Trump, masculinity and Nuclear Weapons: A Word of Caution for America’s New Hot-Headed Leader

Over the course of an extravagant election cycle, President Trump has proven to conform to dramatically normative masculine standards: a fierce competitiveness and an inability to admit fault or defeat. He wears his arrogance as unapologetically as his signature red tie.  In the wake of one of Trump’s trademark "Twitter diplomacy" moments - this time encouraging an arms race to fully flex his metaphorical muscles - it has become clear that this attitude may lead to dangerous shifts in long-standing and bipartisan US nuclear policy. The United States must recognize and check the behavior of its new president in order to salvage international peace and security.

Hegemonic Masculinity to a T

President Trump has a well-documented history of exaggerating and often downright lying about his successes. He called himself a successful businessman despite filing for bankruptcy six times. He claimed that he won the popular vote when he definitively lost by nearly 3 million votes. He settled a lawsuit and then tweeted a peevish insinuation that he could have won the lawsuit if he didn’t have to focus on running the country. The list goes on and on. 

At the smallest criticism, he lashes out, even taking the time to denounce a Saturday Night Live skit which portrayed him in an unfavorable light. A more recent outburst - this time in response to President Putin declaring that he would upgrade Russia’s nuclear arsenal - spiraled into Trump openly endorsing a new arms race on Morning Joe.

Traditional strategy

Trump’s petulant behavior is at odds with traditional, patient, and practiced nuclear policy making. US nuclear policy has been critically studied and debated since the introduction of nuclear weapons nearly 70 years ago. Current US strategy seeks to pragmatically reduce nuclear weapons, maintaining an arsenal that is just large enough to serve as an effective deterrent. Proponents of deterrence theory argue that as long as the United States maintains a strong nuclear arsenal, its adversaries will not consider using nuclear weapons against the United States or its allies. Effective deterrence does not mean having an equal number of nuclear weapons as an adversary, but rather just enough to scare an adversary away from striking first. The United States does not need to have thousands of nuclear weapons to deter a nuclear strike, when the detonation of even tens of nuclear weapons would alter civilization as we know it. In other words, the current US stockpile of about 4,480 nuclear warheads is already overwhelmingly sufficient to accomplish its stated goal of effective deterrence. To suggest that more weapons are required is absurd, regardless of where one falls on the proliferation/nonproliferation spectrum. 

Thus, Trump’s tweet, calling on the United States to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capacity,” simply does not make sense, even from a strategic standpoint.  In fact, President Obama has indicated that the United States could ensure its own nuclear security, as well as that of its allies, with a unilateral one third reduction of its nuclear arsenal.

Furthermore, without an arms build-up, the United States is already projected to spend $1 trillion to modernize its arsenal over the next 30 years. Increasing the arsenal, in additional to violating international treaties which currently construct the backbone of the existing world order, would add astronomical costs to the US deficit. 

A call to reason

It is clear that reason is not the driving factor behind Trump’s words on nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, logic is thrown out of the window whenever Trump’s masculinity is slighted, be the perceived affront coming from a satirical TV show or a speech from a foreign leader. Trump’s incessant need to assert his personal and national dominance is dangerous for US national security. Peace and security cannot be won in a battle of hot-headed arrogance. Effective diplomacy is based on cooperation, not competition for competition’s sake. Decades of successive administrations, on both sides of the aisle, have advocated for nuclear reductions. Trump’s normative masculinity must be checked in the name of national security and worldwide nuclear stability.


Alicia Sanders-Zakre is a Tufts University graduate based in Washington, D.C. Follow Alicia on Twitter: @azakre.