"Look, nuclear should be off the table. But would there be a time when it could be used? Possibly, possibly . . ."
This is -- who else? -- Donald Trump, flexing, you might say, his nuclear trigger finger in an interview with Chris Matthews, who responds in alarm:
"OK. The trouble is, when you said that, the whole world heard it. David Cameron in Britain heard it. The Japanese, where we bombed them in '45, heard it. They're hearing a guy running for president of the United States talking of maybe using nuclear weapons. Nobody wants to hear that about an American president."
"Then why," Trump shoots back in all his politically incorrect, rattle-the-establishment naivete, "are we making them? Why do we make them?"
Uh . . .
How many decades has it been since high-level politicians have been allowed to refer so blatantly to the nuclear elephant stomping across America? But here's Trump the reckless cowboy, declaring -- to the cheers of his adoring fans -- that if he's elected he'd use the bomb, or not, as he sees fit. Maybe if necessary he'd ride it down himself, like Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove.
No, this is not a "presidential" utterance, but Trump's simple, politically incorrect question hovers unanswered: Why do we make them? According to the Congressional Budget Office, the U.S. will spend $348 billion over the next decade on its nuclear arsenal. This is not subject to debate or discussion or even public acknowledgement. It's just a quiet part of the American political background, sort of like war itself, and the astronomical budget that sustains it.
And suddenly I think of the courage of Barbara Lee, U.S. congresswoman from Oakland, Calif., who 15 years ago stood alone -- in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and voted no on the Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which gave the president carte blanche to wage war on terrorism. The final, combined vote of both houses of Congress was 518-1. And the AUMF is still in effect a decade and a half later. The war on terror was never meant to be "won," just continued, apparently forever.
Last week Rep. Lee tried yet again to put the brakes on endless war with an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual defense budget, proposing to repeal the AUMF. The House of Representatives voted it down, 285-138.
In a press release afterward, Lee said: "I am extremely disappointed that my colleagues left a blank check for endless war on the books. This authorization has been used more than 37 times in 14 countries with little or no oversight from Congress. Are we going to allow another President the same blank check to unilaterally wage perpetual war?"
She added: "While we were not successful in repealing the 2001 AUMF today, we did force Congress to FINALLY debate -- for all of 10 minutes -- on this nearly 15-year-old war authorization."
And this is the state of American democracy during an election year: a 10-minute debate in Congress about the future of war and a reckless cowboy's logical conclusion that since we've made a whole lot of nuclear weapons -- we have over 7,000 in the stockpile right now -- a president ought to have the right to use one or two if he's really annoyed with another country's behavior. No doubt this is how you make America great again.
In other words, the United States is under the almost total control, politically and emotionally, of a confluence of economic and military interests that go by various names: the military-industrial complex, the Deep State. And the defense budget, of course, quietly passes in Congress, releasing a new round of unquestioned funding -- more than $600 billion -- for the Department of Defense to use as it sees fit. Funding is scarce for everything from schools to lead-free water pipes to addressing the Zika virus. But nukes and weapons development and the war on terror continue unchallenged.
Lee asks: "Since 1991, the U.S. has spent trillions of dollars, dropped hundreds of thousands of bombs and lost thousands of brave servicemen and women in Iraq. Do you feel any safer? Are we any safer?"
Well, no. The wars we've fought since then have only stirred up tumult and terror across the planet, just as the wars we fought before then did. But the consciousness that can see beyond war still has little political traction.
While public discontent with corporate elitism and politics as usual has permeated this presidential election season, the media have focused 90 percent of their attention only on the Trump side of the fury. This is because it's simple and sensationalistic. And nothing serious is challenged.
As Mike Lofgren writes: "Government officials and the media whipped up a mood in the country that approached hysteria; Trump deftly exploited it. By being the only politician brazen enough to openly advocate torture -- not merely to gain information (a dubious claim), but to inflict pain for its own sake -- he tapped into the revenge fantasies of millions of Americans who have been fed a steady diet of fear since 9/11."
Meanwhile, the U.S. military budget and the unchecked war on terror receive almost no serious mainstream coverage and are worth a 10-minute debate in Congress.