Earlier this week, in a series of tweets and campaign rally speeches, Trump teased the prospect of mass ICE roundups of immigrant families in the interior of the United States over the coming weeks and months. “Millions” of people would be arrested and swiftly deported, he promised. It was the language of the iron fist, the steel boot cap. Due process be damned, the forces of the state were about to be truly unleashed.

Like with so much else that Trump says, at least some of this is sheer bluster.  Unless ICE and the other DHS agencies have been on a vast secret hiring spree recently, there’s simply no way to arrest that many people that quickly. Moreover, even if they did, there’s still a court process in this country, and there are still agreed-upon methods by which people have to be deported: a Guatemalan, for example, can’t simply be bussed to Juarez and dumped in Mexico; neither can someone from Africa who has overstayed their visa. They have to be flown back to their home countries – and the Feds don’t have the capacity to fly millions of people home all in a rush.

Be that as it may, what Trump was clearly telegraphing – and what I have no reason to doubt his sadistic regime fully means to implement – is that he will make an already tough situation immeasurably tougher, meaner, and nastier, for undocumented families and individuals, including children, as he ramps up his re-election campaign into full gear. And Trump will do so primarily in great, diverse, and not coincidently firmly anti-Trump, immigrant-friendly cities such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. For the reality TV star knows that he thrives politically when he succeeds in stirring up as much rage, fear, and chaos as possible. The more backlash he provokes, the more his base in turn is animated.

Trump is ably backed in his brutalist approach by his new immigration and border policy “czar,” the deeply unpleasant Thomas Horman, former acting director of ICE. In Horman’s worldview, there are no gray areas: if someone lacks legal status, they are quite simply an “illegal alien.” No matter that they may have been fleeing diabolical levels of violence and poverty in their home countries; that they headed to the United States not to get social services but to work; that they pay taxes and participate in their local communities. None of that negates the original sin of illegal entry or the overstaying of a visa.

A few months back, as Trump began purging the DHS hierarchy, he announced that he wanted to go in a “tougher direction” on immigration. Given that he had already tried putting children into cages, separating parents from children, reinforcing the existing miles of border fencing with rolled razor wire, implementing a partial ban on Muslims entering the country, depriving TPS and DACA recipients of their status, bottling up thousands of asylum seekers in camps on the Mexican side of the border, and deploying military personnel to the borderlands, “tougher” came with an utterly ominous sound to it.

Now, with the promise of indiscriminate arrests, we are starting to see specifics. 

Day by day, Trump is bending the United States’ massive immigration and security bureaucracies evermore forcefully to his will. And, with each round of new personnel resignations and hires to replace them, the Administration heads in an increasingly fanatical direction in consequence. People like Kirstjen Nielsen, who were eviscerated in their time for their extremism, come to be seen, in the light of those who replace them, as moderates.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt published her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. It detailed the personality traits of Eichmann, charged with implementing Hitler’s genocidal vision of a “final solution” against the Jews of Europe. What was most devastating about the portrayal was that it didn’t paint a picture of an out-and-out ideologue, a caricature of demonic intent; rather it documented a bureaucrat, someone so obsessed with following orders and ensuring that the will of the Führer was implemented that the vast moral questions that ought to have to come into play were simply sidelined. Eichmann made sure the death camps functioned efficiently and ruthlessly because that is what he had been hired to do. In the same way as earlier Nazi bureaucrats had enforced the ghettoization of Jews and the wearing of yellow stars; or implemented restrictive citizenship rules; or presided over the purging of Jews from universities.

Eichmann was entirely parochial, an amoral midget who seemingly lacked any capacity to morally engage with his age. He operated in a savage time, and so, for him, the consummate bureaucrat, his responsibility involved simply implementing without questioning, savage orders. His evil was his missing moral core.

That same year Arendt’s book came out, 1963, a Yale university psychologist named Stanley Milgram published the results of two years of experiments on the conditions in which people obey cruel orders. Specifically, he wanted to see whether, if individuals were ordered to administer increasingly severe electric shocks against other human beings, they would do so.

He recruited several dozen volunteers and then paired them off. One member of each pair would be a “teacher,” the other a “learner.” The “learners” would have electrodes attached to various parts of their bodies, and the “teacher” would then ask them questions. If they got the answer wrong, Milgram or one of the other white-coated lab assistants would order the teacher to give them an electric shock, ostensibly as a way of “teaching” them to do better next time.

As it happened, Milgram had rigged the set up so that all of the “learners” were actually part of his research team; they were acting their parts. Only the “teachers” were genuine volunteers in the experiment. What these teachers didn’t know was that the electrodes weren’t actually connected to an electric generator, so that when they were ordered to give electric shocks, nothing was actually happening.

And so, the experiment proceeded. The “learners” would get the answers wrong to questions. The lab-team would order the “teachers” to electric shock them; the “learners” would scream convincingly, giving every indication of being in extreme pain; the lab-team would order the “teachers” to ratchet up the electric shock to even higher voltage levels… and on it would go.

Milgram had expected that most of his volunteers would simply refuse to inflict gratuitous pain on other human beings, people who had done nothing wrong to them, whose only offense was to get an answer wrong in response to a question hurled their way by a teacher. Instead, to his horror, he found that the pull of obedience was so strong that the vast majority of his volunteers kept pressing the electric shock button, again and again and again – not because they were being coerced, or threatened, by Milgram and his team, but simply because the lab employees were seen as being authority figures; and when an authority figure told the “teacher” to inflict pain on the “learner,” time and again the teacher assumed there was a legitimate reason to the request and did so.

A decade letter, in Stanford, another psychologist, Philip Zimbardo, conducted what came to be known as the “Stanford Prison Experiment” in which he divided volunteers into groups of “prisoners” and “guards,” and then watched them over the course of several days as the guards sought to impose order and discipline on the powerless “prisoners.” To Zimbardo’s amazement, he found that the roles soon outstripped the reality. Given uniforms and weapons, the guards swiftly came to believe they had both the right and the duty to brutalize their detainees to ensure that order was maintained. 

So deeply into the roles did the guards get that soon some of the detainees were begging to be let out, to be released from an experiment that had degenerated into physical and psychological torment. 

There is, these experiments show, a human tendency both to obey orders without question and also, in certain circumstances and given the cover of official rationales, to inflict pain on vulnerable individuals. When powerful people order middle-men to hurt those with no power, too often that is exactly what ends up happening. 

We are, as Trump makes clear on a daily basis, whether it be through the terrors he unleashes on immigrants, or the goading of Iran into actions that could lead to war, in one of those moments. It is, in times like these, particularly vital for men and women of good conscience to take a moral stand. We are currently part of one vast, national Milgram experiment. Will we, as a country, keep pressing the electric shock button?

7 Replies to “The Lessons of Milgram”

  1. Thank you for reminding me of those experiments and connecting them to what is happening in front of our eyes now. What strikes me is how to change this destructive human tendency. My father’s motto for us was “stand up for your rights”. This has been a source for my independent thinking and what I have modeled for my own children and grandchildren, it also is the attribute I so appreciate in your writings.

  2. The human psyche/soul apparently includes with its drives, needs, and desires a dark aspect. We have come to call it « id », the self-focused pleasure center that seems to lack perspective on the consequences of its actions.

    By phasing religion out of our daily thinking, we also phased out moral guidelines. We thus have a « business ethic” that is neither ethical nor moral, as its base is pure competition that we call free market capitalism.

    Trump and his followers are devoutly selfish, because they are the most successful products of capitalism. Winning matters more than conducting oneself in a moral/ethical manner. Hence, the policies of Trump and parents who brawl at children’s sporting events.

    Sasha, I think of the protest song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” When will we ever learn?

  3. We will learn when we get to a point where we value learning as a society; we will keep failing to learn so long as we treat everything as entertainment and fail to realize the moral stakes in a moment such as the one we are living through.

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