I imagine many people see themselves as rebels, resisting authoritarianism everywhere for truth, justice, and the American way. I tend to think that we, as a species, probably tend to conform more than we’d like to admit.
We might even promote the terrible ideas of authorities without question.
For example, you may have heard of the infamous 1963 experiment from the Yale psychologist, Stanley Milgram, who tested the power of authority over people in a lab. His subjects were told they were part of a learning experiment. They were placed in a room with an actor in a lab coat who pretended to be a “scientist,” and they also saw a so-called “learner” (also an actor) restrained to a chair.
The participants were to deliver certain information to the learner-actor who had to remember it. When the learner-actor failed (as planned) to remember certain information, the participant was told by the scientist-actor to increase the voltage on a piece of (fake) equipment that sounded like it delivered a shock. (The participant did not know it was fake.)
The learner would, as planned, continue to fail to remember the information, which meant the participant—believing it was real—had to increase the voltage each time.
At some point, the distressed and agitated learner-actor begged the participant to stop delivering the shocks, but the scientist-actor assured the participant it was safe—even at levels marked dangerous—and insisted they continue. At around 300-volts, the learner-actor pounded on the wall demanding they stop.
Here’s the thing: even though participants believed that the learner-actor was actually being shocked, many of them would still deliver the shock at the command of the scientist-actor.
Of all the 40 participants, only 14 eventually reached a limit on how far they would take the experiment, defying the scientist-actor and refusing to continue. An amazing 26 participants obeyed orders until the end.
Milgram’s study raised questions about his methods and ethics, but he revealed just how far individuals would go when pushed by an authority.
The rise of President Donald Trump is the story of an authoritarian, one who demands obedience. This is exemplified by the recent statement from White House advisor Stephen Miller, who said that Trump’s executive powers “will not be questioned.”
There are those who seek this sort of authoritarian approach to politics, who—if told by the President—are eager to push the shock button. This draw to authoritarianism is, as I see it, also what drove many evangelicals to the polls in November.
This weekend I’m writing about this at The Daily Beast and I have some interesting interviews with specialists on what drives the authoritarian impulse and the tendency to see God behind it.
“Mr. President, in the Bible rain is a sign of God’s blessing. And it started to rain…when you came to the platform,” said Reverend Franklin Graham in his inaugural benediction before President Donald J. Trump.
Graham, President of Samaritan’s Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, was one of six, predominantly Christian spiritual leaders praying on January 20. It’s his firm conviction that the election was the work of divine providence.
“I believe,” Graham told Fox News, that “in this election, no question, God’s hand was in it.”
Photo: Nico Beard (CC0)