In late March 2016, a series of powerful bomb blasts killed nearly three dozen people at the international airport in Brussels, Belgium, as well as in a train carriage pulling out of one of the central city’s busy stations.
Within hours of the atrocity, then–presidential candidate Donald Trump had taken to the airwaves and to Twitter. He didn’t make statements expressing moral and emotional solidarity with the victims and their families. Nor did he talk about the extraordinarily complex political and intelligence challenges confronting multicultural Western societies in the face of the ISIS attacks. Instead, he used his platform to proselytize for torture. Salah Abdeslam, the recently captured suspect in the previous year’s Paris attacks, would, said the presidential hopeful, have talked “a lot faster with the torture,” and in doing so might have spilled the beans on his confreres in Belgium before they could launch their own attacks.
Torture had, by that point in the campaign, become Trump’s leitmotif—and he did far more than applaud the waterboarding sanctioned by George W. Bush’s administration, as if that weren’t bad enough. Time and again, Trump urged his crowds of supporters on by dangling before them the prospect of violence for violence’s sake. Time and again, he flaunted his contempt for international norms by embracing torture—the word, for so long taboo, as much as the deed—as an official policy of state.
And yet he never defined exactly what kind of state-sponsored torture he was advocating, or exactly what actions he sought to make the courts, the military, and the general public complicit in.
More than half a millennium ago, as the Spanish Inquisition gathered steam, the fanatical grand inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada, wrapped himself in the mantle of faith and declared that he would torture to save souls and destroy heretics. The Inquisition began by liberally employing tormento del agua (a technique the US military and intelligence agencies rebirthed after 2001 with the label “waterboarding”). When this method failed to extract the desired response, Torquemada’s team moved on to more drastic methods, such as the strappado, in which the victims had their hands bound behind their backs and then were hung by them from a rope; and the infamous rack, on which the victims were stretched slowly, dislocating joints and destroying muscles, ligaments, and bones. The list of the Inquisition’s torture techniques is long, and its legacy wafts through the centuries—a potent reminder of the horrors that a handful of fanatics can unleash on a civilization. More than five centuries later, Torquemada’s name still evokes cruelty and extremism.
In the 18th century, Enlightenment philosophers like Cesare Beccaria and Voltaire sought to discredit torture as a legitimate tool of the state. It was, they argued, a relic of barbarism, both unjust and ineffective. In the democratic age that was then dawning by fits and starts, torture would have no official place. It could not be a formal part of the legal system, nor could it be publicly defended by those claiming their right to govern from the people and, as their reason for governing, to serve the people.
This didn’t mean that torture disappeared; far from it. But the Enlightenment critique did lead to a public rejection of the practice. When it did continue, it was either in dictatorships or, in democracies, hidden deep in the shadows, used in extreme situations but never publicly acknowledged. The legal and linguistic wiggle room that democracies created to insulate themselves from charges of torture speaks to the grave moral opprobrium that was directed toward the practice.
Which is why Donald Trump and his supporters’ extraordinary embrace not just of acts of torture but of the word itself was a watershed moment. Here was a man vying for the highest office in the United States, as a candidate of one of the two major political parties, who wanted to turn into a moral good, to romanticize, acts of savage violence that for hundreds of years had been regarded as beyond the democratic pale. In speech after speech, Trump’s rhetoric normalized the extraordinary, making torture simply one more part of the state’s standard tool kit, as run-of-the-mill as fingerprinting or booking. This truly was the banality of evil described by the philosopher Hannah Arendt.
In front of his adoring crowds, Trump played the tough guy well. They wanted theater, and he provided it. They wanted cathartic violence, and he offered it up to them in spades. He was like the Mafia figure in cinema who intimidates and thrills his audiences by talking about his enemies “sleeping with the fishes.” But for all the bravado, the reality-TV star turned presidential candidate never actually got down and dirty and explained to his audiences—especially those people in the military—exactly what he would be asking them to do when, as president and commander in chief, he authorized “the torture” and a “hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
Would he make them dismember ISIS recruits limb from limb? Would he order them to impale suspects slowly on spikes? Would he have them, as the Nazi Gestapo did with their victims, hang terrorism suspects from meat hooks? Would he have enemy fighters disemboweled, as partisans did during the brutal Russian civil war that followed the 1917 revolution? Would he order psychiatrists to break the minds of dissidents and terrorists, as Soviet medics did under Stalin? Would he order soldiers to throw young men and women out of helicopters and airplanes into the ocean, as Argentina’s military dictators did in the 1970s and ’80s?
Or would he ask them to force confessions out of suspects, like the rogue police unit on Chicago’s South Side that I wrote about in the 1990s, by tying them to scalding-hot radiators, by mock-executing them, or by using the Vietnam War–era “telephone” torture, in which electrodes are clipped to the victims’ genitals and a windup device, like a field telephone, is then cranked to deliver devastating electric shocks?
These are not the kinds of questions that one normally asks a leading presidential hopeful. But then again, no serious candidate for the American presidency—or for the leadership of any other functioning modern democracy—had ever fetishized torture the way Donald Trump did. No modern presidential candidate had declared entire races and religions to be the enemy. And no leading candidate had sung the song of fear as perfectly as did Trump to his angry, vengeful, and deeply fearful throngs.
As the real-estate mogul’s campaign gathered steam, one saw in Trumpism the interweaving of a host of fears—of immigrants, of Muslims, of domestic crime and criminals, of changing cultural mores, of refugees, of disease—and a host of deeply authoritarian impulses. In such a milieu, it became acceptable to bash refugees fleeing appalling conflicts, and even to argue—as did several GOP hopefuls during the party’s presidential primary—that only Syria’s Christian refugees should be admitted into the country.
Less than two months after the November 2015 terrorist atrocity in Paris, Trump released a half-minute television commercial. “The politicians can pretend it’s something else,” a narrator intoned, “but Donald Trump calls it radical Islamic terrorism. That’s why he’s calling for a temporary shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until we can figure out what’s going on.” After another few seconds devoted to the candidate’s plan to build a wall to seal off the United States from Mexico, the footage cut back to Trump. His anti-immigrant solutions, he shouted out to an enthusiastic crowd, would “make America great again!”
Throughout the primary season and the general-election campaign, Trump ginned up his crowds by calling for the mass execution of terrorism suspects, by advocating collective punishment and “the torture,” and by mocking Muslims for their dietary rituals and religious beliefs.
These words aren’t just empty slogans. They come with consequences, and they legitimize bigotries and hatreds long harbored by many but, for the most part, kept under wraps by the broader society. They give the imprimatur of a major political party to criminal violence. In the five days following Trump’s December 7, 2015, announcement that he would seek to ban all Muslims from entering the country, hate crimes against Muslims surged. When researchers at California State University, San Bernardino, analyzed crime data from the period, they found a shocking 87.5 percent increase in such crimes against Muslims in that five-day period compared with the same week in 2014. Taken as a whole, in the 20 states that the researchers looked at, anti-Muslim crimes increased by 78 percent in 2015 over the previous year.
A demagogue such as Trump connects best with a scared audience, with people so addled by fear that they cease to think rationally. Trump’s appeal, as he mowed down his Republican primary opponents and contested the general election, wasn’t based on how he hewed to facts but on how he played to emotions. That many of his statements were spun out of thin air was far less important to his cheering crowds than that he seemed to connect with their anxieties about a world run amok.
It was the same playbook used by a slew of Tea Party figures in the years leading up to Trump’s eruption onto the national political stage. In mid-February 2016, Maine Governor Paul LePage, a self-made businessman who’d won election as part of the Tea Party sweep of 2010, addressed a town-hall meeting in which he urged stringent restrictions on the admission of Syrian refugees into Maine. LePage—whose political résumé was full of such controversial acts as ordering officials to destroy a mural on the Department of Labor building showing striking trade unionists in a positive light, talking about African-American drug dealers coming north from New York to seduce young white Maine women, and calling for drug dealers to be guillotined—told the crowd that asylum seekers were the carriers of all sorts of diseases, including something he referred to as the “ziki fly.” This was presumably a reference to the Zika virus, carried by mosquitoes and at that moment striking fear not throughout the Middle East but in Latin America, the Caribbean, and the southernmost reaches of the United States.
There are, in modern America, friction zones, spaces both physical and psychological, where our dreams coexist with our nightmares, where opportunity and despair intermingle, where innocence and depredation collide. In these zones—along the US-Mexican border, where fears of invasion and terrorism loom like grotesque caricatures; in our terrors about children being abducted, raped, or killed; in neighborhoods that serve as buffers between decayed and desperate ghettos and wealthy suburbs; in the anxiety we feel at airport security lines, as the convenience of interconnected travel clashes with our fear of terrorists—in all of these places, different rules apply.
Out of these nightmares, demagogues like LePage and Trump can rise: would-be leaders who promise quick and violent fixes to deep and intractable problems. In the friction zones, anything goes—up to and including torture.
It is on the border, for example, that undocumented migrants caught by the Border Patrol frequently have their faces pushed into cactus spikes. It is in our suburbs that parents who allow their children to play outside, or single moms who leave their kids unattended while they head off to job interviews, can find their lives uprooted by hostile personnel from Child Protective Services. It is in poor neighborhoods that men—and it’s usually men, although, as the Sandra Bland case shows, poor women aren’t immune from this treatment—can be yanked from cars and savagely beaten or killed by the police on nothing more than a hunch or a whim. It is in these friction zones that our sense of decency is most aggressively undermined and our willingness to embrace unsavory policies and law-enforcement practices is most viscerally displayed.
In an age of anxiety, it is too easy to assume that everyone has fallen into the fear trap, that the choice isn’t whether to fear but simply what to fear. This was Trump’s demagogic gamble—and, in the short term, it paid off for him hugely. It is also too easy to assume that the most debased style of political rhetoric will always work; that political speech that sows discord will drown out that which seeks unity; that race- and religion-baiting will beat the language of universalism.
Yet even in a season of rage, there are people everywhere who insist on bucking the trend—people who understand that the language of fear and hatred is often simply a manifestation, in mutated form, of deeply unfair power relationships. Theirs are the stories that we must nurture: Their more optimistic understanding of community is the one that offers a way forward in an age too often paralyzed by anxiety and rendered brutal by our epidemic of fear.