“In a democratic country without hereditary power, royal crowns or bejeweled thrones, the
nuclear football is... the only physical manifestation of our nation’s head of state.”
There has been a sudden uptick in media chatter and Washington insider talk about the White House staff and various other high officials now speaking openly about their belief that President Trump is mentally incompetent and “unravelling” at an alarming pace. Are the rats about to jump ship? Will they sack the ball carrier, forcing a fumble to take the nuclear football with them? All is uncertain in America these days except for the certainty that the story will be told with football metaphors.
In the first place, there should have been mechanisms within the Republican Party and within the constitution to block such an ignorant and incompetent person from rising so high, but the urgent question for Washington elites now is what to do about the president’s access to the nuclear codes. There has even been speculation about the possibility of actually tackling the president to the floor if he ever “lunges” toward the button.
The blame for this sorry situation lies with all previous administrations. No previous president ever, as far as we know, made efforts to insert checks and balances in the command and control structure. Did any of them ever, at the very least, tell their staff to challenge them or tie them to the proverbial mast if he ever reached for the button? In the Soviet Union, the president, minister of defense and chief of the general staff had to consent to a nuclear launch, but Americans have never made any serious effort to fix the flaws in their own system, in spite of previous crises with it.
During the darkest days of the Nixon presidency, and even the brighter ones, the question about access to the launch codes was a recurring problem that troubled senior officials. In 1969, just after North Korea shot down an American EC-21, George Carver, a CIA specialist...
is reported to have said that Nixon became “incensed” when he found out... The president got on the phone with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and ordered plans for a tactical nuclear strike and recommendations for targets.... Henry Kissinger, National Security Advisor for Nixon at the time, also got on the phone to the Joint Chiefs and got them to agree to stand down on that order until Nixon woke up sober the next morning... Kissinger is reported to have told aides on multiple occasions that if the President had his way, there would have been a new nuclear war every week.
The problem continued until the last days of Nixon’s time in office, as described by Politico in an article from August 2017:
Even though Nixon had more than two hours left in his tenure, the most critical tool of the modern presidency had already been taken away from him. He never noticed it, but the nuclear “football” didn’t travel with him as he boarded the helicopter, and later, Air Force One for his flight back to California... In a democratic country without hereditary power, royal crowns or bejeweled thrones, the nuclear football is in some ways the only physical manifestation of our nation’s head of state... Yet, on that August day, it had been quietly removed from Nixon’s hands—remaining behind at the White House with the incoming commander-in-chief, Gerald Ford.... Defense Secretary James Schlesinger recalled years later that in the final days of the Nixon presidency he had issued an unprecedented set of orders: If the president gave any nuclear launch order, military commanders should check with either him or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger before executing them. Schlesinger feared that the president, who seemed depressed and was drinking heavily, might order Armageddon.
The article goes on to describe the obvious problem with having the launch decision vested in one individual:
The “mutually assured destruction” of the Cold War was predicated on the idea that the leaders of both superpowers were rational enough to avoid a war that would end with the destruction of both nations. The Madman Theory forced the world to consider a more frightening option: That the man in charge of the nukes might not be rational at all.
Some late efforts are now being made to revise the command structure, one that is a vestige of the Cold War when strategists thought they would have to get their missiles in the air within minutes in order to not have them destroyed by a massive surprise attack. This urgency is no longer a concern because both Russia and the US have the capacity to strike back after an initial nuclear onslaught. Two congressmen introduced legislation in January 2017 that would prohibit a president from launching a first nuclear strike without a congressional declaration of war. When they get done with these baby steps, perhaps they can move on to figuring out a way to make that football a dead ball by eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, then they can shrink the military budget, safely unwind the empire, and ensure that another incompetent and mentally unstable demagogue won't be able to buy his way to the presidency.
The table below is not meant to suggest that China has invented the perfect social and political order, but this comparison is notable in this time of political crisis in the United States. China doesn’t have anyone like Trump holding high office, or anywhere near it. The US is already governed by a rigged duopoly in which there is no effective democratic involvement of the people. If they are going to rule like mandarins, they might as well find a way to choose the best ones and govern well. Just sayin,’ as the saying goes on cable news...
-elite power, diffuse and invisible, operating behind a shadowy screen, in a network of think tanks, foundations, private planning commissions, exclusive corporate and financial clubs, secret intelligence forces, private secret armies
-a system of devolving, revolving, and unstable laws, executive orders
-an intricate system of corporate lobby-controlled elections
-highest position of political leadership vulnerable to being grabbed (“they let you do it!”) by an insurgent populist and unqualified billionaire
-visible, openly vested, leading people’s political party
-a functioning economy with plans reviewed every five years, following consultation with people’s assemblies
-leaders chosen from the most competent who emerge through a meritocratic, competitive education system and work in public service
Comparison adapted from a facebook post by Luciana Bohne
Readers unfamiliar with football terms such as sack, quarterback, fumble, dead ball and tackle can consult the glossary of American football.
 Blake Stilwell, “That time a drunk Richard Nixon tried to nuke North Korea,” We Are the Mighty, January 9, 2017, http://www.wearethemighty.com/articles/that-time-a-drunk-richard-nixon-tried-to-nuke-north-korea.
 Garrett M. Graff, “The Madman and the Bomb,” Politico, August 11, 2017, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/08/11/donald-trump-nuclear-weapons-richard-nixon-215478. Describing these orders as "unprecedented" contradicts what is stated in the previous source: that Kissinger gave similar orders many times throughout the Nixon presidency.