Trump’s “Nuclear Button”: Revisiting Technostrategic Discourse

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In a world where the current President of the United States’ first order was “to renovate and modernize our nuclear arsenal” so that it was “stronger and more powerful than ever before” (Trump, 2017), it is worth revisiting how President Donald Trump describes nuclear weapons with gendered technostrategic language. Such language simultaneously “reflect[s] and shape[s]” the masculine culture of nuclear weaponry and domination (Cohn, 1987:690). By highlighting the gendered aspects of technostrategic discourse used by President Trump to discuss his “nuclear button” and America’s nuclear stockpile, we can shed light on the persistence, and danger, of hegemonic masculinity, domination, and sexuality in current political conversations on nuclear weapon capabilities. 

Technostrategic Discourse & Hegemonic Masculinities

According to Carol Cohn, technostrategic discourse is a “specialized language… [that] both reflects and shapes the nature of the American nuclear strategic project” and functions in a deeply gendered way (Cohn, 1987:690). Through technostrategic discourse, individuals within the defense industry, who are mostly white males, can remove the emotional reality behind the consequences of nuclear weaponry through euphemism and metaphor to engage in a culture of masculinity through sexual subtext (Cohn, 1987:699). 

The fields of international relations and geopolitics are “heavily implicated in the construction and promotion of Anglo-American models of hegemonic masculinity” (Hooper, 2001:219). As such, various types of masculinities - hegemonic, toxic, and competitive - are worth parsing out. Hegemonic masculinity is the dynamic “configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy” and guarantees the dominance of men and subordination of women (Connell, 2005:77). Two features of hegemonic masculinity are toxic masculinity and competitive masculinity, which often overlap with and reinforce one another. Toxic masculinity involves practices that uphold male standards of violence and aggression through the social reproduction of normative ideas of masculinity (Connell and Messerschmidt, 2005). Competitive masculinity results from the combination of hegemony and toxicity, and involves the assertion of one’s own masculinity by emasculating others through humiliation, destruction, and feminization (Simeone, 2018).

Hegemonic masculinity allows males to maintain dominance over how we think and talk about nuclear weapons (Acheson, 2018; Cohn, 1987).

If, as the realist approach to international relations suggests, the mere existence of nuclear weapons deters usage, we must utilize theories of hegemony to understand how nuclear weapons as a patriarchal tool benefit deterrence theory, particularly considering the fact that patriarchy, nuclear weapons, and deterrence theory are all used to maintain the status quo of social order (Acheson, 2018). Hegemonic masculinity allows males to maintain dominance over how we think and talk about nuclear weapons (Acheson, 2018; Cohn, 1987).  More broadly, hegemonic ideas of masculinity equate appropriate manhood and masculinity with weaponry and a willingness to use them. This, in turn, feminises disarmament and peaceful attempts to problem-solve, thus rendering these ideas weak.

Interpretations of discourse and male domination of the weapons industry have been analyzed by many scholars as a melding of missile envy and womb envy (Wajman, 1991:138). However, as Cohn (1987) notes, the political reality of nuclear weapon stockpiles cannot be simplified to just this explanation, but rather, is more deeply intertwined with a culture of competitiveness and toxic masculinity (Cohn, 1987). When applying the competitive nature of toxic masculinity to nuclear weapons, we are moved beyond the trope of weapons as an expression of womb envy and given insight into how beliefs about normative gendered behavior play a role in geopolitical decision-making.

In the defense world, the sexual undertones of technostrategic language and its role in upholding hegemonic masculinity are most visible in defense professionals’ descriptions of weapons and weapon capabilities. As Cohn observed during the 1980s, defense professionals and members of the government repeatedly describe weapons as “vertical erector launchers” capable of “deep penetration” and “orgasmic” explosions (Cohn, 1987:694). In particular, the phallic imagery of nuclear missiles is widespread within the defense industry, with missiles euphemistically referred to as “big sticks,” “penetrators,” and “giant mushrooms” (Cohn, 1987).

The ways in which nuclear weapons are discussed in the defense world plays a vital role in the maintenance of hegemonic masculinity and domination. Technostrategic language is rife with domination created through the aforementioned sexual undertones and phallic imagery (Cohn, 1987). While interacting with and discussing nuclear weapons, those in the defense industry can assert dominance through the emasculation of the enemy and simultaneous upholding of their own masculinity. In characterizing nuclear missiles as phallic and the practice of exploding one as sexual, individuals in the defense industry uphold a relationship between the masculine and the destructive/dominant (Cohn, 1987). Though Cohn’s theory is over thirty years old, it remains just as relevant today as it was then.

President Donald Trump’s Discourse & North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear capabilities have been a hot topic since before President Trump entered the White House in 2017. Trump’s approach to, and discussion of, the United States’ and North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles makes use of technostrategic language. Trump’s language emasculates Kim Jong-un while simultaneously asserting Trump’s own masculinity and upholding hegemony and domination. 

Technostrategic language, which is characterized by euphemism and metaphor involving sexual subtext (Cohn, 1987:699), is rampant in Trump’s language around nuclear weaponry . A January 2018 tweet from Trump is perhaps one of the most explicit examples of technostrategic discourse in the Trump Administration. Trump tweeted: “North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and my Button [sic] works” (Trump, 2018). In this tweet, Donald Trump makes use of euphemism to allude to his —and America’s— superior penis size, power, functionality, and virility. These attributes entail Kim’s inferior nuclear weapon potential and sexual performance potential, which is deeply intertwined with ideals of hegemonic masculinity. Essentially, Trump is saying that North Korea's “button” and nuclear weaponry are dysfunctional and incapable of accomplishing what they are supposed to do within a hegemonic system.

Trump endorses and upholds hegemonic masculinity and gendered domination.

To stockpile weapons that are bigger and more powerful than one’s competitor, thus increasing one’s threat to oneself and others, is to assert and uphold masculinity; technostrategic discourse is a tool of this process. In drawing this competitive comparison between Trump and Kim through the lens of competitive masculinity, Trump emasculates Kim Jong-un and asserts his own masculinity. Moreover, through language that is rife with sexual subtext, Trump endorses and upholds hegemonic masculinity and gendered domination. An attack on one’s masculinity is provocative in a distinctly different way than comparing nuclear arsenals, yet in this case, the two are conflated and boil down to an assertion of power. Trump wrote the aforementioned tweet, posted prior to the first U.S.-North Korea summit, in response to a New Year’s address delivered by Kim “in which he boasted about North Korea’s nuclear program, saying its missiles could reach the United States and that a nuclear button is ‘always on the desk of my office’” (Kirby, 2018). This timing and context is intentional and carries weight; Trump met a perceived threat to the U.S.’ security and power (and thus his own masculinity and ability to protect the U.S.) with direct attacks on Kim’s security and masculinity. This exemplifies the function of technostrategic discourse in this context.

If nuclear missiles are characterized as, according to Cohn, “high-tech phalluses,” what function does this characterization serve for defense professionals, and more importantly, the individuals who are in control of a country’s “nuclear button?” 

 The conversation on nuclear weapons between Trump and Kim Jong-un, whom Trump (in a technostrategic style) nicknamed “Little Rocket Man,” has shifted significantly during Trump’s presidency as he has asserted his power and emasculated Kim. At the start of the Trump presidency, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were viewed as a genuine threat to U.S. and world security. Take, for example, Trump’s statement that continued threats to the U.S. by North Korea would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” (Hamedy and Tseng, 2018). It is clear through this statement that the U.S. felt threatened by North Korea’s nuclear capabilities. This statement is demonstrative of Trump’s willingness to use violence and weaponry, as well as toxic and competitive masculinities, to uphold power. 

Trump has repeatedly stated that one of his foreign policy goals is to fully disarm North Korea and eliminate its nuclear stockpile (Denyer, 2019). Though Trump has admittedly made some progress with North Korea on the diplomatic front, including his attendance at the historic Singapore summit with Kim in June of 2018 and a handshake between the two leaders in the demilitarized zone during G20 and subsequent meeting, his efforts to disarm North Korea have been ineffective and have led to minimal strides towards denuclearization. North Korea has claimed that it will only begin to disarm if “‘[t]he withdrawal of the U.S. troops holding the right to use nukes from South Korea’” occurs (Denyer, 2019). If disarmament and denuclearization is deeply intertwined with emasculation, North Korea is making the claim that it will not allow itself to be emasculated without the U.S. simultaneously emasculating itself. 

Trump’s toxic and competitive masculinities present a threat to the security of both the U.S. and the world.

Though reports from the 2018 Singapore summit and the 2019 Hanoi summit lead us to believe denuclearization was not agreed upon nor implemented, Trump has used technostrategic language and framing to declare victory and domination over North Korea through undertones of competitive masculinity (Sanger and Broad, 2018). 

So, what does this mean for the threat of nuclear annihilation for the remainder of the Trump presidency, particularly in light of the recent failure of a second round of talks between Kim and Trump in late February 2019 and apparently lack of progress following their G20 bilateral meeting? Trump’s toxic and competitive masculinities present a threat to the security of both the U.S. and the world. Nuclear strategy and technostrategic discourse are embedded in a symbolic system of culture and meaning that is based on power and domination. The technostrategic language used by Trump and the defense industry solidifies norms around nuclear weapons and subsequently upholds hegemonic ideas of masculinity and power. If nuclear weapons are discussed through euphemism and are detached from the physical consequences of nuclear holocaust, efforts to assert geopolitical dominance by upholding hegemonic masculinity will threaten the safety and security of the geopolitical status quo. To disarm is to emasculate; to give up one’s nuclear stockpile is viewed as weak; to hold power in the world of international security through hegemony is to keep your “button” on the table at all times and to ensure the world knows you are prepared to use it. 

Though reports from the 2018 Singapore summit and the 2019 Hanoi summit lead us to believe denuclearization was not agreed upon nor implemented, Trump has used technostrategic language and framing to declare victory and domination over North Korea through undertones of competitive masculinity (Sanger and Broad, 2018). 

So, what does this mean for the threat of nuclear annihilation for the remainder of the Trump presidency, particularly in light of the recent failure of a second round of talks between Kim and Trump in late February 2019 and apparently lack of progress following their G20 bilateral meeting? Trump’s toxic and competitive masculinities present a threat to the security of both the U.S. and the world. Nuclear strategy and technostrategic discourse are embedded in a symbolic system of culture and meaning that is based on power and domination. The technostrategic language used by Trump and the defense industry solidifies norms around nuclear weapons and subsequently upholds hegemonic ideas of masculinity and power. If nuclear weapons are discussed through euphemism and are detached from the physical consequences of nuclear holocaust, efforts to assert geopolitical dominance by upholding hegemonic masculinity will threaten the safety and security of the geopolitical status quo. To disarm is to emasculate; to give up one’s nuclear stockpile is viewed as weak; to hold power in the world of international security through hegemony is to keep your “button” on the table at all times and to ensure the world knows you are prepared to use it. 


Sophie Pearlman is current Research Fellow on Justice, Peace, & Security; Tufts University alumna and incoming graduate student at the University of Oxford. Follow her on Twitter: @Sophie_Pearlman.


References:

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Cohn, C. (1987). Sex and Death in the Rational World of Defense Intellectuals. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 12(4), pp.687-718.

Connell, R. (2005). Masculinities. Second Edition. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Connell, R. and Messerschmidt, J. (2005). Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept. Gender & Society, 19(6), pp. 829-859.

Denyer, S. (2018) Confusion over North Korea’s definition of denuclearization clouds talks. The Washington Post. [online] [Accessed 12 Mar. 2019]. 

Hamedy, S. and Tseng, J. (2018) All the times President Trump has insulted North Korea. CNNPolitics. [online] [Accessed 14 Dec. 2018].

Hooper, C. (2001). Manly States: Masculinity, International Relations, and Gender Politics. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.219-231.

Kirby, J. (2018) Trump taunts Kim Jong Un: my nuclear button “is a much bigger & more powerful one.” Vox. [online] [Accessed 12 Mar. 2019].

Sanger, D. and Broad, W. (2018). In North Korea, Missile Bases Suggest a Great Deception. The New York Times. [online][Accessed 15 Nov. 2018].

Simeone, A. (2018). Dissecting Toxic Masculinity: The Over-Aggressive Competitor. The Good Men Project. [online] [Accessed 5 Mar. 2019]

Wajcman, J. (1991). Feminism Confronts Technology. Penn State University Press.

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