Many were shocked to wake up on the Wednesday morning after the election to hear that Donald Trump had defied predictions and won the Presidency of the United States. On election day, Nate Silver’s popular website FiveThirtyEight had forecast a 71.4 percent chance of Hillary Clinton winning. Experts and voters alike expected Trump’s more controversial views to torpedo his chances of acquiring a majority of electors. For many observers, his views appeared to not be politically viable; however, this assumption was proven to be a mistake. Views on torture and immigration reflect this rapid change from past dispositions, suggesting that opinions that would have been disqualifying even several years ago are now supported by a majority or growing minority of Americans.
Torture is one such issue. In a February primary debate in New Hampshire, candidate Trump said “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” This statement shocked some but was largely met with applause from the live audience.
Waterboarding and other so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques have been a contentious issue ever since the public learned that then-President George W. Bush had approved the use of waterboarding following the attacks on September 11, 2001. These techniques were used many times on detainees at the Guantanamo Bay facility. Khalid Sheik Mohammad, mastermind of the attacks, was waterboarded a total of 183 times. A 6000-page Senate report would later reveal that the CIA’s enhanced methods failed to produce any actionable intelligence.
The public reacted poorly to the discovery that the United States was practicing what many consider torture. By the Summer of 2006, a majority of Americans were clearly against waterboarding, with one poll finding that 81 percent oppose the “use of torture against people who are suspected of being terrorists” to prevent future attacks.
Today’s political climate is different. With a heightened sense of anxiety created by terror attacks in San Bernardino, Paris, and Brussels, public sentiment against enhanced interrogation techniques has shifted. In March, 63 percent of Americans polled responded that they believe torture is ‘often’ or ‘sometimes’ justified. This represented an 18 percent increase since Amnesty International conducted a similar poll in 2014.
Many Americans have taken stronger views on other subjects related to national security. In December of last year, Trump announced his proposal for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” This policy would be a major change to at least half a century of American immigration policy.
Reactions to this proposal included criticism from President Obama, who said that this type of rhetoric “makes Muslim-Americans feel like their government is betraying them. It betrays the very values America stands for.” Criticism was not limited to the candidate’s traditional political opposition. Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) echoed Obama’s statement, saying “I do not think a Muslim ban is in our country’s interest. I do not think it is reflective of our principles, not just as a party but as a country.”
Despite condemnation from leadership of the right and left, the idea of a ban gained traction. In a December 2015 poll, a plurality of 45 percent supported the ban over 41 percent in opposition. These numbers only grew in the following months. By March, 51 percent supported the ban, and a slightly smaller 40 percent opposed. Even though Trump has since backed off from a total ban of Muslims from entering the country, his rhetoric and the response to it reveal that there is fertile ground in the American electorate for similar future proposals.
In these two cases, public sentiment does not reflect the rule of law. Many groups, including the ACLU, consider waterboarding and other techniques to be torture and a violation of the Eighth Amendment. There is even a greater consensus on a Muslim ban. Numerous legal experts have opined that it would be unconstitutional, citing the First and Fifth Amendments. It would also constitute a violation of numerous treaties and international agreements.
Public support for these policies might come as a surprise, considering that just 10 years ago, they would have been unpopular. Perhaps politicians should evaluate current views and craft platforms that can sway support away from beliefs that are unconstitutional or against our principles.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons/ Kathleen T. Rhem