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The Republican Milgram Experiment

GOP leaders are administering dangerous shocks to the heart of U.S. democracy, and they can't stop themselves.

Popperfoto/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s increasingly grotesque behavior is not just the defining aspect of his presidential campaign, it’s an ongoing test of character for the elected Republicans who have endorsed him.

The stakes of that test reached a new plateau when Trump attacked the family of a Muslim American soldier killed in Iraq, after his parents’ appearance at the Democratic convention. Khizr Khan’s Thursday speech has, somewhat unexpectedly, become the most iconic moment of either convention, his searing indictment of Trump—“you have sacrificed nothing, and no one”—compared to the immortal words that helped unravel McCarthyism: “Have you no sense of decency, sir?”

Trump’s response was an offensive non-sequitur intended to degrade and dismiss his victims and enemies. In interviews with The New York Times and ABC News, he mocked Khan’s faith with the suggestion that Khan had forbidden his wife, who stood silently by his side on the stage, from speaking in public. This was horrifying enough, but the thing that made it vintage Trump was that it was premised on a lie. After the convention, but before Trump had gone on the attack, Ghazala Khan had spoken freely, through incredible grief, in an interview with MSNBC. “I told him, ‘don’t be a hero, go safely and come back as my son.’ He came back as a hero.”

The reaction from Trump’s GOP enablers tracked their statements about nearly every Trump controversy. As usual, electorally vulnerable Republicans condemned Trump unequivocally, while party leaders like Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan contradicted his words only, as if they’d been uttered by a disembodied voice, rather than by the standard bearer of their party. None of them revised their view that Trump should be the next president.

This weak-kneed response surprises and disappoints all manner of opinion makers and anti-Trump Republicans. But the real surprise will come if, in the midst of a closely contested election, Trump’s chief party backers ever experience an epiphany and rescind their endorsements. As stipulated above, this is a test, but it’s one we’ve seen before, and the results are a disaster for those hoping Ryan and McConnell will begin to exhibit daring leadership.

In the early 1960s, the American social psychologist Stanley Milgram set about to understand why German enablers of Adolf Hitler were so bendable to orders from figures of authority. Each run of Milgram’s famous experiment involved three participants: an administrator, a subject, and an actor portraying another subject. The real subjects were intentionally misled into believing they weren’t subjects at all, but mere functionaries, testing the actors’ capacity to learn and whether the penalty of painful electric shocks would help jog memories. In reality, the point was to determine if people who believe themselves to be functionaries will participate in acts of evil, and how willingly.

The Milgram experiment may be the most famous social-science experiment ever conducted. But despite its pervasiveness, its findings remain startling. When an actor’s memory “failed,” the subject was instructed to administer a shock; each successive shock was 15 volts stronger than the previous one, topping out at 450 volts. Along the way, the subject would hear the actors wailing in agony from an adjacent room. Eventually the screaming would stop, as if the person on the receiving end of the shock had lost consciousness or died.

Nearly every subject at some point expressed concern for the actor’s well-being, and reservations about continuing the experiment. When they did, the administrator would admonish them to continue—and reiterate that they would not be held responsible.

About two-thirds of the subjects heeded the orders all the way up to the potentially fatal maximum voltage. There was nothing unique about Germans, it turned out, that made them unusually susceptible to fascism; most people will figure out ways to justify things they believe are required of them, even if they know those things to be wrong.

Republicans like McConnell and Ryan, and the vast majority of elected members of the party, are the unknowing subjects of their own Milgram experiment in 2016—except in this instance there are real victims, including vital civic norms, and innocent people whose only sin is finding themselves in Trump’s way.

In this metaphor, Trump himself is an increasingly dangerous electrical current, and Republican leaders are allowing it to flow by continuing to support his campaign, making his depredations seem acceptable. The administrator isn’t an individual, per se, as in the Milgram experiment, but the mixture of incentives that impel party actors to do what they believe is necessary to win. No single person is telling Republicans they must enable Trump; lust for power and aversion to loss are motivating them, and in this case, these forces make a toxic brew.

Trump’s attack on the Khans represents another incremental uptick in voltage. In June, when Trump claimed an Indiana-born federal judge overseeing a fraud case against Trump University couldn’t be impartial because he’s “Mexican,” it was a shock, but the response was relatively muted, because the judge, Gonzalo Curiel, was unable to respond himself. In this case, the pain is expressed widely, but most hauntingly by Ghazala Khan herself. “My husband asked me if I wanted to speak, but I told him I could not,” she wrote. “Walking onto the convention stage, with a huge picture of my son behind me, I could hardly control myself. What mother could? Donald Trump has children whom he loves. Does he really need to wonder why I did not speak?”

Ryan’s response to the controversy omitted the word “Trump” and paid lip service to the Khan family, saying Captain Khan’s “sacrifice—and that of Khizr and Ghazala Khan—should always be honored. Period.” But honoring their sacrifice, in Ryan’s mind, is fully compatible with walking into a booth 100 days from now and casting a vote for someone the Khans are pleading with him to disavow; someone who wants to ban Muslims like them from entering the country.

Neither Ryan nor McConnell responded to Khizr Khan’s direct appeal to their sense of duty to country over party, but as it happens, Ryan has addressed the point in the past. At a regular Capitol press briefing one month ago, after Ryan had decided to endorse Trump, Todd Zwillich, of The Takeaway public radio show asked him, “have you ever thought about whether someone in your position needs to reject [this] for the health of the country, and not party or election?” Ryan responded by explaining why he feels it’s appropriate for him to follow partisan orders.

“If I lead a schism in our party, then I am guaranteeing that a liberal progressive becomes president, and continues these policies, which I think are extremely detrimental to the country. I think losing the Supreme Court for a generation is detrimental. And I’ve said all along, we want to see the campaign improve; we want to see the campaign improve in tone, in approach, in every respect. … When I see and hear things that I don’t agree with, that I think are contrary to our principles as conservatives, as Americans, I’m going to speak out on those things—I’m going to be really clear. You know that. But at the same time, the last thing I want to do is help Hillary Clinton become president of the United States.”

He’ll admit to being worried about the stranger begging for his life in the next room, in other words, but he won’t do anything to stop the current from flowing.

Viewed from the outside, this tepid response strikes Trump’s opponents, and anti-Trump conservatives in particular, as a remarkable demonstration of moral cowardice—the kind of thing people watching imagine they’d never do. But if anything is truly surprising about it, it’s just how neatly it all conforms to what theory tells us about how people who see themselves as functionaries view themselves and one another.

“To disobey would bring no material loss to the subject,” Milgram wrote in the concluding discussion of his findings. “No punishment would ensue. It is clear from the remarks and outward behavior of many participants that in punishing the victim they are often acting against their own values. Subjects often expressed deep disapproval of shocking a man in the face of his objections; and others denounced it as stupid and senseless. Yet the majority complied with the experimental commands.”

One of the seminal findings of the Milgram experiment is that spectators, like Ryan and McConnell’s critics, consistently overestimate the moral firmness of their fellow man. The results were “unexpected to persons who observed the experiment in progress, through one-way mirrors,” Milgram continued. “Observers often uttered expressions of disbelief upon seeing a subject administer more powerful shocks to the victim. These persons had a full acquaintance with the details of the situation, and yet systematically underestimated the amount of obedience that subjects would display.”

Republican leaders are cogs because most people are cogs. We can interpret their actions as evidence of their humanity, rather than evidence of pure cynicism or villainy. But that doesn’t mean they ought to be forgiven. Most humans don’t seek to become leaders of major political parties—and political parties that elevate cogs, rather than leaders, into positions of power deserve our condemnation.

By failing to repudiate Trump, Ryan and McConnell have revealed themselves to be pliant men—figureheads rather than stewards of their party. As such, the surprise would be if they finally did reach a breaking point and took a definitive stand against Trump. That is only likely to happen, though, if Trump’s antics damage him so badly that supporting him becomes more harmful to the GOP’s interests than opposing him. But about 40 percent of the country, and nearly 90 percent of self-identified Republicans, want Trump to win the presidency. Trump’s offenses to decency and democratic norms will eventually reach the equivalent of a 450-volt shock, and elected Republicans will find a way to justify directing it right at the heart of American democracy.