Whether it's because he did a careful study of the Republican electorate or because he has an intuitive sense for how to find and ride the fury of an angry crowd, Donald Trump has tapped into something other Republicans thought you had to be subtle in order to exploit. Yet as usual, he's doing it with no subtlety whatsoever; indeed, that's part of his genius.
While I would never say Trump is "honest" given how often he just makes things up and then continues to repeat them even after they're shown to be false, he has a straightforward candor that his opponents can't match. And it has seldom been more clear than when the subject of torture comes up, as it has again in recent days.
Republicans know how this game is supposed to be played. Under both U.S. law and treaties to which the U.S. is a party, torture is illegal. Furthermore, the definition of torture is simple and clear: It's the infliction of extreme physical or psychological suffering in order to produce information or a confession. The problem, of course, is that in the aftermath of September 11, the administration of George W. Bush set up a program to torture prisoners suspected of involvement in terrorism. They most famously used waterboarding, but the program also included stress positions (designed to produce excruciating pain), sleep deprivation, and in some cases old-fashioned beatings (you can read more here).
With only a few exceptions, most prominent Republicans not only endorsed the Bush administration's program but defend it to this day. In order to do so, they must insist that what happened is not in fact torture but "enhanced interrogation." When asked what the difference is, they essentially say, "It's different because it's not the same." When asked why, for instance, waterboarding or stress positions don't constitute torture, they say, "Because they aren't torture." Fortunately for them, they seldom get asked to explain further.
When it comes to using torture in the future, it's acceptable for Republicans to say it's unnecessary, so long as they don't admit that torture was used in the past. And this is where there's a slight but discernable division between the presidential candidates, if you can crack the code. Ted Cruz says that the Bush administration never tortured, and that something like waterboarding is probably no longer necessary. In this field, that makes him a liberal. Marco Rubio stays vague, but is fond of saying to audiences, "If we capture any of these ISIS killers, they are going to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and we're going to find out everything they know!" Wink, wink.
But there are no winks with Donald Trump. He doesn't care what is and isn't defined as torture, and he doesn't care what the law says. In a recent debate, Trump said he'd "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding," and hearing the grunts and shouts of approval from his fans, he has kept it up. Now he doesn't wait to be asked about the topic, telling crowds that he's ready to use it because "Don't tell me it doesn't work — torture works." This follows up on his previous proposal to kill terrorists' families, just to show 'em who's boss.
You surely heard that Trump called Ted Cruz a "pussy" at a rally last week, but what you might have missed in all the oh-my-gosh-did-he-really-say-that coverage was what led Trump to that attack. It was the fact that at the previous night's debate, Cruz hadn't endorsed waterboarding with enough full-throated enthusiasm. This, then, is the measure of manliness: Are you willing to order prisoners to be tortured, or are you some kind of girly-man?
Left out in these discussions is exactly whom we're supposed to be torturing. As far as I know we don't have any ISIS prisoners, and even if we did, the problem with that group isn't really that they have secret plans we need to get a hold of. The problem is that they're holding a large swath of territory in an area that crosses one country consumed by a brutal civil war and another country with an ineffectual and corrupt government.
But that's not important to the candidates; what's important is hitting that button way down deep in voters' secret places, the one that activates fear and hate, the one that cries for blood. Wrong and right don't enter into the equation, because the morality that Trump expresses so purely is tribal, built not on principles but on identity. Torture isn't wrong per se, because nothing is wrong per se. It's right because we're doing it to them, and if they're bad guys, then nothing we do is wrong.
This was of course the moral perspective that created the torture program in the first place, even if it was clothed in legal acrobatics and bureaucratic ass-covering. It's not torture, the Bush administration convinced itself, because we're the good guys and we don't torture, and besides just look at how bad the people we're torturing are.
Trump's comments, as abominable and wrong as they are, have the benefit of stripping away the euphemisms and the justifications, laying bare the conservative id in all its glory. You'll notice that Trump's opponents didn't condemn him for explicitly supporting torture. That's not only because they don't have much of a problem with it, even if they'd never put it in the same stark terms Trump does. It's because they can hear the cheers of the crowd.