I’ve noted for some time that one of the key features of Trump’s rhetoric that distinguishes him from other politicians is his blunt literalism. Others will try to show you that they’re smart, while Trump just says, “I’m, like, a really smart person.” Others will paint an optimistic picture of how their preferred policies will produce positive outcomes for the country, while Trump just says, “We will have so much winning if I get elected that you may get bored with the winning.” Others say that they’re encouraged by how Americans are responding to their message, while Trump just says, “People love me…everybody loves me.”
So when he wants to advocate brutality, Trump doesn’t bother with euphemism. Here’s a description of an interview he gave to CNN; it starts with Trump’s response to a question about Salah Abdeslam, the captured suspect from the Paris attacks:
“He may be talking, but he’ll talk faster with the torture,” Trump said, suggesting torture could have prevented Tuesday attacks which have left at least 30 people dead.“I would be willing to bet that he knew about this bombing that took place today,” Trump said. “We have to be smart. It’s hard to believe we can’t waterboard which is — look, nothing’s nice about it but, it’s your minimal form of torture. We can’t waterboard and they can chop off heads. ”Trump said he would “go further” than waterboarding and would listen to the “military people” about how to do it. Blitzer brought up that military leaders don’t support torture and that it is not a part of the U.S. military code of conduct.“I think they believe in it 100 percent. You talk to General Patton from years ago. You talk to General Douglas MacArthur,” Trump said. “I will guarantee, these were real generals, and I guarantee you, they would be laughing. Right now they’re crying and right now they’re spinning in their graves as they watch the stupidity go on.”Trump added that it was a “political decision” to oppose torture. Blitzer also pointed out that torture violates international agreements that the United States has signed.“I would say that the eggheads that came up with this international law should turn on their television and watch CNN right now, because I’m looking at scenes on CNN right now as I’m speaking to you that are absolutely atrocious,” Trump said. “And I would be willing to bet, when I am seeing all of the bodies laying all over the floor, including young, beautiful children laying dead on the floor, I would say if they watched that, maybe, just maybe they’ll approve of waterboarding and other things.”
It’s hard to miss the contempt for the United States military and its codes of conduct — the “real generals” of the past, Trump says, would have used torture, unlike the wimps we have today. But that’s in line with the way Trump usually talks about the American military, which he describes as weak and incapable. And that’s not much different from his opponents (both current and former), who also can’t mention the military without claiming that it’s been so hollowed out that it couldn’t successfully invade the Hamptons.
But the most striking thing is Trump’s unapologetic use of the word “torture” — both to refer to waterboarding, and to the other things that he wants to do. Many other Republicans support torture, too. But they say that what they actually support is not torture but “enhanced interrogation,” an utterly meaningless euphemism the Bush administration invented so it could declare that its torture policy didn’t actually involve torture.
As anyone who has thought about it for two minutes knows, there is no difference between “enhanced interrogation” and “torture.” I’ve been trying for years (see here or here) to get conservatives to give me a definition of torture that wouldn’t apply to the techniques used in the Bush administration program. For instance, can you think of a definition that would exclude stress positions, which are designed to produce excruciating pain? If anyone can, I’d love to hear it.
Torture is clearly and simply defined in U.S. law as: “An act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control.” The United Nations Convention Against Torture, an international treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory, defines it in a similar way. But in order to be able to claim that they weren’t in violation of our law and international law, the Bush administration came up with its own definition, laid out in a memo written by an administration lawyer, which said that if the type of abuse you’re inflicting on a prisoner doesn’t cause “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of bodily functions,” then it isn’t “severe” and therefore isn’t torture.
Think about that for a moment. Under that definition, if I take a pair of pliers and rip out your fingernails, but your organs continue to function, then the suffering I inflicted on you wasn’t “severe” and you haven’t been tortured.
That’s what a moral monster with a law degree comes up with when you tell him you want to torture people but you don’t want to call it torture. You will not be surprised to hear that this definition is what Ted Cruz has now adopted as his own. When he got asked a question about torture not long ago, he said that waterboarding isn’t torture, because “under the law, torture is excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems.” That was factually wrong — that’s not the definition in “the law,” it’s the definition in that memo (which the Obama administration officially renounced after taking office).
So who’s worse — someone like Trump, who says he wants to torture, or another Republican, who wants to torture but just wants to attach another name to it?
Cruz isn’t an ignoramus like Trump — he’s an accomplished attorney who has argued cases before the Supreme Court. He now wants to “patrol and secure” neighborhoods with large numbers of Muslim Americans. And his position that torture isn’t torture if you attach a euphemism to is shared by most Republicans, even those who say they’d rather not restart the torture program. Among the presidential candidates, only Rand Paul wouldn’t defend the Bush torture program (Cruz’s position is that we shouldn’t formally restart the program, but we ought to reserve the right to use torture if it’s necessary).
On questions of international law and treaties, it’s much the same. Your average Republican says, of course we’ll abide by what we’ve agreed to, but then waves away any particular question with a warning about the sinister UN taking away our sovereignty. Trump, on the other hand, just sneers at “the eggheads that came up with this international law,” not pretending that it concerns him in the least.
If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, then euphemism is the tribute immorality pays to morality. The difference between Donald Trump and most other Republicans is that he doesn’t bother to clothe his odious beliefs in euphemism. But don’t be fooled into thinking they’re more virtuous than he is.