Nineteen sixty-one was a remarkable year. In the U.S., Freedom Riders were progressing the cause of civil rights and Kennedy was dreaming about the moon. Humans, for the first time, sailed with the stars and orbited our planet. Around the world, the Cold War was ramping up its ferocity, walls were being built in Berlin, and two nations were flexing their nuclear arms. Against this backdrop, in a small laboratory at Yale, a young psychologist would revolutionize our concept of obedience and authority. Stanley Milgram was all of 28 years old and had just completed his Ph.D. in the burgeoning field of Social Psychology.
Milgram's interest in obedience to authority reflected another major event from one year earlier: the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Milgram grew up a Jew during an era of severe persecution, culminating in the mass murder of millions of Jews across Europe. Following WWII, many people, including Milgram, asked how so many people would willingly participate in the mass slaughter of millions of innocent people.
Eichmann was one of the principle determinants of the Holocaust and during his trial would claim that he was only "guilty of having been obedient." Though he would hang for his role in perpetrating the Holocaust, he was just one of many who would claim that they were just following commands. But to what extent does obedience to authority really explain blind devotion? And can such blind devotion really happen on such a large scale?
Thus, Stanley Milgram developed a social experiment to test the boundaries of obedience to authority. Volunteers were solicited under the guise of testing memory and learning. Once in Milgram's lab, these volunteers were asked to test the memory of a second participant, the "student" (an actor). With every wrong answer, the volunteer was to administer increasingly painful electrical shocks to the student. Despite shouts of pain and requests to stop, the volunteer was prodded to continue (it was unknown to the volunteer that the shocks were not real) up to a maximum of 450-volts. Surprisingly, 65 percent of participants continued to shock up to the maximum. There were no predictable traits for those who continued to obey. Education or social status had no effect on the final result. As Milgram wrote, "for many persons obedience may be a deeply ingrained behavior tendency, indeed, a prepotent impulse overriding training in ethics, sympathy and moral conduct."
Return to present day and our current presidential election battle. Donald Trump's inexplicable rise has effectively been a nation-wide Milgram experiment. He is not particularly presidential, he lacks concrete understanding of policy, and he has not generated any detailed plans about how he might run the country. But to the constituents who support him, none of this matters. His authority is based on the image he projects and, much like Milgram's experiment, it is irrelevant whether this image is based in reality or not. Unlike previous presidential candidates, Mr. Trump's name has celebrity and staying power. His is a household name and one which, for the mainstream person who knows little about him, is synonymous with success and authority. His trademark line "You're Fired!" commands obedience. And his followers have already demonstrated that they will continue to increase the "shock" as long as The Donald will take responsibility for it.
Mr. Trump's supporters fall almost universally into what Milgram called an "agentic" state in which a person allows another individual to take responsibility for, and dictate the direction of, their actions. They rationalize and attempt to validate the actions of their authority figure. We need not be limited to our current election cycle to see the real world effects of blindly following the Pied Piper. The Venezuelans followed Chavez off of the cliff and the Cubans, Castro. Hitler moved the masses with aggressive propaganda, hate-filled speech and repetition of false themes. When Mr. Trump threatens to excise Muslims from this country or to build walls to prevent immigrants from entering, when he harangues veterans for their sacrifices while extolling the virtues of dictators and oligarchs, when he says that he alone can "fix" America, he is placing the world in the electrical chair and prodding the American masses to keep ramping up the volts. Mr. Trump's rhetoric and intentions are profoundly concerning. The greatest danger, however, is our willingness to blindly obey. We must overcome this now so we will not regret it later.
Dr. Jack Mather is a surgeon at the University of Maryland Medical Center's R. Adams Cowley Shock Trauma Center. His email is email@example.com.