A few days ago, I watched a video that I found, perhaps surprisingly, very disturbing. There was no bloodshed–no violence of any kind–nor was anyone verbally abused. No animals, even, were harmed in the making of it. In fact, the video was meant to be humorous. It was a Triumph the Insult Comedy Dog special, produced by Funny or Die, in which a group of Donald Trump supporters is pranked. If you aren’t one of the two and a half million people who’ve already seen it, it’s worth taking fifteen minutes of your time to watch.
The premise of the prank, designed by Triumph’s creator and voice Robert Smigel, was to attempt to trick members of a Trump focus group with fake campaign ads. As Smigel told Variety‘s “PopPolitics” on Sirius XM, “All we were really hoping for is that they would believe that the ads were real. That was the goal, to fool them, and give the piece some added life by seeing people just react honestly to it.”
The group’s reactions are certainly honest. They earnestly discuss–and voice their almost unqualified approval for–every idea, from installing gun dispensers in women’s bathrooms to forcing “150 million Mexicans” into shock collars to building “four-star abortion resorts” in economically depressed areas. Though there are a few bemused expressions as the participants view the phony commercials, and at one point a woman does appear to object to late-term abortions (though she fails to elucidate exactly where the line should be drawn), they neither reject the proposals nor express doubt as to their authenticity. One man, remarking on a plan to lock Mexican immigrants in Porta Potties and transport them across the border on trucks, compares Donald Trump to the illustrious inventors of the lightbulb and iPhone.
I knew the video was supposed to be funny, but I didn’t feel at all like laughing as I watched it. I felt more like cringing, or crying, or throwing up. When it was over, I sat in stunned silence for a minute or two before calling my husband into the room. “You’ve got to see this,” I said.
During my time as a high school English teacher, my tenth-grade classes studied the novel Night by Elie Wiesel. As a supplement to historical information about the Holocaust, we also read about Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments. Milgram, a professor at Yale, set up a series of experiments in the early 1960s that sought to determine to what degree and under what conditions participants could be induced to inflict physical harm on total strangers for no significant reason. The methodology was as follows: an administrator, a volunteer, and a “learner” would meet in a vacant room on the Yale campus. The administrator would ask the volunteer–the “teacher”–to administer electric shocks when the learner failed to correctly identify word pairs. What the volunteers didn’t know was that the learners were actually collaborators and no shocks were being delivered. The purpose of the experiment was to see what percentage of volunteers would go on to administer the full 450 volts–a potentially fatal electric shock–even as learners screamed in pain from behind a partition.
Before beginning the experiments, Milgram polled his students and colleagues at Yale and dozens of psychiatrists, all of whom predicted that a very small number of participants (one percent or fewer) would continue to administer the shocks in increasing increments until reaching the full 450 volts. In fact, 65 percent–two-thirds–of participants delivered the final voltage.
Milgram redesigned the experiment with several variations–all-women test groups, non-university locations, administrators in regular clothes rather than lab coats, etc.–but under every set of circumstances the number of participants willing to administer the highest voltage was much higher than predicted. Under every set of circumstances, that is, except one: when two other teachers (actually collaborators) refused to obey the administrator and continue the experiment, the volunteer almost always refused as well.
At the same time Stanley Milgram was conducting his experiments in New Haven, the German Nazi Adolf Eichmann was standing trial for war crimes in Jerusalem. Hannah Arendt later wrote about the trial in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, in which she argued that Eichmann was neither a sociopath nor an ideologically-driven fanatic; he was just a regular guy. Indeed, the team of psychologists who studied him found that not only did he exhibit no signs of mental illness, but the most striking thing about Eichmann was how completely normal he was.
In her account, Arendt describes Eichmann, who had little education and lower than average intelligence, with words like “stupid” and “clown.” Having been unsuccessful both at school and in the workforce, he was far more motivated by personal advancement than by ideology. Eichmann admitted during the trial that seeing the respectable citizens of Germany embrace Hitler’s Final Solution made it easier for him to participate in its implementation.
Such is the banality of evil, that ordinary people are just as likely as bloodthirsty monsters to let–even to make–it happen.
Which brings me back to the members of Trump’s focus group. They too look like perfectly normal people. There isn’t a neo-Nazi or a Klansman in the bunch. It’s easy to imagine them cooking dinner or playing with their children or grandchildren; some, no doubt, are churchgoers. And yet, even as they try to work out the logistics of making guns available for use against transgender people or debate whether or not late-term abortions for impoverished women should be incentivized with casino chips, they never seem to question the morality of such acts. One participant only expresses reservations about locking human beings in Porta Potties and shipping them to another country when it occurs to her that “one of us” could mistakenly get locked inside. It’s as if a group of reasonable-seeming people, after reading Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” arrived at the consensus, “What a visionary idea! Their babies! Of course!”
The most appalling moment for me came when, discussing options for how best to give electric shocks to border crossers, one woman suggests a vaccine rather than a shock collar. When the moderator asks how such a thing might be accomplished, the woman answers, laughing, “They wouldn’t know. They’d think they were getting vaccinated for something.” (Incidentally, the same participant later endorses a plan to lower Chinese I.Q.s by “injecting their water with various painting solvents.”)
One thing was clear: the members of the focus group were prepared to accept whatever idea they believed Donald Trump had put forward, and based on how few Republican public figures have disavowed Trump (to their credit, some have, though I think it’s noteworthy that none did until months after he made his infamous claim about Mexican drug dealers and rapists), I don’t think we could reasonably expect a significant number of them to stand up to him after the election either.
His supporters obviously believe that Donald Trump, having subverted everything we thought was true about our political system in the course of a few short months, can accomplish the seemingly impossible–and, as a matter of fact, I don’t disagree with them. If a man with no political experience whatsoever, who’s patently unfit for public office, even, to invoke the old saw, that of dogcatcher, now finds himself with a 50/50 shot at the presidency of the United States, what can’t he do? Perhaps the ideas in the series of fake commercials won’t be on the table, but some very like them may. The deportation of millions of people seems improbable, for example, but Donald Trump hasn’t given any indication (other than not mentioning it in the presence of actual Mexicans) that he wouldn’t pursue such a plan if elected president. A complete ban on Muslims attempting to enter the United States sounds extreme, but it’s exactly what Trump has promised–and it begs the question, what about the Muslims already within our borders? Might they not be rounded up and placed in internment camps, like those used to house Japanese-Americans during World War II? At the very least, couldn’t the government impose a ban on hijabs, burkas, burkinis, and the like? It’s been attempted elsewhere in the First World. The federal government had to take Donald Trump and his father to court in the 1970s after the Justice Department investigated their practice of turning away potential Black tenants, and a recent New York Times investigation revealed “a long history of racial bias at his family’s properties, in New York and beyond.” Can we really believe that he’d fight for equal treatment for African-Americans if he were to become president?
If November comes and goes without seeing Donald Trump elected president, I think many of us will give a collective sigh of relief at having averted a potential disaster. But our relief will be tinged with a lingering uneasiness. Our eyes have been opened by this campaign to how very fragile our democracy is, and how much in need of vigilant protection. The racism awakened by Trump’s campaign won’t disappear just because he loses the election; indeed, it might intensify, as it has during President Obama’s administration. So, though a battle will have been won, the larger war will remain to be fought.
I wonder how the focus group dynamic might have been different if a single person had stood up and said, “I think this has to be a joke,” or “This is against everything we stand for as Americans”? If some of the focus group members, or the moderator, had been African-American, or Asian-American, or Hispanic? And what about the participants–and there were several–who didn’t speak at all? Were they really in agreement with the absurd ideas they were being pitched, or just unwilling to call attention to themselves by disagreeing?
As Edmund Burke famously stated, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” That is all that’s necessary, but sometimes, given the right conditions, the good people are also the ones throwing the switches. If Stanley Milgram’s experiment and Adolf Eichmann’s trial teach us anything, it’s that we can never afford to “go along” with evil. We must be the respectable citizens whose dissent makes the Eichmanns among us think twice, the “teachers” whose refusal to hurt innocent people prompts others to take their own stands. We must find the courage to oppose evil, in all its banality, or we may regret too late that we didn’t.
A native of the North Carolina foothills, April Vázquez holds a B.A. in Literature and Language from the University of North Carolina at Asheville and an M.A. in the Teaching of English as a Second Language from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in León, Guanajuato, Mexico, where she homeschools her daughters Daisy, Dani, and Dahlia. April’s work has been published or is forthcoming in The Elephant Journal, The Missing Slate, Windhover, Manifest-Station, The New Plains Review, and The Fieldstone Review.