I Blame Zimbardo

People continue to be flabbergasted that the anger behind Donald Trump’s support has not burned itself out yet. It must, they often insist, consume itself and leave former supporters gripped by boredom, lackadaisical, having spent their energy in acts of political catharsis before averaging out and backing a candidate of more substance, closer to the aims of the Republican Party. This is true for observers on both sides of the aisles and they’re both thoroughly wrong. It’s the kind of thinking, oddly enough, that led to the hallucinatory 2008 and 2012 predictions widely circulated within the Republican party (though both parties are guilty of this at random times) that they were about to win the presidency – a disconnect from the ground-level reality behind campaigns.

To offer a more grounded view of Trump’s supporters than I did in my previous post (regarding philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, Trump and Dante’s Inferno) let me turn to one of the most basic parts of any Psychology 101 curriculum for decades.

The support behind Trump is the Stanford Prison Experiment writ large with all the ethical and methodological issues still intact.

In 1971 psychology professor Philip Zimbardo began a two-week experiment in the basement of a Stanford University building in which students were divided up into guards and prisoners. Guards were given uniforms, batons and mirrored sunglasses to avoid eye contact. Prisoners were forced to wear uniforms with their prisoner number on them, and referred from there on as that number. Guards policed the prisoners in their cells and a few other confined areas, ensuring they acted “appropriately” and punishing displays of defiance.

By the second day both groups began to assume their assigned roles in big ways. Guards became much more authoritarian and began to target and torment prisoners in various ways. Prisoners began to defy that authority, act out, block access and respond with anger, hostility and hopelessness. Steps such as the removal of clothing or the refusal to let prisoners empty the “sanitation buckets” in their cells were taken, stripping prisoners of essential dignity. The entire experiment spiraled into a mountain of increasing ethical violations until a graduate student assigned to interview prisoners objected to the conditions.

It took less 6 days for the experiment to go so badly that it had to be terminated. Both prisoners and guards identified so deeply with their roles that they treated each other savagely. Six days.

I spent a few hours looking at the Trump corners of twitter and facebook today (for two good samples, check Mitt Romney’s facebook page and then go search “Mr Trump” on twitter – diehard supporters love using the “mister”). Reviewing the rhetoric of Trump supporters brought me to a conclusion: this is the Stanford Prison Experiment inscribed on presidential politics, graffiti’d like a vulgarity scratched on a lamppost. Trump supporters see themselves as prisoners and want to be the jailers, but in the meantime assume the roles they feel they’ve been forced into.

Zimbardo’s instructions for guards before his experiment began are preserved publically and quite on point here:

“You can create in the prisoners feelings of boredom, a sense of fear to some degree, you can create a notion of arbitrariness that their life is totally controlled by us, by the system, you, me, and they’ll have no privacy … We’re going to take away their individuality in various ways. In general what all this leads to is a sense of powerlessness. That is, in this situation we’ll have all the power and they’ll have none.”

And this is exactly what you see in the complaints of Trump’s political base – they are both bored and fearful, and feel that the world has exacted some terrible price upon their individuality and personal agency. They bemoan the total control that they perceive the government to be exerting and at the same time identify with it, often wanting to exact similar or worse upon their own enemies. To repeat: they’ve assumed the roles of powerless prisoners but fantasize of themselves as the jailers, using sadistic violence, vitriol and privilege manipulation to control and punish those they see as weaker. Shows of force are highly extolled virtues – everything else is met with sneering contempt (I’m again reminded of the Warren Ellis character presidential candidate Bob Heller – you can find a few relevant panels at the bottom of this post).

They have the anger of those who feel their dignity is assaulted every day, and so take on the mantle of the Undignified. No amount of dialogue or statesmanship is going to make a bit of difference in that case – it’s why appeals to presidential dignity like Romney’s today will be met with Trump explicitly saying Romney would’ve given him oral sex for an endorsement in 2012, for instance, to the raucous applause of his supporters and enthusiastic approval from his political base.

The Republican leadership – any leadership, really, but the Republican in particular – has no idea what to do with this. This kind of self-identification isn’t just a sort of fad-anger that can be redirected or tamped. And surely bringing people like Mitt Romney to try and stamp it out only fans the flames – in him they see another captor, an establishment jailer who they nonetheless picture themselves in the role of. They want to be successful capitalist so badly, the Bain Capital executive, the man in the pressed suit. But that desire to be Romney can’t become conscious and so is sublimated back into the unquenchable anger of a population that feels it’s been forced into indignity and barbarism.

They’ve been given a role, and they will play it until the experiment’s over. That they don’t see Trump as another jailer – one that’s bankrupted numerous legitimate business and crushed countless people much closer to the level of the supporters – is an artifact of fantastic marketing on Trump’s part. As long as he feeds the anger he gives them the only sense of agency they have.

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