“Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner]. . . I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require…for by such conduct they bring shame, disgrace and ruin to themselves and their country.”
George Washington wrote that in 1775, during the Revolutionary War, when foreign troops were occupying American soil and the fate of the incipient country was more uncertain than it would ever be again. Washington could easily have argued that torturing prisoners was necessary because of the state of emergency; he could have said that American survival depended on harsh and merciless treatment of the enemy. Instead, he argued the opposite: The country, he said, would be ruined, not by military defeat or excessive mercy, but by torture.
Now, some 240 years after Washington’s warning, we know that he was right. Torture has in fact led us to shame, disgrace and ruin. As part of the “War on Terror,” the Bush administration abandoned Washington’s dictum and embraced torture. That helped normalize authoritarianism and a disdain for human rights, putting America on a path that has led us, now, to Trump.
The direct line from torture and Trump was underlined this week, when the president chose Gina Haspel to replace Mike Pompeo as CIA director. In 2002, Haspel ran a CIA black site prison in Thailand where agents under her command waterboarded and physically beat prisoners. She also destroyed videotapes of torture, covering up the extent to which the CIA violated the Geneva Conventions and American law.
Haspel was hardly acting alone. The CIA tortured suspects because the Bush administration told it to. After 9/11, the administration authorized waterboarding, a brutal technique of controlled drowning. It created black sites, where detainees were held in secret, without charges and without oversight by human rights organizations.
The Bush torture program led to international shame and disgrace, just as Washington warned torture would. Photos of CIA abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, made public in 2003, sparked worldwide condemnation and damaged U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East for more than a decade.
But the use of torture had arguably even worse effects. Because GOP leaders argued for torture, GOP-aligned media figures rushed to defend the practice. Consider just one example: Charles Krauthammer at the Weekly Standard insisted that “breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing.”
In a similar manner, Republican voters began to embrace torture as a partisan position. Support for torture skyrocketed among Republicans from around 51 percent in 2003 to 71 percent in 2013. Among Democrats, support grew as well, but more modestly, from 39 percent to 45 percent.
The change in public opinion is significant in part because it suggests a change in how Americans — and especially Republicans — see America and understand American identity.
For most of its modern history, the United States government has declared itself a champion of human rights and a foe of authoritarianism. This purported embrace of human rights was often hypocritical: The U.S. has a long and despicable record of torture and violence, from the brutal violence of slaveholders (like Washington himself) to the treatment of prisoners under mass incarceration.
But no matter how duplicitous, the verbal rejection of torture established some lines and some norms. It created a benchmark, at least, by which to see hypocrisy as hypocrisy. Before Bush, when we tortured, there was a standard, and a weight of public opinion, by which to judge that torture wrong.
“Bush erased the distinction between democracy and authoritarianism. In doing so, he paved the way for a man whose entire political career is predicated on championing authoritarian violence.”
Bush helped erase that important distinction between democracy and authoritarianism, and in doing so, he paved the way for a man whose entire political career is predicated on championing authoritarian violence, dehumanizing supposed enemies and violating democratic norms. Trump, predictably, has said that waterboarding “works.” He’s endorsed murdering the families of ISIS fighters. He’s praised authoritarian leaders like Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and Russian President Vladimir Putin, who are notorious for their human rights abuses.
Beyond these obvious examples, Trump’s presidency is defined by the logic of torture in a broader sense. The basic premise of Bush-era torture was that security was more important than human rights. “If it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we’re all for it if it saves American lives,” former Vice President Dick Cheney insisted in one of his many proto-Trump declarations.
In this worldview, protecting our own justified any excess of violence. For Cheney, the core of Americanism was not human rights or liberty, but tribalism and fear.
And that is the core of (an ever-more-narrowly defined) Americanism for Trump, too. Vague fears of terrorism justify banning refugees who may face torture or death at home. Vague fears of crime, or of job losses, justify detaining pregnant women labeled as undocumented and holding them without proper medical care. In the name of American security, you can commit any atrocity or violate any right. That’s the logic of torture, of authoritarianism — and of Trumpism.
Again, America is not new to that logic. We live in a country, after all, that has spent the last few decades building the largest gulag the world has ever seen. Authoritarianism has always been part of America. But it’s a part that the Republican party has been assiduously cultivating for some time. And when Republicans manage to take control of the government, as they did in 2016, they get to impose their vision of an authoritarian America on everyone.
State-sanctioned torture is the ultimate expression of the authoritarian ethos —to embrace torture is to claim that there are no limits on what the government can do to your body, your mind and your soul. In appointing Haspel, Trump is nodding ― consciously or not ― to the fascist Republican policies that opened the Oval Office to a xenophobic grifter in the first place. As Washington warned it would, Bush’s base and infamous willingness to harm enemy prisoners has led the country to ruin. First you’re the party of torture, then you’re the party of Trump.
Noah Berlatsky is the author most recently of Nazi Dreams: Films About Fascism.