How is it still news, 15 years after 9/11, that American voters are much more sanguine about torturing jihadis than the political class is? When Trump told an audience last November that some terrorists deserve waterboarding even if it doesn’t produce intel, the media collectively dry-heaved. I wrote at the time that waterboarding was the perfect populist issue for him because there’s such a sharp divide between what influential people say we should think about it and what Americans actually do think. (The divide is certainly sharper than it is on immigration, at least if you believe this year’s exit polls.) In fact, there may be no clearer modern example than torture of a policy which the political class is convinced it’s “un-American” to support even as a majority of actual American voters insists over and over again that they’re all for it.
If there’s news here, it’s in the partisan numbers. Per FiveThirtyEight, here’s where support for torture stood circa 2012 according to the Pew Research Center:
A CBS News poll published in 2014 found 49 percent overall in favor, with 73 percent of Republicans saying aggressive interrogation tactics are sometimes justified versus 54 percent of Democrats who said they aren’t justified. The Reuters poll has seen those numbers shift, though: Now 82 percent of Republicans and 53 percent of Democrats — a clear majority — support torture in at least some circumstances. As you can see, that’s considerably higher than where levels of support stood in the FiveThirtyEight graph circa 2012. And we all instantly understand why, right? Right: More terrorism, and not just in the Middle East. A Paris here, a Brussels there, a San Bernardino one month, a Charlie Hebdo massacre the next, plus endless jihadi snuff porn from ISIS of degenerates sawing people’s heads off and crucifying priests — go figure that the average American doesn’t much care anymore, if they ever really did, about the CIA getting rough with captured terrorists.
It’s not just Reuters that’s finding support for torture lately either, and torture’s not the only counterterror issue on which Americans side with Trump. Morning Consult asked whether enhanced interrogation, including waterboarding, is needed to defeat ISIS or whether we can do it without getting rough with prisoners. Result: 45/34, which is a bit lower than Reuters’s numbers but still shows more in favor than opposed. (Some people who believe torture is justified might nonetheless believe it’s not really “needed” to beat ISIS.) When asked about Trump’s idea for a temporary ban on travel by Muslims to the U.S., they found this:
A third of Democrats are in favor, as are a near-majority of independents. YouGov polled the same issue and got similar results: 51/40 in favor among all Americans with 62 percent support among independents, a 20-point rise since December. Both pollsters also asked about Ted Cruz’s controversial call to secure Muslim neighborhoods with more law-enforcement patrols. Morning Consult had that one 49/36 while YouGov had it 45/40, with both showing heavy majorities of Republicans and pluralities of independents in favor. Until ISIS is defeated and the west enjoys a stretch without any major terror attacks, there’s every reason to think the numbers will rise, including among Democrats. In fact, given his poor polling in various other contexts, that may be the only way Trump stands a chance in the general election. He’s the authoritarian candidate; if bombs start going off and the electorate demands order at all costs, he’s a more natural choice than Hillary is. Staking out an unapologetic pro-torture position was a low-cost populist way to signal that he’s the “real” national-security candidate in the race.
Update: A new soundbite from a rally today in Wisconsin. In light of the foregoing, think this’ll get him in trouble with voters?
Trump in Wisconsin: “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight”
— Ben Schreckinger (@SchreckReports) March 30, 2016