Elon Musk, Donald Trump necessitate mulling the unthinkable

By Harlan Ullman
Elon Musk's control of Starlink satellites give him control over Ukraine's access to information in its defense against the Russian invasion. File Photo courtesy of SpaceX/UPI
1 of 4 | Elon Musk's control of Starlink satellites give him control over Ukraine's access to information in its defense against the Russian invasion. File Photo courtesy of SpaceX/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 13 (UPI) -- In 1962, the redoubtable Herman Kahn released his follow up to On Thermonuclear War. This book was called Thinking the Unthinkable. Then, the consequences of thermonuclear war were unthinkable.

A thermonuclear weapon is 1,000 times more powerful than a nuclear one as fusion produces that much greater energy than fission does. Warheads made of plutonium and not uranium would have made much of the planet uninhabitable for about 24,000 years -- its radioactive half-life.


As a thought experiment, what are some of the "unthinkable" scenarios that might be pondered, not merely as an out-of-the-box exercise, but in discarding the entire box? A just published biography of Tesla/X owner Elon Musk reported that last September, Musk limited Ukraine's use of his Starlink satellite system to prevent Ukraine from attacking Russian targets in Crimea.


The book alleged that after speaking to Russia's ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, Musk was warned Russia would retaliate with nuclear weapons.

Ukraine is entirely dependent on Starlink for GPS, Internet and satellite communications. Certainly for the first time in modern history, a civilian has had the ability to determine the outcome of battles and tactical operations in a war. But Musk does and did.

Thinking the unthinkable, are there other areas in which an individual can have such leverage? The U.S. Senate is one such place. Alabama Sen. and former football coach Tommy Tuberville is preventing confirmation of over 300 flag and general officers. Tuberville is trying to end the Pentagon policy of providing out-of-state transportation for service personnel requiring access to reproductive medical care.

Aside from the obvious national security implication of not having confirmed officers in positions of authority, the internal damage done to morale when families cannot move to new duty stations and the overall promotion system will be vast. Imagine a collapsing house of cards. That is what is happening to the chain-of-command hierarchy.

Regarding the service chiefs and the chairman of the joint chiefs, deputies will become "acting," meaning temporary, as the principals retire. The Federal Vacancies Act limits acting status to 210 days. Months from now, the joint chiefs may not be a legally constituted organization. This is absurd, but not even the worst case.


Suppose a senator filibusters the budget or the use of a stop-gap continuing resolution. The government would be forced to shut down. Or, by exercising the right of exerting "holds" on appointees, specific defense programs could be halted.

The unthinkable here is the prospect of a member of Congress becoming a "useful idiot" manipulated by a foreign government to take action that would harm the United States. The Manchurian Candidate movies portrayed this. However, the Tuberville holds suggest this is no longer unthinkable.

Other unthinkable scenarios affect politics. Suppose Donald Trump is convicted and sentenced to jail in the Atlanta case and re-elected president. Georgia law precludes pardons for convicted felons until at least five years have been served. And presidents have no pardon authority for state cases.

Everyone knows Joe Biden would be 82 at the time of his re-election. Many are worried about a President Kamala Harris should Biden not be able to serve. But here are some unsettling facts. Eight of 46 presidents have been assassinated or died in office. One, Woodrow Wilson, was incapacitated by a stroke and the Spanish flu for well over a year before his term expired.


The unthinkable is if Biden is incapacitated. 2024 is not 1918. Ubiquitous and instantaneous coverage would follow. Imagine the political chaos and turmoil. And think how Trump will react, claiming a second stolen election if he wins the party nomination and loses again. Unthinkable?

Finally, the third unthinkable relates to the greatest U.S. economic boom in history occurring from 1922 to '29. Suppose, given the trillions of dollars allocated to infrastructure and other domestic programs, a powerful economic transformation is unleashed in 2024. Stock markets soar; prices contract; wages grow faster than inflation; and the mood in America grows optimistic about the future.

Would that automatically elect Biden, despite his age, his son and questions about the fitness of Harris to serve? How would the Republicans respond, given a scenario in which the party could lose both houses of Congress? Would that give Biden a mandate to make even greater changes?

Or suppose the reverse occurred. The economy tanked and Republicans won both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Still, one wonders in that case how Trump could govern from prison.

Harlan Ullman is UPI's Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist, a senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.


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Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, speaks during the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for Supreme Court justice on October 14, 2020. Grassley has served in Congress since 1981. Pool Photo by Susan Walsh/UPI | License Photo

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