Creator of Stanford Prison Experiment on Trump's camps: It's how Nazi guards behaved

Philip Zimbardo, whose work explored the psychology of cruelty: America under Trump is a "nightmare situation"

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published September 12, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio/Paul Sakuma)
Stanford psychology professor Philip Zimbardo (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio/Paul Sakuma)

Thousands of migrant and refugee children have still not been reunited with their families. Many may never be returned to their parents.

Children being held in Donald Trump’s concentration camps and other detention centers have been sexually assaulted by staff members.

A new lawsuit against the Trump administration alleges that Trump’s ICE and Border Patrol enforcers are abusing teenage girls and young women by denying them proper sanitary products, leaving the girls in bloody clothes and refusing to allow them to properly bathe. The same lawsuit claims that children are made to fight for the food that guards throw on the floor in their cages.

Mental health experts have continued to document that children in these camps are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder — and will likely experience negative long-term effects far into their adult lives.

The administration has announced it will now ignore the Flores agreement, which since 1997 has mandated a minimum standard of humane care for unaccompanied minors held in government custody. Now children may be held indefinitely, and more migrant and refugee families will be detained.

The Trump regime would like to deport sick and dying immigrants who are in the United States to receive urgent medical care. People may well die as a direct result of these actions.

Military veterans — many of whom have served in Iraq, Afghanistan and other theaters of war — are now subject to deportation if they happen not to be American citizens.

In total, this is a pattern of systemic abuse by the Trump regime against a group of nonwhite people it has designated as being outside of normal society, and not covered by basic human rights protections.

Trump’s regime of cruelty is not being enacted by faceless robots or automatons. These are evil acts done by one group of human beings against another group of human beings.

Psychologist Philip Zimbardo became famous for examining the mass psychology and group dynamics of human authority, violence and evil in his landmark 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment. Zimbardo has also explored similar questions in his numerous books, most notably “The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil.

I recently spoke to Zimbardo about Donald Trump’s concentration camps, how ICE and Border Patrol and other Trump enforcers rationalize their cruelty against migrants and refugees, and what these inhumane policies reflect about our president’s mental health. Zimbardo also discussed the way Trump’s supporters are attracted to his cruelty because of their cult-like relationship with him — a relationship that represents a dire threat to the safety of our country and the future of our democracy.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Almost three years into Trump’s presidency, are things better or worse than you expected?

Things are much worse than I could have imagined — and I began being very pessimistic. Everything I've seen and heard about Donald Trump shows that he is an "excessive present hedonist." That is, he lives in the immediate present. There's no future. There's no past. And he lives for pleasure. Trump’s problem there is also combined with him being an extreme narcissist. Everything begins with him. Donald Trump cannot relate to anything which does not have any value to him. Usually money. Also allegiance. People must be loyal to him as if he were a king. The problem with present hedonists like Donald Trump is they make decisions on the spur of the moment, without ever thinking of consequences. This has been happening throughout his entire regime.

On impulse, Trump will call a foreign leader and say, “Hey, why don't we meet” rather than having his staff set a formal meeting. He has a meeting, and nothing is accomplished. Of course, Trump then says it was a fantastic meeting. Everything is better than it really is. We could be on the brink of war with Iran. His tariffs with China are catastrophic, with profoundly negative consequences for American farmers. His egocentric wall will cost billions of dollars.

It doesn't matter to him. Donald Trump is a great danger to American society and the world.

The other aspect of great concern regarding Trump is that present hedonists are prone to addiction. For Trump it's tweets. He's getting up at all hours of the day and night to send out tweets. Many of them don't make sense. Many of them are filled with spelling and grammatical errors.

It is clear to foreign leaders that Donald Trump is an ignoramus. He is a president of the United States the likes of which they have never seen.

How does Donald Trump’s "present moment" hedonism factor into his pattern of being credibly accused of sexual assault and harassment by numerous women?

Present hedonists are always seeking pleasure of all kinds. For Trump it is sexual pleasure. Obviously, he overeats. He's obese. That pattern can't be broken.

How do we connect Trump's personality and behavior with the brutality against nonwhite migrants, refugees and immigrants in his concentration camps?  

Donald Trump’s behavior is giving permission for the brutality in his prisons and detention centers. The border patrol and ICE agents are doing whatever they think is necessary to maintain Trump’s version of law and order, which really means oppression. You can very easily see — in the extreme of what we are seeing now in Trump’s camps — exactly how guards in the Nazi concentration camps behaved. Those Nazi guards believed whatever Hitler and Goering said about the Jews potentially as poison and invaders in the “Fatherland." Now, instead of Jews, for Trump and his supporters it is people from Latin and South America.

There are also Facebook and online groups where Border Patrol and ICE enforcers share pictures of dead migrants and make jokes about feeding people to alligators. They say vile things about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, including jokes about raping her. Trump’s border enforcers are also pleading with Trump to “let us take the gloves off.” It seems like collective pathology.

What those guards and border patrol and immigration agents are doing now is horrible enough. But now they are even going so far as to say, “Please, Donald Trump, let us take the gloves off so we can do what we really want to, which is to run rampant, rape the women, batter the men and have the children watch.” It is inconceivable. This is the United States of America in 2019. America under Donald Trump is acting like a right-wing, authoritarian country.

Donald Trump is symbolic of the terrible things that are happening about freedom, justice and liberty around the world with the rise of right-wing authoritarianism.

Are Trump’s supporters capable of understanding that they are complicit with the evil things his regime is doing? Do they feel shame or guilt?

They do not think in those terms. A colleague of mine, Steven Hassan, has been talking about the cult of Trump for a long time. He is an expert on mind control. Trump’s followers fit the model, the stereotype of a cult follower. But with Trump there are tens of millions of cult members. Most cults are relatively small. Maybe the largest had a few hundred people. The cult of Trump is millions of people. We've never seen a cult of that magnitude. These are the people who are going to vote Donald Trump back into office in 2020. This is a truly scary nightmare situation.

How do presumably good people — the guards and ICE enforcers — end up doing the horrible things that are taking place in Trump’s concentration camps? Research shows that people attracted to law enforcement tend to be authoritarian. But that does not explain the cruelty we are seeing done in Trump’s name.

We've seen it around the world. This is an example of good people doing evil things. A negative social situation makes people do bad things. It can start with someone needing a job. Working in Trump’s camps pays well. But now that good person is part of a group. Now the question as a member of a group becomes how can you demonstrate that what you're doing is, A) right, and B) that you have the power to do almost anything you think is appropriate, without limits.

Much of this bad behavior is anonymous. There is little surveillance or accountability. For example, in prison in America the public knows about the horrible things that happen there when prisoners riot. Even if you're a good guard, once you put on the uniform, you are indistinguishable from the bad guys. You are just a guard.

The way, as a guard, that you deal with your fear is by showing domination. This is done by internalizing a belief that these prisoners know that they are nothing, and we can essentially kill them. We could say they attempted escape. So then guards become more and more extremely hostile. The guards become creatively evil because they don't want to keep following the same boring routine each day to suppress the prisoners. The guards use their creativity to make the cruelty more creative.

In Trump’s concentration camps there are people living in filth. The children report that the guards wake them up at night and don't let them sleep, that the guards kick them and call them names. There are numerous reports of women and children being sexually assaulted in these detention centers. How does a person rationalize doing such things, abusing children and other weak and vulnerable people?

What are they thinking? The guards in Trump’s detention centers have a blanket image of dirty, filthy foreigners from Mexico and Latin and South America. It is simple for them. They tell themselves that “Our boss, the president of the United States, says it is true.” The prisoners do not deserve any respect. Once human beings are stereotyped as belonging to a subordinate group, any differences between members of the category get eliminated. It doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman. It doesn't matter if it's a child. It doesn't matter if they're sick and weak and need help.

Once you say “illegal aliens,” they become unworthy people. At that point Trump and his guards can essentially do whatever they feel like doing on a particular day. Again, it's the conformity. So if one of your fellow guards is doing something cruel, it gives you permission to also do it. Very few people are willing to step up in those situations by being different, by speaking out or doing something to stop it. Most people just go along with what their fellow guards are doing. They give silent approval.

The new narrative is about how there are “good” ICE and Border Patrol agents and that there are only a few “bad apples.” It is the same narrative that is used to make excuses for police brutality against black people. What do we know about “good” prison guards?

Usually, the rest of the guards simply isolate that one person who is trying to be a good person. In my study, we had a few guards who didn't abuse the prisoners. The other guards simply used them. They were the ones who would go get food. They were the ones who essentially did the bidding of the other guards, the mean guards. But the “good” guards never, ever did anything kind for the prisoners because that would be upsetting to the "bad" guards.

The Trump regime, as planned by White House adviser Stephen Miller, has implemented a nationwide strategic plan of terror against migrant, refugee and immigrant communities. This escalation is barbaric.

The last time we've seen such a thing at the national level was in Nazi Germany. This is exactly what happened. In Nazi Germany they began by labeling Jews as vermin, having images of Jews as rats. This is the same thing as Donald Trump saying these migrants are filthy, dirty, criminals, drug addicts and drug dealers. Again, this is stereotyping a whole group of people in order to dehumanize them.

In this case, for Trump it is anybody who's dark-skinned. Most of the ICE guards are white. This helps to establish that there will be no humanity or caring for the people who are part of a different group that has been stigmatized. The cruelty begins with a slippery slope. And as Stanley Milgram showed in his famous experiment, at the end is death and lethal action.

This is how most authoritarian regimes work. They start with very little, very small, negative things. But then it's going to be systematically increased. For the Nazis it was concentration camps and then mass extermination. I can't imagine the latter happening here in America. But I can imagine the detention centers becoming more like concentration camps. Once a person is imprisoned in the concentration camps, they lose their identity.

The logic for many in the public and for Trump’s supporters is that those people are in prison so there's got to be a good reason why an American judge put them there. If you're in prison, then you're a prisoner and you must have done something wrong. Therefore, you deserve abusive treatment — you deserve to be "put in your place."

How can your landmark Stanford Prison Experiment explain the broader social forces that Donald Trump has summoned and what that reveals about the United States in this moment?

Donald Trump is both the president of the United States and the superintendent of this national prison that he's created. If he's the superintendent, there's nobody above him to tell Trump that what he is doing is wrong, illegal or immoral. It's like a runaway train. Once you start that engine going, there's no stopping it. The opposition is not organized well enough yet.

Many of Trump’s followers do not live meaningful lives. They're living through him vicariously. Trump’s supporters want him to be more extreme. Trump’s supporters do not accept ambiguity. Everything must be simple and extreme.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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