Is the Anti-Trump Hysteria Justified?

by , March 02, 2016

Donald Trump’s chances of winning the Republican Presidential Nomination seem to grow with each passing poll and primary. Despite concerted efforts by some in the media, the other campaigns, and elite members of the Republican Party, his victory appears to be all but assured. As Trump’s success has grown, so too has the rise of virulent denunciations from all parts of the political spectrum. Most commentators appear to see Trump as a uniquely malicious and hateful force in American politics. But it’s worth asking the question; is all this hysteria justified?

To some extent, the answer will certainly depend on what issues you happen to prioritize. Our emphasis is on foreign policy issues, where Trump certainly does not appear to be the most dangerous choice. But even when one looks across a broader set of issues, it’s clear that Trump’s views are not far from the American mainstream. And in the places where his views do diverge from the ordinary, they are not uniformly worse. No, the problem is not his positions as such. The primary problem with Trump is that he’s willingly to explicitly state all of the worst subtext that has existed in American politics for some time. In other words, most of what he’s saying is not all that new. That he’s saying it, is.

To flesh this theme out, it’s worth considering Trump’s rhetoric and positions on two key issue areas: Torture and Terrorism. And before we get started, we should clarify that we do not support Trump or any of the other major candidates left in the race. Some seem worse than others, but all are pretty bad.


Not one to mince words, Trump recently expressed strong support for the use of torture in interrogating suspects. He even did away with that tried and true euphemism of “enhanced interrogation techniques” and used the T word explicitly. As he explained to a South Carolina audience, “…don’t tell me it doesn’t work – torture works. Okay, folks?”

As alarming as it may be to hear a potential future president advocating torture, it is sadly not new. In the 2007 Republican primary campaign, Rudy Guiliani advocated for use of aggressive interrogation techniques and suggested the term torture was inappropriate. The 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney held similar views, though he did not advance them in public quite as often. Looking beyond mere political candidates, just over a year ago former Vice President Dick Cheney could be found expressly defending the torture program on national television: “I would do it again in a minute.”

But this is not just a Republican problem. It’s true that Barack Obama officially released an executive order early in his Presidency that prohibited the most brutal techniques and restricted interrogations to the limits of the Army Field Manual. This was a positive step. Unfortunately, this same Army Field Manual now permits many of the very same techniques that are widely regarded as torture. In other words, Obama’s actions on this followed the model employed in other areas – superficially appealing actions and rhetoric without making substantive change.

Worse still, Barack Obama’s administration refused to prosecute any prior official that was involved in the torture program, in spite of triumphant admissions of guilt from the likes of Dick Cheney that we mentioned before. That is precisely why torture is still viewed as merely a political issue, rather than an obviously criminal one. And the decisions that legitimized it so rest squarely with Barack Obama and the Democratic leadership that refused to hold anyone accountable.

So yes, it’s certainly true that Trump’s embrace of torture is appalling. But we must remember that it is simply the latest manifestation in a long line pro-torture Republicans in the post-9/11 era, and it has been enabled by the Democrats’ failure to ensure accountability for breaking the law.


Trump made headlines early on in his campaign for his repeated denunciations of Syrian refugees as terrorists in waiting. To address this issue , he proposed to disallow not only Syrian refugees but all Muslims, and send the few refugees in the US back to Syria. Given that many governors have also promised to block resettlement of refugees, and other candidates have expressed support for religious tests on refugees, Trump’s ideas sadly do not appear extreme by modern standards.

In a related set of proposals, Trump has also promised to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS. What he apparently means here, is that he would relax whatever restrictions exist in the military’s current Rules of Engagement to allow more widespread bombing. In the same speech, he also expressed support for bombing civilian oil infrastructure such as pipelines and refineries. And at one point, he suggested explicitly targeting the families of suspected terrorists. Here again, we find Trump decidedly within the American mainstream. Other Republican candidates can readily be found promising similar things from alluding to using nuclear weapons or suggesting that massive bombing was actually the most merciful policy over the long-term. The major Republican candidates clearly agree that more indiscriminate bombing is the right recipe.

Taken together, all of this implies a kind of blatant disregard for the humanity of non-Western people generally and Muslims in particular. And whether we call this racist or something else, it’s clear that it amounts to the worst sort of collectivism. The bad actions of a few have been used to denigrate all members of the broader group – ignoring any and all distinctions that exist within it.

But as before, this is not strictly a Republican problem by any means. As I write this, the US is actively conducting or planning routine airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, the US provides close air support to troops in Afghanistan, its ally Saudi Arabia is conducting airstrikes in Yemen, and US armed drones are periodically conducting still further strikes in (at least) Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Somalia. In theory, the US does its best to avoid civilian casualties. But unintended casualties still happen regularly. 

The response to these events depends largely on the identities of the casualties. When the victims are non-Western Muslims, the issue is downplayed or ignored. The fighting-age males get written off as militants or enemies killed in action, the rest are deemed collateral damage, and, no matter what the death toll is, it will always be deemed to be proportionate to the military objective. When the victims are Western or from Western countries, however, the issue results in a formal address from the White House and an investigation. This official gap in sympathy is also evident when looking at victims of terrorism, as we wrote about in the wake of the Paris Attacks. It’s difficult to explain this phenomenon without assuming severe latent prejudice against Muslims on the part of President Obama and key members of his administration.

Of course, war is hell as they say. And perhaps some are willing to look past the collateral damage in the Obama years as merely inevitable. According to the most reliable, if conservative, statistics on airstrikes in Syria and Iraq, the US-led coalition has killed a minimum of 933 civilians through 10,000+ airstrikes. Surely, part of this low number is explained by questionable accounting methods and a lack of reliable data in a war zone. Assuming the figures are a decent approximation of reality, however, it is much lower than we might fear. Obviously, it’s also much lower than we might expect from the kinds of indiscriminate bombings that have been suggested by Trump and the Republicans. In this area, the Republican candidates, assuming they follow through on their proposals, would be radically more harmful than the status quo. But again, Trump is not really out in front of them on wanting more bombing; he’s well within the GOP norms. Indeed given that Trump seems slightly more reluctant to initiate conflicts, he is arguably preferable to his Republican competitors on this score.

What of Trump’s proposal to “go after the families?” It’s a close competition, but this may be the most horrifying idea offered by the Republican frontrunner so far. But shockingly, it too is not unprecedented. In fact, the drone assassination program appears to have already followed such a strategy on at least one occasion.

I’m speaking here of the unfortunate case of Anwar Al-Awlaki. Awlaki was a moderate Muslim cleric who became radicalized several years after 9/11. He was an American citizen, but he became a very influential voice for radicalizing other Muslims against the US as well. Thus, the Obama Administration decided to use him as their test project for assassinating an American citizen without due process. They successfully assassinated him in September 2011, and there were no legal repercussions.

Then, around two weeks after Awlaki’s death, his 16-year-old son Abdulrahman Al Awlaki also died in a drone strike. This was extraordinary given that Abdulrahman had no known ties to terrorism and did not have extensive contact with his father. When journalists pressed the Obama Administration on why Abdulrahman was targeted, this is the explanation offered by then-Press Secretary Robert Gibbs:

I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children. I don’t think becoming an al Qaeda jihadist terrorist is the best way to go about doing your business.

In other words, Abdulrahman was explicitly targeted because of who his father was. Judging from this particular case, it appears that there’s a precedent for Trump’s proposal to go after the families. And that precedent is President Obama.

But the horrifying nature of the current drone assassination program doesn’t actually stop there. Equally bad is the rise of the so-called signature strikes. For the uninitiated, these refer to strikes where the US targets unknown individuals based on certain behaviors that appear to be too terrorist-y. Given that many such strikes occur in places that are not active war zones, it’s difficult to imagine what exactly the telltale behaviors are – too many group activities with fighting age males perhaps? Whatever the details, this amounts to assassinating someone based on a standard of evidence that might not even justify a warrant in the United States. It’s not targeting families because we don’t even know who we’re targeting. But we still pull the trigger anyways. This has been an official government policy for the duration of the Obama Administration.

It’s tough to say whether signature strikes or explicitly targeting family members is a more appalling policy. But it’s also not important. It’s kind of like contemplating the relative merits of getting mortally stabbed versus being shot – at some point, comparisons aren’t really meaningful.

Summing Up

On closer examination of Trump’s proposals, we have to conclude that they generally fall within the accepted norms of the modern Republican and Democratic Parties. Trump embraces torture just like his GOP candidates and predecessors. And the leading Democrats haven’t opposed it enough to worry about prosecuting anyone. Similarly, Trump’s overt bias against Muslims in general has already been underlying our counterterrorism policies for some time – which is why our government is willing to assassinate people in Muslim countries on nothing more than a hunch. The fact that Trump’s ideas are not truly abnormal is upsetting in its own right. But it’s not obvious that his ideas are much worse than those that have already become acceptable.

This suggests that Trump’s real crime is not his ideas or his biases. It’s his willingness to express them in explicit ways that should and do make us all uncomfortable. He doesn’t support enhanced interrogation techniques; he supports Torture with a capital T. He doesn’t just support a “strong national defense”; he wants to go after people’s families. Unfortunately, there’s little that’s new here. But it’s not often that all of America’s worst ideas are thrown out into the open for all to see. That is Trump’s core offense. It’s why he’s inspiring more passionate opposition than any candidate in recent memory. But if the ideas are really bad, and they are, they should have been opposed all along – no matter what form they took and which party was supporting them.

Eric Schuler is the author of The Daily Face Palm blog, which focuses mostly on foreign policy and bad economics.

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