Donald Trump is unusually attached to the language of state violence. He rages about punching people in the face and beating up protesters. He talks about summary executions and the collective punishment of terrorists’ families. Time and again he advocates the use of torture, not only to gain information from suspects, but as a sort of sadistic, morally righteous cleansing ritual.
When the Republican front-runner harks back to the good old days when protesters were carried out on stretchers, he prowls the stage, leaning slightly forward, his body tensed in excitement. You can hear in his voice, which deepens strategically as he bellows for violence, the frisson of the forbidden.
After the Brussels terror attacks, Trump repeatedly asserted if that the Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam had been subjected to what he termed “the torture”, the bombings in March could have been avoided. Fetishising pain, Trump’s Tomás de Torquemada persona was on full display. There is no other contemporary political figure with a serious chance of winning in a functioning democracy who not only embraces the act of torture but so freely uses the word itself.
Torture has been pretty much taboo in self-defined democracies and constitutional systems of government since the late 18th century, and in some countries for a century before that. England and Wales abolished almost all torture as far back as 1641. Scotland banned it as a legal tool in 1708. Revolutionary France rid itself of the practice in 1798.
The Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu wrote in his 1748 treatise The Spirit of the Laws that such unnatural violence suited only “despotic states, where whatever inspires fear is the fittest spring of government”. A decade and a half later, Cesare Becarria, writing in his celebrated On Crimes and Punishments, declared it to be a “useless piece of barbarity”. After an infamous murder case in France involving a Huguenot merchant thought to have killed his son, provoking a ghastly passion play of torture unleashed against the accused, Voltaire devoted years of his life to campaigning against such state-sanctioned violence.
As the language of liberalism, democracy and the rights of man came to the fore, so the ancient practices of torture-as-public-spectacle receded far into the shadows. That doesn’t mean that democracies don’t sometimes resort to clandestine violence – witness the French response to Algerian nationalists in the 1960s, British campaigns in late-colonial Kenya and, more recently, the US in its global war on terror. Yet usually they have the minimal good sense to envelop these foul actions in secrecy or euphemism, rather than embrace the infliction of pain as a public art form. What happened at Abu Ghraib and at CIA black sites did amount to torture – but the Bush II administration went out of its way to deny this, to label most of the violence “enhanced interrogation techniques”, and the psychopathic violence that went beyond this as the actions of rogue operatives.
Though this was completely hypocritical, at least it indicated some awareness of those Enlightenment-era critiques of torture. If there was any silver lining to the moral calamity of Abu Ghraib, it was that leaders squirmed when confronted with the evidence of these crimes, twisting themselves into knots as they tried to explain why America was not a country that condoned torture. There was, it seemed, still a cultural taboo in place against publicly glorying in the practice and in the word.
By contrast, “the torture” has always been an important tool in totalitarian and absolutist regimes. It was the weapon of choice for Spanish inquisitors seeking to break heretics. The venomous Savoyard anti-democrat Joseph de Maistre believed that the executioner – who maimed victims at least as frequently as executing them – was “the terror and . . . the bond of human association”, without which “order yields to chaos: thrones fall, society vanishes”.
In January 1939, Stalin wrote to chief Soviet Communist Party figures defending the use of torture. “Experience has shown that such an arrangement has produced good results and has greatly expedited the unmasking of enemies of the people.” During the Second World War, the Gestapo created a vast torture network. And throughout the dirty wars of the 1970s and 1980s, Latin American strongmen unleashed torture and death squads against their political opponents at home.
Regimes that publicly embrace torture – creating the spectacle of the dismembered body, as Michel Foucault described it – do so very deliberately, to intimidate potential critics into silence and to ensure obedience at all levels and throughout every institution of society.
That the Republican Party establishment today seems more aghast at the prospect of a Trump candidacy because the businessman wavers in his opposition to expanded access to health care, once favoured a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, and isn’t a purist free marketeer, rather than because he sides with the likes of Torquemada and Stalin on the subject of torture, suggests that something fundamental has changed.
Trump is willing to trample on a quarter of a millennium of moral thinking and democratic taboos on torture. It is a ferocious vision, de Maistrian in its darkness, and one entirely out of keeping with any modern understanding of democracy, human rights and human dignity.
This article appears in the 13 Apr 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The making of a monster