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For Cold War children, President Trump brings chilling déjà vu

Ken Murray is a writer in Prince Edward County, Ont. His novel, Eulogy, was published in 2015

Last week I rediscovered a creeping insidious dread, a fear with no centre but alive in my limbs, mind, and heart. For many of us who have reacted this way to the U.S. election, the weirdest part is we've experienced this before, decades ago.

We are the Cold War children, born in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, and we live with an added wrinkle in the complex web of uncertainties brought by the rise of Donald Trump. We are now transported back to the terror of our youth, growing up under nuclear threat. We came of age in the world of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction. Looming, immediate, and total annihilation was a real and constant fear.

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We were told, from the moment we could hear, read, speak, and spell, that the planet hung on the precipice of nuclear destruction. By the time I was 10 years old, it was well understood among my friends on the playground of our suburban Ottawa school that we would all be vapourized by nuclear bombs, the question was when.

We'd talk about missiles and how the blast would melt the skin off our faces so fast we'd remain alive for a second or two after our flesh was gone as our disintegrating bodies hurled through the burning air.

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The riddling madness of nuclear policy and the resigned refrain that "this is how things were" preyed on my young mind, occupied it. Each night, I dreaded sleep for fear I would never wake up. I would lie awake, stretching my life a little longer into the wee hours, knowing that the moment I gave in to sleep might be the final moment I would know. The nearby Ottawa airport stoked my terror each time a plane took off, the jet engine roar surely an explosion rolling in.

Nonsense, young me would correct myself, you'd never hear it; the nuclear blast would hit you before the sound. This was little comfort.

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We knew that all it would take was a glitch, a miscommunication, a small mistake, to start an immediate and unstoppable inferno. The scariest part is how many times it almost happened.

Have a look at the website of the Union of Concerned Scientists for a catalogue of Cold War moments in which the world nearly exploded. In each case, a calm and rational mind prevailed somewhere in the chain of command, in some cases a mere moment from using a nuclear weapon.

We were told that the great bombs and missiles – everything that threatened us – were what protected us. This paradox pivoted on the tenet that leaders acted in the best interests of their countries and humanity as a whole, and that an unhinged person would never gain power.

In time, the Cold War and the fear, like youth, went away. Until now.

In a widely circulated article, "History Tells Us What Will Happen Next with Brexit and Trump," Tobias Stone shows how isolationism, combined with the growth of autocratic governments worldwide, has created a dangerous and growing instability, to which we can now officially add Mr. Trump. Stone writes, "based on history we are due another period of destruction, and based on history all the indicators are that we are entering one."

Mr. Stone lays down how Mr.Trump's isolationism and the resulting strain on NATO will decrease global stability, and how within this vacuum a relatively small event, as with the assassination of a minor archduke in 1914, could trigger upheaval, murder, and destruction in an unstoppable way.

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As bad as further destabilization will be, consider the behaviour of the incoming president when he perceives he is under attack (reference: Twitter account, 3 a.m.). How will he respond in those critical moments when a level head, a sound decision, and nuanced communication can stop a minor incident from spiraling out of control?

We, the Cold War children, feared the reckless commander, the rogue leader. We wanted to live. We still do.

Consider the wily temperamental deal maker, characterized by unpredictability, gargantuan self-assuredness, and a reputation for intimidation and escalation whenever he perceives an enemy. The man will hold, in less than 10 weeks, more power than any person in the world. When he faces resistance or senses betrayal, how will he handle his new arsenal, infinite in its capacity for destruction?

Like the young boy who tried to soothe his own fears, I say to myself, maybe I'm overreacting, maybe he won't lead us down a destructive path.

And what good can come of a president for whom the optimistic view is maybe he won't bring the destruction of everyone and everything?

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