If you can imagine Donald Trump as president, try to imagine him as the keeper of a weapon that can incinerate an entire city, ready to be launched at his say-so.
IGNORE, for a moment, all the noise surrounding this very noisy presidential campaign. If you want to get to the essence of what the race between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton is about, do what seekers of enlightenment have done throughout time: Focus on a single object.
In this case, the object is a nuclear weapon.
Granted, this is probably not an everyday item for you — but it’s one your mind’s eye can summon up pretty readily. You’ve seen enough doomsday movies showing a bomb plunging from the belly of a plane or missiles launching from submarines and underground silos.
Now let’s think about what those weapons can do in real life. Whether it’s a bomb or a missile, a nuke’s potency is commonly measured in kilotons — one kiloton being the equivalent of 1,000 tons of TNT.
For example, the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in the final days of the World War II carried about 15 kilotons of explosive force.
The death toll from that single bomb was originally estimated at 66,000. Later studies put the number of fatalities well over 100,000.
Even modern bombs considered relatively “low yield” can deliver 50 kilotons of force — more than three times as much as the bomb that devastated Hiroshima.
In short, the nuclear weapon you are envisioning is an unimaginably lethal instrument. But it is hardly one-of-a-kind. The U.S. arsenal includes an estimated stockpile of 4,670 warheads, about 1,930 of which are actually deployed.
But perhaps the most remarkable and relevant fact about nuclear weapons is the degree to which we entrust their use — or nonuse — to a single human.
That human, of course, is the president of the United States — who has virtually untrammeled authority on the question of whether to unleash Armageddon on any given day.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that if a president wants to launch a nuclear weapon, the only things standing in the way are his or her own conscience and judgment.
In short, our system — inherited from the Cold War — favors giving maximum discretion to the chief executive on this most fundamental question of national and civilizational survival.
Since the dawn of the nuclear era, our main check on the abuse of this power has been a simple one: We don’t elect people who can’t handle it.
That’s hardly to say that our presidents since 1945 have been perfect people. But it is fair to observe that America developed certain expectations about the demeanor and temperament of its would-be presidents.
Those expectations were, at some level, guided by an understanding that the next occupant of the White House would control the most terrible weapons ever devised — and might have to decide on their use under conditions of unimaginable stress, ambiguity and moral complexity.
Trump’s candidacy represents a serious erosion of this electoral safeguard. The real issue here is not policy, but character: Will America entrust its nuclear arsenal to a man so devoid of self-restraint and so willing to aggrandize himself regardless of who gets hurt?
It may seem a stretch to discern unfitness for nuclear command in such things as late-night Twitter rants, casual calls for brutality against demonstrators or an ugly pattern of remarks and behavior toward women.
But the greater stretch, by far, would be to imagine that such a man would somehow reveal unseen depths of discernment and self-control under extreme pressure. That’s not how human nature typically works. And nothing Trump has done under the duress of a presidential campaign should make us think he’d be an exception to the rule.
The bottom line is this: If you can imagine Trump as president, try to imagine him as the keeper of a weapon that can incinerate an entire city, ready to be launched at his say-so. Now imagine hundreds — even thousands — of such weapons, all at his command, and at his command alone.
Because that’s precisely the job Trump is applying for. It’s up to the voters to remind him — and ourselves — just how high the stakes are and of how foolish it would be for us to hand the ultimate destructive power to one who cannot command himself.