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Donald Trump said he'd kill terrorists' families at a rally. His crowd went wild.

(Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

There is a disturbing new anecdote from Donald Trump's presidential campaign in a story by reporter Ryan Lizza, who has a long feature on the Republican primary in the newest issue of the New Yorker.

Lizza followed Trump to an event this December in Mesa, Arizona, where Trump was interviewed by Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly. Shortly before the Mesa event, Trump had pledged to kill the families of suspected terrorists to deter them from attacking America. "When you get these terrorists," Trump said, "you have to take out their families."

O'Reilly, at the event, asked Trump if he was serious. According to Lizza, Trump said yes — and the crowd roared their approval:

Trump’s fans tend to express little regard for political norms. They cheer at his most outlandish statements. O’Reilly asked Trump if he meant it when he said that he would "take out" the family members of terrorists. He didn’t believe that Trump would "put out hits on women and children" if he were elected. Trump replied, "I would do pretty severe stuff." The Mesa crowd erupted in applause. "Yeah, baby!" a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children.

This points to a certain theme in Trump's rise: He says the things that mainstream Republicans hint at but are too afraid to say explicitly.

For months, more mainstream Republican candidates have been hyping up the threat from ISIS as terrifying and existential. They have argued that the only solution is overwhelming and perhaps unchecked military force. They have warned that Democratic feebleness and restraint are holding us back, and that if we do not prevail then our entire society will be destroyed.

They have described, in other words, a world in which Donald Trump's proposed plan to kill the family members of ISIS terrorists looks a lot more reasonable, even correct.

"Radical Islamic terrorists have declared war on the Western world. Their aim is our total destruction," Jeb Bush has said. "We have but one choice: to defeat it."

"There is a war against ISIS, not just against ISIS but against radical jihadist terrorists. That is a war they win or we win," Marco Rubio said at the last debate. Chris Christie has called it "World War III."

But while mainstream candidates describe, in their rhetoric, a third world war in which ISIS could triumph and destroy Western civilization, their actual policy proposals suggest they see the threat as much more modest. The plans they've put forward do not include major ground forces and mostly describe modest expansions on Obama's current strategy.

This is where Trump is different: Only he is proposing the sorts of policies that would seem to be demanded by a threat so allegedly existential. For Republican voters who are accustomed to hearing all day, every day that America is practically on the verge of losing World War III, it would seem like only Trump is proposing a policy that is commensurate to the alleged threat.

You can see the tension between Republican candidates' rhetoric on the ISIS threat and their actual policies in the saga of Ted Cruz and carpet bombing. Cruz pledged to "carpet-bomb" areas controlled by ISIS: "I don't know if sand can glow, but we're going to find out." Yet when Wolf Blitzer asked Cruz if he would really carpet-bomb heavily civilian areas, thus intentionally killing many innocent Syrians, he backed off:

BLITZER: To be clear, Senator Cruz, would you carpet-bomb Raqqa, where there are a lot of civilians? Yes or no.

CRUZ: You would carpet-bomb where ISIS is. The location of the troops. You use directed air power. But the object isn't to level a city, the object is to kill the ISIS terrorists. To make it, listen, ISIS is gaining strength because the perception is that they're winning. And President Obama fuels that perception.

It turned out that Cruz wasn't willing to follow his tough-guy positioning all the way through: He won't promise to intentionally murder civilians to get at ISIS.

Trump, by contrast, has no such qualms. Republican primary voters who really do think ISIS poses an imminent and existential threat to America see Trump's angry rhetoric as refreshing honesty. When candidates who (understandably) do not want to promise to commit war crimes attack him, these same voters view it as cowardice or hypocrisy. You see similar stuff on immigration, trade, and all sorts of other issues where Trump goes where no other Republican will dare.

As a Trump supporter named Joanna Patterson told Lizza for his story, Trump says "whatever he wants to say without having someone buffer it for him. We like raw truth."

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