The editors of The Atlantic are aware of the rather limited utility of presidential endorsements. In its 163-year history that publication has made only three: for Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Hillary Clinton. It’s probably not a coincidence that each of these were framed by a time of intense national upheaval. All three endorsements, in fact, occurred during a time when the course of the country’s history was fundamentally altered, although, in the case of Hillary Clinton, that alteration of history resulted solely from the fact that she lost the election.
Former Vice-President Joe Biden has innumerable qualities both personal and political that make him a preferable choice for president than Donald Trump, but, like many publications, the Atlantic’s endorsement of him this year focuses primarily on Trump. And it would have been easy for the Atlantic’s editors to simply stop after highlighting Trump’s grotesque performance in office. In its original endorsement of Hillary Clinton, everything the magazine said about Trump has been proven out, over and over, during the last four years:
As The Atlantic stated in its October 2016 endorsement of his opponent, Hillary Clinton, Trump “traffics in conspiracy theories and racist invective; he is appallingly sexist; he is erratic, secretive, and xenophobic; he expresses admiration for authoritarian rulers, and evinces authoritarian tendencies himself … He is an enemy of fact-based discourse; he is ignorant of, and indifferent to, the Constitution; he appears not to read.”
But no one could have been prepared for just how unfit for office Donald Trump would actually turn out to be, or the incompetence of the people he would choose to surround himself. Not only did Trump not “grow” into the office– which was the least anyone could expect– he diminished it and poisoned it, along with the country he was elected to serve:
What we have learned since we published that editorial is that we understated our case. Donald Trump is the worst president this country has seen since Andrew Johnson, or perhaps James Buchanan, or perhaps ever. Trump has brought our country low; he has divided our people; he has pitted race against race; he has corrupted our democracy; he has shown contempt for American ideals; he has made cruelty a sacrament; he has provided comfort to propagators of hate; he has abandoned America’s allies; he has aligned himself with dictators; he has encouraged terrorism and mob violence; he has undermined the agencies and departments of government; he has despoiled the environment; he has opposed free speech; he has lied frenetically and evangelized for conspiracism; he has stolen children from their parents; he has made himself an advocate of a hostile foreign power; and he has failed to protect America from a ravaging virus. Trump is not responsible for all of the 220,000 COVID-19-related deaths in America. But through his avarice and ignorance and negligence and titanic incompetence, he has allowed tens of thousands of Americans to suffer and die, many alone, all needlessly. With each passing day, his presidency reaps more death.
Of course, in and of themselves those actions should automatically disqualify him from holding any public position, let alone the office of president. But an exhaustive list of Trump’s malfeasance can easily be compiled by any publication without too much effort; here, the editors of the Atlantic take it a significant step further, and bring up a rather important subject that ought to be included in our national discussion over the next few days.
Unlike our counterparts in Europe, for example, most Americans pay little heed to our country’s actions on the world stage unless there is a war going on. Foreign policy is almost never discussed in political campaigns because, by and large, Americans are not particularly moved by such concerns. What occurs outside our borders is simply dismissed as the province of the vast bulk of humanity we have casually learned to ignore and treat as somehow undeserving of our concern.
And for the last four years we have been extraordinarily lucky, in that no significant crisis has appeared overseas that would threaten us. Even as the Trump administration has visibly disengaged from our former allies, allowing crises such as the dismemberment of Syria to be handled by Iran and Russia, allowing China to reassert its control over Hong Kong, and allowing dictators and autocrats everywhere from Turkey to Hungary to North Korea to do their worst without fear of American disapproval or reprisal, we have managed to isolate ourselves from the world with relatively few consequences thus far. Only in abandoning the type of international cooperation that could have significantly reduced the onslaught of the COVID-19 has this dereliction of American responsibility come back to haunt us.
But the COVID-19 pandemic is one of those events that re-orders the world. And Trump’s abject failure in the face of the worst public health crisis this country has had to endure in more than a century is not only conclusive evidence of his unfitness for office, it also raises a frankly terrifying warning about the administration’s ability to manage any crisis, foreign or domestic.
Few could foresee in 2016 the catastrophic incompetence that the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about this administration– and about Donald Trump himself– or the consequences that would result from that incompetence. But now that we have all seen his utter contempt for American lives with our own eyes, how do we expect someone like Trump to handle a serious foreign crisis? How do we expect him to handle, for example, a decision by the Chinese leadership to invade Taiwan? How do we expect him to handle a shooting war between India and Pakistan? Or an attack on the South by North Korea? Or an attack by Iran on Israel?
The point is that none of these things—quite miraculously in fact—has happened over the last four years. But there are not many periods in history as “calm” as the last four years. When those events happen—and they will happen– the person in charge of this country’s nuclear arsenal matters. As the Atlantic states:
In most matters related to the governance and defense of the United States, the president is constrained by competing branches of government and by an intricate web of laws and customs. Only in one crucial area does the president resemble, in the words of the former missile officer and scholar Bruce Blair, an absolute monarch—his control of nuclear weapons. Richard Nixon, who was president when Major Hering asked his question, was reported to have told members of Congress at a White House dinner party, “I could leave this room and in 25 minutes, 70 million people would be dead.” This was an alarming but accurate statement.
When contemplating their ballots, Americans should ask which candidate in a presidential contest is better equipped to guide the United States through a national-security crisis without triggering a nuclear exchange, and which candidate is better equipped to interpret—within five or seven minutes—the ambiguous, complicated, and contradictory signals that could suggest an imminent nuclear attack. These are certainly not questions that large numbers of voters asked themselves in 2016, when a transparently unqualified candidate for president won the support of 63 million Americans.
The presidency is much more than a “position” to be filled from time to time. As we have all bitterly learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, the implications of someone manifestly unfit to occupy it are profound and potentially lethal to millions of Americans. To provide someone proven as erratic and delusional as Donald Trump with the power to end all of our lives by initiating (or reacting to) a potential nuclear attack is simply insane. Americans may not have known exactly what they were putting into the Oval Office in 2016, but there is no such excuse now. We’ve all seen the movie, and it ends in death.
That crisis—or something close to it– is bound to come, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. So Americans need to ask themselves who they really trust to make that call when it happens, and whether they really want those fat little fingers so close to that red button.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.