Milgram, the social mechanics of gross human rights violations, and President Trump
Milgram’s work in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority provides a useful analytical tool for understanding the social mechanics that lead to gross violations of human rights: a socially constructed locus of authority supported by an institutional machinery, the socialisation of a worldview based on an us v. them philosophy that supplies ideological legitimacy to the authority’s commands, and the fragmentation of acts into narrower tasks in hierarchically structured bureaucracies which profit from most people’s tendency to obey authority. Based on available reports and key decisions made to date, it may be said that the social mechanics described by Milgram are in operation in the U.S. and that President Trump is both the product and the source of a political and social environment that is making it much easier for people to engage in behaviour that constitutes human rights violations - such as discriminatory acts, and that unless there is strong and consistent dissent, it is possible that the situation will continue to deteriorate.
Gross human rights violations do not happen in a vacuum; they do not spring into existence out of nowhere the result of suppressed aggression that’s finally released. Milgram's experiments and all the subsequent replications and re-interpretations have shown us that it is not difficult to create an environment that enables and abets gross violations of human rights. Cunning leaders can tune into a deeply internalised tendency to obey authority and steer the actions of vast numbers of people toward sinister purposes.
The key to the behaviour of subjects lies not in pent-up anger or aggression but in the nature of their relationship to authority. They have given themselves to the authority; they see themselves as instruments for the execution of his wishes; once so defined, they are unable to break free (Milgram, 2010: 168).
Milgram’s work as published in his 1974 book Obedience to Authority 1, can be thought of as a recipe for gross human rights violations. He elaborates the ingredients that make them possible: a socially constructed locus of authority supported by an institutional machinery, the socialisation of a worldview based on an us v. them philosophy that supplies ideological legitimacy to the authority’s commands, and the fragmentation of acts into narrower tasks in hierarchically structured bureaucracies which profit from most people’s tendency to obey authority.
The current political climate offers more than one parallel with the events of the 1930s that eventually led to World War II and the Holocaust. Although it is not possible to predict whether these are just coincidence or signs of things to come, I believe there is value in exploring whether Milgram’s ideas about the social mechanics of gross human rights violations may be at play. In the following section, I will elaborate on the social mechanics of gross human rights violations based on Milgram’s findings in the context of mature democracies. I will illustrate them by drawing examples from Trump’s election as President of the U.S. and his key decisions to date2.
The social mechanics of gross human rights violations or how to get away with murder ‘ In democracies, men [sic] are placed in office through popular elections. Yet, once installed, they are no less in authority than those who get there by other means ’ (Milgram, 2010: 179).
Although social contract theory tells us that in democracies it is the people that hold the power and through an act of delegation (elections) they bestow the execution of said power onto their representatives; there is a very real transference of authority which occurs. From the moment a person is elected into office, he or she becomes the embodiment of something much greater, much more intimidating than just someone doing a job. It is the symbolism and weight of their socially constructed locus of authority which sets off the social mechanics that Milgram describes.
Because authority in contemporary society is institutionalised; it is impersonal: ‘responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title’ (Milgram, 2010: 139). In consequence, ‘authority tends to be seen as something larger than the individual. (…) [A]n impersonal force, whose dictates transcend mere human wish or desire’ (Milgram, 2010: 146).
The implication is that people in positions of authority in institutionalised settings are attributed power much greater than the simple fact of their desire as ‘the [obedient] subject feels [the commands of authority] to be an imperative that goes beyond any merely human command (Milgram, 2010: 10).
Less than 100 days into his presidency, Trump has already shown that he enjoys and intends to make maximum use of the ample authority bestowed on him by the office he now holds (Ben-Ghiat, 2017: Online). He has been governing by executive authority, circumventing congressional participation in policy. One of Trump’s first actions as President was to issue an executive order ‘banning immigration from seven countries in the Middle East and Africa’ (Mortimer, 2017: Online) which has come to be known as ‘the Muslim Ban’ given that the majority of the population in the named countries are Muslim.
The Muslim Ban has been widely interpreted by experts and the media as a clear sign that President Trump ‘is willing to push the limits of the norms of American governing’ (Taub, 2017: Online). When public servants issued orders within their realm of responsibility not to apply the ban - as was the case with Acting Attorney General S.Q. Yates, Trump dismissed them from their posts (Taub, 2017: Online). To the people in government and the public, this sends a clear message: disobedience will not be tolerated. This reinforces the imperative to obey Trump’s commands as President.
‘ Control the way in which a man interprets his world, and you have gone a long way toward controlling his behaviour ’ (Milgram, 2010: 146).
It is not enough for the source of authority to be perceived as legitimate on a formal level (elections). It must be anchored in an ideology which is accepted by the obedient subjects as aligned with their values and desires. This ideological legitimacy serves to justify the authority’s objectives and commands. It also defines the boundaries of authority and the commands that are deemed acceptable as possessing ‘some intelligible link between the function of the controlling person, and the nature of the commands he [sic] issues. The connection (…) need only make sense in the most general way’ (Milgram, 2010: 142). Trump demonstrated during his campaign that he sees the authority of the office of President as belonging to the person in the office (Ben-Ghiat, 2017: Online). His tweets and statements have been analysed by A. Immelman in her 2017 paper The Leadership Style of U.S. President Donald J.Trump. She finds that Trump’s dominant leadership characteristics are a volatile temper and an impetus to dominate and make decisions unilaterally without much reflection (Immelman, 2017: 7-9). Such leadership style needs a strong ideological legitimacy to protect the tendency to override the established decision-making mechanisms of mature democracies which are slow-moving.
There is a tried-and-tested formula for developing such ideological legitimacy: identify a common enemy that can be blamed for everything that is wrong. This profits from ‘an ever-present [human] tendency to divide the world into ingroups and outgroups, into us and them ’ (Staub, 1985: 64). Group identity acts as a source of hope and common purpose during difficult times and it pinpoints the source of the hardship which is interpreted as a threat to the group’s existence. This differentiation generally carries with it the devaluation of the outgroup which is socialised through cultural symbols such as media products and religious framing. Eventually, this oppositional definition of identity becomes a self-evident truth (cultural prejudice). These conditions give rise to articulations of an unfair order of things for which they are to blame and which needs to be rectified (Staub, 1985: 61-70). Such an environment is ripe for gross violations of human rights against the outgroup as the Rwandan genocide shows (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2014).
‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) was Trump’s campaign slogan and is now his presidency’s mantra. MAGA has come to be associated with the threat of terrorism, the threat of immigration (both in terms of depriving Americans from jobs and changing American culture) and taking back power and wealth from the elite. The key political initiatives that correspond with this ideology are the wall on the U.S. - Mexico border, the Muslim Ban,
1 It should be noted that the current edition of the book was issued in 2010. This is the edition I have used for citations.
2 Due to the lack of academic writing available, most of the data has been drawn from media sources. Wherever possible, I have focused on archive newspapers.