The nightmare begins to take shape in our daily lives very shortly and all of us, even those who voted for Trump, must be wondering how the next four years will play out. For some, there is a hope, a vibrantly flaming hope, that jobs will come back, order will be restored and we will slip quickly back into the “good old days” of the 1950s.
Of course, that was the time when “men were men” and women knew their place. It was a time of lockstep adherence to daily life as those in power wanted it to proceed and others just had to accept their lot in lives. Throw in rampant Joe McCarthy paranoia about Communists and browbeating anyone of note was also part of the equation. Doesn’t sound too bright a time, does it?
In coal country, where too many suffer from unemployment and Black Lung Disease, the hope lives that they will be recognized and rewarded for their votes. The reality is that they will not get either and their illnesses will not be medically treated if their health insurance is cut off but that’s the promise of the new incoming administration. Dying wasn’t what they voted for, nor poverty for their children and extended families, but it may be what they get.
The poor have always received the dregs and their bottom-of-the-barrel existence has been glossed over as just so much collateral damage in a profit-seeking world. The only politician who paid any attention to their desperate situation was Robert F. Kennedy and you know what happened to him; murdered.
How many politicians made the trek to the dilapidated homes and saw the hungry children in their tattered clothing? How many saw the shacks in which they live or the shoeless feet of the children and the empty cupboards? School is a dream for the most naive as work and bringing in a pay check have always been tantamount. Hunger is just a part of life in their lives.
Those in hand-tailored suits, wearing expensive toupees and riding in private planes flew over them as though they were so much desolate landscape and dismissed them. Slag heaps and polluted water was invisible to them.
But these same gods of corporate America would make America great again as they drained, with blatant lies, the last bit of dignity from these people. These gritty American workers would be played in the most egregious manner. The ride to once-again-dashed hopes had begun.
Surviving in extremely difficult situations is possible and history has a number of examples, some truly extreme, others not so. But the message from all of them is that hope is there but we need to recognize it and that can take effort.
A sterling example of survival in extreme situations, not to say Trump will present anything near this, is contained in an article the psychoanalyst, Bruno Bettelheim wrote just after WWII. Bettelheim had been a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp and, although denied any writing materials, he memorized what he saw and committed it to paper on his release.
Often brutal in his assessment of how the Jews relinquished their freedom to the Nazis, the manuscript describes something we have come to know as “identification with the oppressor.” The idea he presented has merit today as Americans may find themselves doing the same thing to help themselves survive and, in so doing, denying their fellow citizens their liberties and their lives. Yes, they killed fellow prisoners in the camps, who they saw as informers, in an excruciating manner and pieced together bits of cloth to make something akin to Nazi uniforms. Chilling in its detail.
Some might call it identification with the aggressor or a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. But it comes down to giving up one’s own identity and bending yourself to the will and the characteristics of the oppressor in, actually, an attempt to survive. The brutality that Bettelheim found in his fellow prisons was
a hot topic for study in the 1950s and later. Researchers wanted to know if “normal” people would perform these actions in response to commands from those they perceived as powerful and who had power over them, whether real or imagined. It is the imagined power of a coat, a physical presence and a command that one researcher sought to explore.
Ironically, Bettelheim went on to open a world-famous treatment facility for children with autism and was later accused of abusing these children with physical measures such as hitting. This has been explained as a therapeutic technique he used, not a punitive measure as others have said. He claimed he, therefore, provided the children’s need for safety, predictability and direction. Predictability remained one of the main tenets of his method.
A more current test of the possibility of this happening was the famous, or infamous if you prefer, research of Stanley Milgram who authored something called the “agentic state.” During this state, it is possible to use a form of physical presence and assumed power to induce a person to perform acts they wouldn’t normally consider under any other circumstance. The title of his research was “Obedience to Authority.” He hoped to delve into personality disorders and torture.
Milgram’s research, which took place in urban Connecticut with a variety of men and women obtained through newspaper ads, was supposed to study the authoritarian personality. This disorder was felt to be the driving force behind the Nazi aggression toward European populations, specifically the Jews, gypsies and psychiatric patients. The basic question: Why did they comply with orders from Nazis to move into a ghetto and then onto the box cars to their death?
Several psychologists/psychiatrists (including Adorno), who had administered testing to Nazi officials after WWII, had devised the name for this personality disorder and Milgram was testing it out on the public. Their book described this personality disorder and its characteristics.
The research that Milgram performed found that ordinary people could be intimidated into giving “subjects” deadly shocks when told to do so. Milgram utilized something we’ve seen in dictators worldwide; authoritarian leadership style. We are seeing it even today.
One thing Milgram did find was that not everyone obeys. Who were the research subjects who refused? Women. For their lack of obedience, Milgram ignored this data in an effort, in my opinion, to bolster his other findings and affirm his thesis.
There were other questionable aspects to his research and, as a grad student, I made a phone call to him in his New York City university office and asked about his debriefing of his subjects and the consequences for their lives afterward. He quickly dismissed my concern and told me there was nothing unethical.
How do we survive in any situation of coercion or faced with an authoritarian leader? Mainly it involved maintaining our identity, a sense of hope and an understanding that we do have power.
The future is not written in stone and we can control our destinies, but we must keep believing in ourselves.