Reprisals against civilian populations and the use of torture are crimes in which we are all involved. The fact that such things could take place among us is a humiliation we must henceforth face. Meanwhile, we must at least refuse to justify such methods, even on the score of efficacy. The moment they are justified, even indirectly, there are no more rules or values; all causes are equally good, and war without aims or laws sanctions the triumph of nihilism.
–Albert Camus, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death
Recently, Ezra Klein at Vox argued that Trump is breaking all sorts of political norms, including those that are necessary in a democracy. Klein pithly summarizes his own argument:
This is the danger Trump poses to the American political system, even if he loses. He is normalizing the abnormal. He is redefining what is acceptable to do and say in American politics.
While I agree Trump is doing this, normalizing the abnormal started well before Trump even considered running. If Trump would be Caesar, then the open advocacy of torture by most Republicans was Sulla (though #NotAllRepublicans and, shamefully, there was the tacit acquiescence of some Democrats).
For once you have decided that the mutilation and violation of other people is openly acceptable state policy, you have hit rock bottom. You can not fall any further. While I’m not naive about what the U.S. has done (especially in ‘outsourcing’ torture), it was never publicly acclaimed as a right and just action. Time was, in popular culture, torturers were viewed as evil, not as heroes ‘doing what needs to be done.’
Leaving aside “the score of efficacy”–though in isolation, torture is useless and requires a regime of mass torture, doesn’t work, and offers the temptation of manufacturing false evidence–once you have normalized torture, there is nothing left that can not be normalized. Telling ridiculous lies, spouting racist rhetoric, or offering laughably unrealistic policies is nothing by comparison to the brutal and vile degradation of human beings.
There is an entire cohort of conservatives (and, yes, some Democrats as well) who have no business being anywhere near public life due to their support for torture (and we should include on that list, Very Serious Pundits who excused such behavior). Likewise, we need to remember that many people openly embraced–and still do embrace–torture.
In a sense, it’s remarkable that it took the Republican Party this long to nominate someone like Trump: the moral rot had set in long before 2015.