In speech after speech on the campaign trail, Donald Trump has embraced the expansive use of torture against America’s enemies. He has said he will “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” He has advocated the mass shooting of terrorism suspects – using bullets dipped in pigs’ bloods. And, at various times, he has said that he would order the American military to kill the families of terrorism suspects. When the ex-head of the CIA, Michael Hayden, argued that the army would refuse to obey such orders, Trump’s response, in a Fox News interview, was “They won’t refuse. They’re not gonna refuse me. Believe me.”
On the stump, in front of huge crowds, Trump has repeatedly declared that he wants to smash in the faces of protestors – and the crowds, far from lapsing into a stunned silence at this brutishness, have roared their approval.
In his 2000 credo, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote of the punishment for murderers that, “My only complaint is that lethal injection is too comfortable a way to go.” Indeed, as far back as 1989, during the infamous Central Park Jogger rape case, Trump took out a advert in the Daily News calling for the suspects – a group of African American teenagers, between the ages of 14 and 16 – to be executed; or, rather, in practice to be lynched, since they had not yet been convicted of the crimes of which they were accused. (Those young men spent years in prison, before, ultimately, being exonerated.) Time after time, he has said that the police need to take their gloves off and get truly tough against criminals and dissenters.
Why does Trump fetishize the iron fist? And why does he urge the public, and the institutions of state – from the army to the courts, from local police forces to the border patrol – to join in this violence? Because, I believe, he wants as many people and as many institutions as possible to be complicit in it.
After all, if he genuinely believed that torture was a vile but occasionally necessary tool of the state – a position I strongly disagree with but that some legal scholars post-9/11 came to accept – he could advocate a position similar to that of the Bush-Cheney administration, or even to that of the Israeli government. He could say that he would play hardball, and, quite simply, leave it at that.
The depredations of Abu Ghraib, of Guantanamo, and of the CIA’s black sites were utterly appalling; but, if there was any saving grace in that vastly criminal web of torture it was that the government of the day didn’t go out of its way to flaunt their embrace of wholesale torture. Yes, they crafted legal justifications for the morally unjustifiable, but they also expressed a degree of embarrassment when the scale of the torture was revealed. Bush did not address huge crowds urging ever-more torture on ever-more people. He did not publicly enfold himself in the Inquisitor’s garb and declare torture to be a cleansing, purifying force in and of itself.
Is there a difference between the hypocrisy of the Bush administration when it came to torture, and the open embrace of, and lust for, blood that Trump – and to a slightly lesser degree at least some of his opponents in the GOP primary race – advocates? I believe there is.
For in drawing back the curtain on the state and its dirty practices, in glorying in the torture that he says he will unleash, Trump is essentially inviting all of his supporters into the torture chamber. In publicly, and repeatedly, lauding the virtues of torture, not to extract intelligence (however nebulous the idea that torture yields useful intelligence actually is) but to punish America’s enemies, he is inviting a mass moral complicity in crimes. And the more people who support him in this, the more he reinvents the state in his own sadistic, twisted, image. Bush, in rationalizing torture in extraordinary circumstances, may have started America down this road. Trump now threatens to take the country to a point of no return.
The more Trump urges wholesale deportations of millions of people, or the barring of entire religious groups from entry into the country, or the registering of Muslim residents already in the country, or the iron fist against protestors, against suspected criminals and terrorists, the more he fuels a pogrom atmosphere.
This is a project that would be all too familiar to earlier totalitarians, be they named Stalin or Franco, Mussolini or Hitler. A complicit population, a population that has, at the urging of a charismatic leader, crossed one moral Rubicon after another, is one that has ceased to think in a democratic and tolerant manner.
Hannah Arendt understood the power of this sadistic imagination all too well: If a charismatic leader publicly urges institutions and individuals into criminal violence, all-too-many individuals will go along, not necessarily because they too are sadists, but because it is much easier to say “yes” than to stand up to one’s neighbors and friends and political leaders. It is easier to be a part of a crowd than to react as a morally autonomous individual.
“The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal,” Arendt wrote. “From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.”
In 1961, a mere 16 years after the end of the Second World War, a Yale University social psychologist named Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments in which he put test subjects into a room with people who were supposedly taking a series of exams. The exam-takers (who, unbeknownst to the subjects were actors) were hooked up to a machine that the subjects were told generated electric shocks. Whenever they answered a question wrong, a lab official, in a white coat – and thus seen to be an authority figure – would order the subjects to give an electric shock. Each time the exam-takers gave a wrong answer, the subjects were told to increase the voltage that they administered.
The actors very convincingly responded as if they were in excruciating pain (they weren’t, as, in reality, the machines weren’t giving out jolts of electricity). After a while, they began begging for the subjects to stop hurting them, sometimes even claiming that they felt like they were about to die. Yet, so long as the authority figure kept telling them to administer the shocks, a majority of the participants did so.
The results, wrote Milgram in an article that he published in the 1970s, titled The Perils of Obedience, were devastating. “Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not.” If figures of authority and in positions of power tell a populace to act sadistically, the default is that they will.
I don’t know if Trump has ever read about the Milgram experiments – frankly, he doesn’t strike me as one who reads much of anything. But if he has, he’s surely taken the lesson to heart. Once the state sanctions purely vindictive, punitive, violence on an everyday basis, it’s a pretty good bet that much of the populace will go along. And once the populace does go along, it becomes so morally compromised that it rapidly loses its ability to resist further encroachments of violence and coercion. That violence becomes the glue holding the totalitarian project together.
Trumpism isn’t just crass; it’s also fundamentally sadistic. It is, for now, largely a rhetorical project. It is vital that it never becomes the project of the great American state.
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