Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously told the American people that “the only thing we have to fear is fear, itself.” Today people are afraid of the direction that Donald Trump is taking our nation, and I think that’s good. It means they take the threat seriously. My concern is that we do not fall into the state that psychologists call “learned helplessness.”
As I watched last night’s newscasts of the James Comey firing, I no doubt joined millions of others who were galvanized, outraged, activated, and afraid. Part of me said, “so this is what it feels like to live in an authoritarian society.” You see so many unethical practices, so many activities that turn your stomach. But the moment you think about objecting, publicly objecting, you swallow any thoughts of opposition—and you swallow your pride—for fear of reprisals. You learn to be docile.
There is a research literature on learned helplessness, initiated by psychologist Martin Seligman. Seligman applied the research to both dogs and people. He demonstrated that learned helplessness is produced by aversive and painful stimuli that we are unable to escape or avoid. Like shocks and torture. Once learned, we fail to even try escaping new situations where the punishment. In effect, both animals and people feel that they have lost control of the situation and give up. As time goes by, the original stimulus isn’t required—only a hint of it is enough—to keep the experimental dog or the oppressed populous in order.
I have been predicting for some time that Trump might well move towards autocratic government—running it, as he said, like a business, in which one man rules. I have said that he would find an excuse to limit, maybe banish, democratic forms in order to fight an enemy—any enemy that he could find or create. The most likely enemies to require “wartime readiness” for example, seemed to be Syria, ISIS, North Korea, Al Qaeda, Afghanistan or any number of “threats” to our national security. Along with others, I call this the Reichstag moment. Hitler used the (mysterious) burning of the German Parliament to essentially institute martial law. Dictators throughout the world and throughout time have created many similar excuses to take control.
But I can also imagine Trump just wearing down and maybe eliminating the domestic checks and balances to Executive Branch control. He has been attacking judicial opposition. He disregards House and Senate calls for information. He ignores all criticism about conflicts of interest, creating what looks like the gigantic Banana Republic of America. Now he has fired the person who is conducting an investigation into his likely collusion with Russian hackers to undermine American elections, and into his probable indebtedness to Russian businessmen who exert control over his foreign business investments. Both Comey and former NSA Director, James Clapper, have hinted at this.
As the former Acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, has made clear, Trump and his associates are compromised, open to bribery because of shady business practice. By doing so, they have placed the American nation in compromising positions. Yates has been fired. Preet Bharara, who seemed to be investigating Trump’s foreign business interests is gone. So, too, all of the United States Attorneys. Michael Flynn is gone. Devin Nunes is gone. Anyone and everyone who have information that threatens the Trump regime is being eliminated. The approach does not measure up to Putin’s style of simply killing the opposition but the effect of Trump’s efforts to get rid of anyone who is more loyal to the truth than to him is chilling enough.
As he eliminates the opposition, Trump amplifies the power of the loyalists. Look at the increasing and increasingly public place of The Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, who has supposedly recused himself from both the Russian investigation and the Comey-Clinton-letters investigation. Sessions is the one who recommended that Comey, who has led the investigations, be fired. Watch closely and you will see Sessions’ increasingly strong support for police departments and the increased incarceration of both immigrants and homegrown criminals. Then there is the deregulation of the web, eliminating the principle that everyone should have equal access. I don’t think that it requires conspiratorial thinking to see Trump exercising more and more control over the levers of power in the United States.
Look at the impotence of a greedy, Republican Congress, hoping that they can use the value-free, winner-take-all Trump to their own ends—the repeal of the ACA and tax breaks for the wealthy, for example—even as he tries to break the power and the will of its investigative committees. They will soon learn that they have made a pact with the devil. Even so, it seems likely that, with McConnell and Ryan in leadership, they will become increasingly afraid to oppose Trump. His motto—“Anybody who hits me, we’re gonna hit ten times harder”—will be more frequently the order of the day.
Since Donald Trump was elected, opposition has run high among Democrats and progressives. There is tremendous activity at state and local levels. The internet is brimming with calls to action and for financial contributions to sustain the resistance. Since the House repeal of the ACA, the cry for action has increased further. We have seen the 2018 elections as the great divide, the moment to put in a Democratic Congress able to finally stop both Trump and the right wing Republican agenda in their tracks. I can only hope the Resistance continues to build and then succeeds before Trump tightens his grip and before learned helplessness sets in.
Seligman’s experiments suggest that there is only one cure for helplessness. His dogs do not even try to escape because they have learned that nothing they do will stop the shock that taught them to be helpless in the first place. To change the expectations of the experimental animals, Seligman’s assistants literally picked the dogs up and moved their legs for them. They replicated what the dogs would need to do to escape the electrified grid that had tortured them. “This had to be done at least twice before the dogs would start willfully jumping over the barrier on their own. In contrast, threats, rewards, and observed demonstrations had no effect on the “helpless” Group 3 dogs.” We do not want to reach this point.
We are not dogs and unlike the inhabitants of long-lasting tyrannies like Cuba and Russia, we have not yet become helpless. But we must be quick before lethargy sets in. We need to lift up our legs now and fight for self determination. Trump may think this is his Reichstag moment. I believe it is our moment. As Chuck Schumer said yesterday, the Comey firing is a cover up of Nixonian proportions. There is a good chance that it is covering sins that far exceed any committed by Richard Nixon. Like Archibald Cox and Elliot Richardson did then, we must rise to this occasion. They had a Democratic Congress to support them. We don’t. Our call for action, then, needs to be all the greater.