(I tried to get this published as an op-ed in a few places but met with failure and stonewalling, so I'm putting it on the blog. Please share if you find it useful.)
You might think that, while four to eight years of President Trump will be embarrassing, they will not leave an indelible stain. But know this: America is not special. Our smug self-assurance that genocide, democide, and other crimes against humanity only happen in other countries may be our undoing. Americans are no better and – let us hope – not much worse than people everywhere. And people everywhere are liable to obey authorities who incrementally ratchet up their destructive orders.
There’s good scientific evidence for this claim. In the 1960s, the psychologist Stanley Milgram demonstrated it at Yale University. He showed that approximately two-thirds of ordinary American adults will, when subject to escalating social pressure, put 450 volts of electricity through a complete stranger whose only sin is failing to memorize a list of words.
The setup of Milgram’s experiment is simple: a participant and an actor who pretends to be an ordinary participant are ushered into the lab. The participant is “randomly” selected to be a teacher while the actor is the learner. When the actor makes a mistake in recalling the list of words, the participant shocks him.
The shocks start at a benign 15 volts and increase by 15 volts for each subsequent mistake. Initially the actor stoically grunts through the pain, but at 150 volts he demands to be released from the experiment. By 300 volts, he’s “unconscious.” The experimenter tells the participant to treat failure to answer as a wrong answer, leading ultimately to three shocks in a row with 450 volts.
Why don’t the participants object? Many do. But at the first sign of disobedience, the experimenter mildly instructs, “Please go on.” Further disobedience is met with “The experiment requires that you continue,” then “It is absolutely essential that you continue,” and finally “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If the participant rebels a fifth time, the experiment is terminated. These verbal nudges are enough to get two-thirds of participants to be maximally compliant.
Shocked? So were laypeople and scientists of Milgram’s day. In interviews with 110 psychiatrists, college students, and middle-class adults who were not aware of his results, Milgram found that 100% predicted that no participants would go all the way and that the maximum shock they would deliver was 135 volts.
Milgram’s participants were unusual neither by American nor by global standards. Subsequent studies elsewhere in the USA, along with South Africa, Australia, Jordan, Spain, and Austria, have found similar levels of destructive obedience.
In a boon for psychological science and a moral test for the country, the Trump presidency will be the most ecologically-valid, large-scale replication of Milgram’s studies ever conducted.
Instead of issuing verbal prods, Trump commands the FBI, Homeland Security, the CIA, and the military. Instead of torturing an obviously innocent victim, he targets African-Americans, women, Mexicans, Muslims, gay people and other groups who have faced dehumanizing animus since the United States enshrined slavery in the Constitution.
If 67% of us maximally comply with the destructive orders that are sure to flow from the Trump White House, Milgram will be proven scientifically right and we will be proven morally wrong.
Milgram’s studies aren’t all bad news, though. He and other researchers have identified six ways that you can be part of the resistant 33%. Here are the lessons we should learn:
1) Resist early. Almost everyone who goes one-third of the way in the Milgram study goes all the way. If you go along to get along, you’re likely to go much too far.
2) Resist loudly, visibly, and intelligently. In the presence of another resister, others become more inclined to resist as well. People are less susceptible to pressure from authority when they know how such pressure can affect them.
3) Use authority to resist authority. When a knowledgeable second party contradicts destructive orders, almost everyone resists.
4) Focus on the individuality of victims. Learn their names. Memorize their faces. Shake their hands. Hug them. Get close to them both psychologically and physically. Compliance drops by more than half when the participant has to touch the victim.
5) Seek solidarity. The solitary hero may be a romantic ideal, but courage breeds courage. Find other resisters and reinforce one another.
6) Nurse your contempt. Compliance drops by two-thirds when the person giving the orders is perceived as just some schmuck.
America is not special. With hard work and a lot of luck, we may emerge from this struggle ashamed but relieved that the worst did not come to pass. In the face of disaster, we can and must demand this much of ourselves.