THE ATLANTIC: Were the electors to meet on December 19 and decide that Donald Trump is unfit to be president, all hell would break loose. Trump’s supporters, and even some who opposed him, would say the election had been stolen. Their worst fears about America’s “rigged” system of government would be confirmed. The president who the electors chose—even if it were Hillary Clinton, who beat Trump by over a million votes—would lack legitimacy in the eyes of much of the public. It’s unclear whether such a president could effectively govern. Violence might break out. Moreover, once the precedent was set, future electors would become more likely to act independently again. The process of choosing them would grow fraught. America’s entire system of presidential elections would grow unstable.
It’s a terrifying prospect. The prospect of a Trump presidency, however, is terrifying too, terrifying in unprecedented ways. Which is why, for the first time in modern American history, there’s a plausible case for urging the electors to vote their consciences. The case is not overwhelming. But it’s not absurd. It all depends on how dangerous you think President Trump would be. Could the danger posed by electing Trump exceed the enormous danger posed by stopping him? It could, for four reasons.
The first is climate change. Trump has repeatedly called it a “hoax.” He’s vowed to “cancel” America’s obligations under the climate agreement signed last year in Paris, which might lead other nations to do the same, and to undo the restrictions on emissions from coal-fired power plants instituted by the Obama administration. According to a study by Lux Research, America’s annual carbon emissions, which would have dropped under a Clinton presidency, will rise sharply under Trump. And if emissions don’t drop, an article this spring in the journal Nature predicts that 13 million Americans who live in coastal areas could find their communities uninhabitable over the next century. Half of Florida’s population would be at risk.
The second reason to think that allowing a Trump presidency might be more dangerous than overturning it is the threat of nuclear war. At several points over the last 70 years, presidents have faced decisions that could have trigged nuclear catastrophe. Harry Truman considered dropping atomic bombs on North Korea in 1950. John F. Kennedy famously said during the Cuban missile crisis that the chances of war with the Soviet Union were “between 1 in 3 and even.” According to Israeli historian Dmitry Adamsky, the Reagan administration’s 1983 war game, Able Archer, which the Soviets misinterpreted as preparation for an American attack, “almost became a prelude to a preventative nuclear strike.” As Jeffrey Goldberg has noted, North Korea—the most bellicose and erratic regime on earth–may have nuclear missiles that can reach the US mainland by the end of Trump’s second term. Which increases the chances that he could face his own moment of nuclear reckoning. In August, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough reported that, during a private meeting with a “foreign policy expert,” Trump had asked the expert “three times, in an hour briefing, ‘Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’” In March, Trump asked Chris Matthews, “Somebody hits us within ISIS?—?you wouldn’t fight back with a nuke?” Trump has also repeatedly declared his desire to be “unpredictable” when it comes to the use of nuclear weapons.
The president can launch nuclear weapons within minutes, on his own authority. In the words of former National Security Agency Director Michael Hayden, “The system is designed for speed and decisiveness. It’s not designed to debate the decision.” Trump is famous for his impulsivity (his self-destructive late night tweets almost cost him the presidential race), his policy ignorance (he twice during the campaign seemed unaware that the US has nuclear weapons on air, land and sea) and his dismissive attitude toward experts (in November he boasted that, “I know more about ISIS than the generals do.”) Which is why 50 former Republican national security officials warned in August that he “would be the most reckless president in American history.” MORE