb on a Russian city or military base? Or would the West simply supply Ukraine with the tools to respond?
I have no idea what Putin, or Biden for that matter, would actually do. Most Russian experts believe Putin has too much to lose — including China’s good will, for example, and the near-certain prospect of near-total (minus North Korea, of course) global condemnation — and not nearly enough to gain.
A tactical nuclear weapon wouldn’t cause Armageddon. And the experts say it wouldn’t even do much to change the course of the war. It would, however, cause an entirely unacceptable level of devastation and lingering radiation, which, depending on the winds, could even blow back into Russia.
According to those who study these things, a smallish nuclear explosion — far smaller than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki — would still cause many thousands to die and make some part of Ukraine uninhabitable for years.
You don’t have to know what Putin would do in order to game out his problem. He simply can’t afford to lose this ugly piece of adventurism in Ukraine. And he has backed himself further into a corner by recently announcing Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian regions, large parts of which the Russian army no longer controls. And despite unsolicited suggestions from Elon Musk, Putin’s widely condemned moves make it only more difficult for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to negotiate if the two sides would ever enter into peace talks.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has launched a stunningly successful counterattack in the East and the South while Putin’s announcement that he would call up 300,000 reservists to serve in Ukraine has caused nearly as many eligible Russians to vote with their feet and flee the country.
If Putin loses in Ukraine, could he still keep his job? That’s the question that Putin must face. If Putin launches a nuclear weapon with Trump’s support, what would Trump’s base do? That’s the question I very much hope we never have to answer.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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