In the bizarre carnival that is the 2016 Presidential campaign, one almost expects to hear ideas and statements that strain the bounds of credulity. After all, these are politicians, and politicians are known for their tendency to say or do anything in order to get those precious votes.
The purpose of this essay is not to promote (or criticize) any political campaign, but instead to put to rest a ridiculous idea that has sprung up online, and even in some media. This is the notion that Donald Trump has been using secret and scary tactics of “mass hypnosis” to bamboozle voters into liking him and voting for him. This is how they try to explain Trump’s unexpected popularity with voters across many demographic lines.
First, let’s be clear about what we mean when we say “mass hypnosis.” Certainly, this may mean the practice of actively engaging a crowd of onlookers to follow harmless suggestions that may be somewhat embarrassing to the subjects later. Such suggestions may include imagining that one’s arm is being pulled up by a bunch of helium balloons, or that the arm is being weighed down by stacks of barbell weights. Stage hypnotists do it all the time.
In the case of Trump, however, what is being alleged by some is really a form of mind control. According to Wikipedia, mind control is “a controversial theory that human subjects can be indoctrinated in a way that causes “an impairment of autonomy, an inability to think independently, and a disruption of beliefs and affiliations. In this context, brainwashing refers to the involuntary reeducation of basic beliefs and values.”
The reason the theory is controversial is that it has never been demonstrated and replicated in any scientific setting of which I am aware, although attempts have been made. Still, the idea has many proponents. Some believe that charismatic figures like Adolph Hitler exercised some form of mass hypnosis over the German public during his rise to power. Then again, maybe he was just saying things that appealed to the German citizens of that time.
The reality is that even highly trained hypnotherapists can’t get anyone to do anything that is against their deeply held morals. People will follow harmless suggestions from a hypnotist because they know that the suggestions are harmless. Watching a speech by a political candidate, however, bears no resemblance to a hypnosis session, at least for most of us.
Then there is what I would call the Svengali theory. Some online writers allege that Hitler–and later Trump–are utilizing some arcane, subtle eye, hand and finger movements that somehow put viewers under a spell. While that method worked wonderfully for magician Vincent Price in the movie “The Raven,” its efficacy in real life remains doubtful.
And here is one more thing to consider. If we hypnotists were capable of exerting such power as the mass hypnosis theorists, suggest, I can assure you we would all be wealthy beyond our dreams and that we would occupy all the positions of power in the world. I can safely say, however, that this is not the case.
I’m sure it must be confounding for political scientists and pundits to explain Mr. Trump’s popularity, but if they are counting on mass hypnosis as the answer, I’m afraid they are out of luck.