Donald Trump’s Barbarism

The GOP front-runner’s plans to prosecute the war on terror are sickening.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks about the size of his hands at a campaign rally in Cadillac, Michigan, March 4, 2016.

Jim Young/Reuters

How does an enlightened nation descend into barbarism? That used to be a question for historians. Now it’s a process you can watch in real time. In recent days, Donald Trump has been casting aside moral constraints on torture and violence against civilians. At his campaign rallies, crowds have cheered him on. What kind of country would the United States become if Trump and his followers get their way? Just listen as Trump spells it out for you.

1. Torture. Since November, Trump has said he would approve not just waterboarding, but “a hell of a lot worse.” That’s a change from George W. Bush’s administration, which justified waterboarding on the grounds that it wasn’t torture. Trump dismisses the taboo against torture altogether. “Let’s assume it is” torture, he said of waterboarding at a campaign event in South Carolina on Feb. 17. It’s still “absolutely fine,” he concluded, and “we should go much stronger.”

2. Retribution. Other Republicans, such as Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, argue that brutal interrogation methods are justified only to prevent an attack. Trump rejects that constraint. On Nov. 23, he told a crowd in Ohio that waterboarding extracts useful information from terrorists, but that even if it didn’t, he would approve it, and “more than that,” because “if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing to us.”

3. Collective punishment. In a Trump administration, you don’t have to be a terrorist to be targeted for retaliation. You just have to be related to one. On Dec. 3, Trump said of terrorists, “You have to take out their families.” When Fox News host Bill O’Reilly asked Trump to explain himself, Trump replied, falsely, that wives and children of the 9/11 hijackers had been sent home before the attack to “watch Daddy tonight on television knock down the World Trade Center.” He continued: “There has to be retribution. And if there is not going to be retribution, you are never going to stop terrorism.”

4. Hostage taking. Trump says he would target terrorists’ family members because they’re the people terrorists care about. On Dec. 6, he said on Face the Nation that although terrorists “say they don’t mind dying … I can tell you this: They want their families left alone.” At a Republican debate on Dec. 15, he added: “I would be very, very firm with families. Frankly, that will make people think, because they may not care much about their lives, but they do care, believe it or not, about their families’ lives.” The audience applauded. The next day, Trump repeated that terrorists “care more about their families than they care about themselves” and that he “would do pretty severe stuff” to a terrorist’s wife. The crowd roared its approval.

5. Religious war. Trump routinely demands payback against ISIS for killing Christians. “The enemy is cutting off the heads of Christians and drowning them in cages, and yet we are too politically correct to respond in kind,” he wrote in a USA Today op-ed on Feb. 15. Often, Trump mentions that ISIS kills other people, too. But the only victim group he identifies by name is Christians.

6. Weakness. If you don’t accept torture or targeting civilians, Trump says you’re soft. In the Dec. 15 debate, Jeb Bush said these ideas were “crazy.” Trump replied that Bush was “a very nice person. But we need tough people.” In another debate on Feb. 6, Cruz rejected torture and waterboarding. Trump called Cruz’s answer “really weak.” At a rally in New Hampshire on Feb. 8, Trump gleefully told the crowd what a woman in the audience was calling Cruz for his answer: “She said he’s a pussy.”

7. Level playing field. Trump views laws and scruples as foolish impediments. At a rally in Florida on Saturday, he complained that in the war on ISIS, “We’re playing with two sets of rules: their rules and our rules.” At a press conference that night, after winning two primaries, he went further: “It’s very hard to be successful in beating someone when your rules are very soft and their rules are unlimited.” He vowed to loosen American torture laws “so that we can better compete with a vicious group of animals.”

In an interview that aired Sunday on Face the Nation, Trump reinforced this point: “We are playing by rules, but they have no rules. It’s very hard to win when that’s the case.” He pledged to “strengthen the laws so that we can better compete.” Trump’s exchange with moderator John Dickerson continued:

Dickerson: Isn’t that separates us from the savages—rules?

Trump: No, I don’t think so. No. We have to beat the savages.

Dickerson: And therefore throw all the rules out?

Trump: We have to beat the savages.

Dickerson: By being savages?

Trump: No. We—well, look, you have to play the game the way they’re playing the game. You’re not going to win if we are soft, and they are—they have no rules. Now, I want to stay within the laws. I want to do all of that. But I think we have to increase the laws.  

You can see where this line of thinking would take us. To even the odds—to equalize the rules—we would have to behave like ISIS. Trump thinks about the laws of war the same way he thinks about trade barriers: The only way to get a level playing field is to do to others what they’ve done to you.

8. Imperial presidency. In Thursday’s debate, Trump was asked what he would do if the military, citing U.S. law, refused his orders to target the families of terrorists. He replied, “They’re not going to refuse me. … If I say, ‘Do it,’ they’re going to do it.” The next day, apparently after consultation with cooler heads, he issued a statement promising, “I will not order a military officer to disobey the law.” But by Saturday, at a rally in Florida, Trump was vowing to push back those laws: “We’re going to stay within the laws. But you know what we’re going to do? We’re going to have those laws broadened.” On Face the Nation, he said he would “have the law expanded.” Trump has previously suggested that he could restore waterboarding without changing the law: “You reclassify [it], and you’ll see what happens.”

9. No limits. Trump rarely specifies what he would do to terrorists’ families. On Dec. 6, when Dickerson asked Trump what he meant by “going after the families,” Trump told him, “I’m going to leave that to your imagination.” In a Dec. 16 interview, O’Reilly asked Trump, “You’re not going to assassinate them, are you?” Trump replied, “I don’t know what I’d do.” Trump keeps his answers vague on the same grounds he uses to justify his vagueness about future military action: He wants to keep the enemy guessing. In both cases, the effect is that Americans have to guess, too.

Fifteen years ago, in an address to Congress after 9/11, President George W. Bush described the moral pathology of terrorists. “We are not deceived by their pretenses to piety,” said Bush. “By abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism and Nazism and totalitarianism. And they will follow that path all the way to where it leads, in history’s unmarked grave of discarded lies.”

Some day, God willing, that’s where Trump’s ruthless ideology will end up, too.

Read more Slate coverage of the 2016 campaign.