Our National Milgram Experiment

You may think of Donald Trump as a crafty blowhard intuiting the darkest recesses of the American mood and riding that wave into ever-escalating racist incitement, militant derp and extremism. But this evening it occurred to me that it may not be that at all. Perhaps this isn’t just some grand ego trip but an epic social psychology experiment in which we are all unwitting participants. You probably know about the notorious Milgram Experiment, conducted by the late Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram in 1961. In the experiment subjects were tested to see how far they would go in inflicting extreme pain – escalating electric shocks – on other test subjects simply because a figure in authority, the person running the experiment, told them to do so. So how far would the subjects go?

It turns out really, really far. Sometimes they’d keep inducing shocks with a chilling indifference. In other instances it would be clear that the test subject knew what he was doing was wrong. But instructed to continue, in almost every case, that’s what they did. (The person on the other side of the glass wasn’t really being shocked; they were pretending, but quite convincingly and often begging for mercy and expressing fear of death.)

And here we are, the experiment taken nationwide.

Intended or not, we have a grand national version of something very similar. How far will this go? Donald Trump started calling Mexican immigrants rapists and murderers. Then he called for the rushed expulsion of over 10 million residents of the United States. This was followed by proposals to create a national registry or database of American Muslims. Late last month it was the continued invocation of a lurid racist fantasy of thousands of U.S. Muslims cheering the fall of the Twin Towers from across the river in North Jersey on 9/11 — in many countries something that might be charged as racist incitement to violence. And then today, we have the culmination — or perhaps better to say, since this can’t possibly be the end of it, the next massive upping of the ante — which became inevitable in the wake of everything that preceded it: Donald Trump, frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, says Muslims as a religious class should be banned from entering the United States.

What’s next?

It’s hard to imagine some more aggressive form of registration of Muslim resident in the US, expulsion of non citizens or even some sort of internment isn’t next on the list.

Let’s not pretend that this latest provocation will somehow sink Trump’s popularity or burst the enthusiasm of his supporters. All the evidence — past experience with Trump and polls on issues surrounding Muslim Americans among GOP voters — suggests this will drive his numbers higher. And something unthinkable like this is only to be expected and not even terribly outlandish in the wake of the hyperbolic rhetoric and frenzied fear-mongering coming from the other candidates, Fox News yakkers and others.

If you step back from the awfulness, it’s a fascinating experiment to see unfold.