Later this summer, millions of Americans — from Oregon to South Carolina — will be looking skyward to witness a rare total solar eclipse as the moon briefly blots out the sun. Yet for so many in the United States, dark days aren’t really anything new. And they’re becoming all the more commonplace as Trump, Ryan, and McConnell advance a heartless agenda that dims the lights on pretty much everyone except the privileged few.
Fortunately, resistance groups have been working around the clock to blunt this ongoing assault on basic decency and the public good. They have a different reason to turn to the heavens: chronicles of aliens from outer space offer some valuable lessons about psychological challenges that lie ahead. Let’s consider three examples.
Our first stop is Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. On an autumn night back in 1938, thousands of radio listeners thought the Orson Welles adaptation of “The War of the Worlds” was the real thing: a live account of Martian invaders landing nearby. Panic ensued for those fooled by the broadcast’s air of authenticity – complete with “we interrupt our program” news bulletins. Some frantically called the local police to find out what protective steps they should take. Others fled from their homes seeking safety farther from the reported invasion site. Some fainted beside their radios. Within hours the hoax was revealed, but this “brush with death” remains a memorable testament to human gullibility.
The lesson from Grover’s Mill? Since we’re not very good at judging peril, we can be easy prey for those who resort to scare tactics to achieve their goals. Manipulative fearmongering is often used by politicians to garner votes or prop up sagging poll numbers. Trump and his entourage wouldn’t be the first to gain broad support and dutiful obedience by raising the specter of mushroom clouds over our cities or other nightmarish scenarios. Indeed, invented crises and wars of aggression have long been popular ploys with leaders who seek to benefit from the collective rush toward blind patriotism.
Our second stop is Lake City, USA. On a December night in 1954, Mrs. Marian Keech (an alias) and her band of disciples awaited the landing of a flying saucer from the planet Clarion. As recounted in the social psychology classic When Prophecy Fails, they confidently sought salvation from the massive flood that they believed would soon submerge much of the country. Convinced by Mrs. Keech’s purported contact with superior beings, some followers left their jobs and others gave away their money and possessions in preparation for their fateful journey. When neither the aliens nor the deluge ever arrived, this small doomsday cult — bound together by shared convictions — concluded that their faith and devotion had led higher powers to save the world from its scheduled destruction.
The lesson here is that we shouldn’t expect Trump’s ardent supporters to abandon him simply because he pursues policies that actually hurt rather than help them. Especially if they’re surrounded by like-minded devotees, many will instead embrace his “alternative facts” and his false claims about “fake news.” This is because, psychologically, the desire for consistency in our beliefs and actions often leads us to interpret the world in whatever ways most readily reduce any dissonance we feel. That’s why, for instance, the cigarette smoker who’s told his habit could be deadly may convince himself that the scientific research is flawed — it’s easier than quitting. Likewise, misplaced political loyalties can persist indefinitely, without the adherents ever recognizing how far they’ve gone astray.
Our final stop is Maple Street, USA, the fictional setting for a 1960 episode of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. When a mysterious roar and flash of light disturb a quiet summer evening, a young boy warns that creatures from outer space have arrived in human form. His notion seems farfetched until lights, phones, and automobiles stop working up and down the block. At first neighbors unite in a search for answers. But soon they’re accusing each other of plotting an extraterrestrial invasion. As mob violence erupts, one alien watching from above explains to another, “All we need do is sit back and watch…Their world is full of Maple Streets. And we’ll go from one to the other and let them destroy themselves.”
The lesson from Maple Street is clear: “divide and conquer” is a tried-and-true psychological ploy when it comes to ruthlessly — and selfishly — controlling the lives and prospects of other people. It’s no different for Trump. Whenever he can, he’ll encourage distrust and hostility within and among opposition groups, preying on our differences to stymie the forging of new alliances and broad-based movements against him. Likewise, he’ll ramp up his brutal selective targeting — of Muslims, immigrants, people of color, and others — as a way to scapegoat the most vulnerable among us and thereby misdirect the blame for his own failings.
Although the total solar eclipse on August 21st will only last two minutes, the Trumpian days of darkness show little sign of abating. The three guideposts described here, drawn from not-so-close encounters with extraterrestrials, can help light the way forward. First, don’t fall for Trump’s scare tactics. Second, don’t count on his zealous followers to waver. And third, let’s stick together no matter how he tries to divide us.