Ghost Dancers - I
by Michael Brenner on 04 Feb 2022 1 Comment

There is a seeming resemblance of Trump rallies to the Ghost Dances of the plains Indians. That may be true in one sense, but not in another.


The GHOST DANCE was a sacrilized ritual that spread among the Native American tribes in the West at the end of the 19th century. It was a plangent Cri de Coeur of peoples whose identity was being erased by the White Man. It expressed longing for restoration of a fading culture along with a desperate hope for salvation in another life. A last gesture of those whose resistance already had been broken. It originated in 1869 with a series of visions experienced by an elder, Wodziwob. These visions foresaw renewal of the Earth and help for his Paiute peoples as promised by their ancestors.


A generation later, a prophet from the Northern Pauite of Nevada, Wovoka, provided the charismatic inspiration that launched the movement. He told of having communed with the Great Spirit who conjured an idealized image of a land free of the invading aliens, one bountiful in natural riches, marked by serene security. All of the tribes would be harmoniously united as one people. To reach that blissful state they must bond together to defy the body and spirit of the White Men. A special circle dance was one of the rituals that was prescribed in order to usher in this New Age. The Ghost Dance is memorable for its adoption by the Lakota Sioux in the aftermath of the Wounded Knee Massacre.


Similarly, Trump supporters are stray souls who feel themselves victims of uncontrollable, hostile forces which have cut the ground from under them. Disorientation and suspicion pervade their social encounters. As they see it, the assaults on their way of life and self-esteem come from globalization, the suppression of patriotism, cultural relativism, the marginalization of Christian religion, dictation from government autocrats in Washington.


They personalize those forces: immigrants, Blacks, liberals, Ivy League elitists. Their sense of abandonment and deprivation has more to do with the intangibles than the material – even though many have suffered the corrosive effects of economic predation while not recognizing its sponsors. Gnawing sensations of status decline are intimately bound up with the feeling that the United States is no longer theirs. From the country’s founding, an individual’s sense of worth has drawn critically from the belief that they were participants in a unique enterprise – original, superior and somehow endowed with a Higher Meaning. A shift in the complexion of their American universe calls all that into question. 


The Trumpites’ vision of the Promised Land is fixed on an idealized image of a past that is disconnected from current reality. There is nothing conservative about this; the universal use of that term speaks to the intellectual slackness of the country’s political class. The movement is reactionary in purpose. And since it is prepared to use drastic means to regain something that manifestly cannot be restored, they are radicals. It is energized by blind faith that their mission will succeed. Unlike the plains Indians, they do not live in poignant despair.  


The dread about the present felt by hard core Trumpites stems from the inability to compensate for the impoverishment of their personal lives by glorying in American greatness. Little in our post-modern society resonates with them as authentic; our sterile work yields an invisible product. The drama of the American experience, our collective pageant of progress, used to be the great booster of moral and imparter of meaning. That tonic has lost much of its potency- in good part because it’s not the same country. So, restoration becomes the imperative for impoverished individual self-esteem.


Joining a passionate movement to fuse with others who share your anger, the same grievances, the same desperation itself acts as a nostrum. One no longer agonizes alone, our indictments are confirmed, and we can lose our unhappy self in the clamor of mass enthusiasm. 


To get a better fix on this psychology, let’s return to Eric Hoffer’s classic: THE TRUE BELIEVER (Mentor 1951). Here are a number of particularly pertinent points. 


1] The appeal of the mass movement is not as a vehicle for self-advancement – except for the audacious few with an itch to command and a thirst for adulation.  “All forms of devotion and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something that might give worth and meaning to our futile…lives. The faith we have in the nation [or ideology] has to be extravagant and uncompromising.” Lack of political experience and ignorance help feed this mindless dedication to a cause and its leader. “A rising mass movement attracts and holds a following not by doctrine….but by the refuge it offers from the anxieties, barrenness of an individual existence”.


2] The catchword is “liberty;” in fact, those who see their lives as despoiled crave fraternity and uniformity more than they do freedom. They are uniform in their animus, in their objects of worship – and obedient to their leaders. They are anything but autonomous.


3] The militants, the physically aggressive, are a subset of the above. They are the restless sociopath, the bully, the enforcer. They are misfits who live on the margins – estranged from everything except a small coterie of fellow mavericks. Ultimately, they are estranged from themselves. Violence satisfies the impulse to destroy since they have no conception of what it means to build or create. They are the recruiting ground for the black shirts, the brown shirts, the neo-Fascist gangs, the White Supremicists. Their belligerence tugs on the emotional strings of those in the movement who themselves lack the courage to act; and it prods the leader to raise the level of hostility and castigation of enemies in his rhetoric. “Violence breeds fanaticism as fanaticism begets violence.”


4] The present is comprehensively depreciated as the source of corruption and perversion of the idealized, sacred past. Hence, appeals to respect for existing institutions and practices fall on deaf ears. For they are heard as praise for falsified Truths – the Devil masking himself in the garb of angels. The ‘demi-urge’ in religious terms.


5] Blind devotion to a cause never is fully satisfying. “The fanatic is perpetually incomplete and insecure.” Hence, the need for a constant escalation of vehemence in language and action – the harangue, the clenched fist.


6] Trump and his henchman traffic in hate – like all neo-Fascist demagogues they know instinctively that raw meat provides more emotional protein than anything else. So it’s “lock her up!; lock him up.” Insult, denunciations and ridicule. That provides catharsis as anger is vented, the adrenaline flows and we ‘punish the enemy’ the way Hajis on pilgrimage to Mecca throw stones at the Devil. Primitive, but it works – we are dealing with primitive emotions.


7] “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all unifying agents… The fanatic quivers with a craving to fuse and coalesce with his like into one flaming unit.” A mass movement can do without a god “but never without belief in a devil.” A scapegoat is imperative. All the better if it is some group that you have wronged. A flight from blame is all the more intense if all faults can be transposed. That explains not only the recrudescence of racism, but also the support for more and more abusive treatment of Latino immigrants which exceeds by magnitudes the treatment meted out to Nisei in WWII detention camps. The more acute the atrocities revealed, the greater the escapist reaction.


8] Chaos is welcomed. This is so not only due to rejection of the order that is in place; also because in chaos egalitarianism reigns. One’s sense of failure, of inadequacy is lost in the maelstrom of tumult and destruction.


9] “Charlatanism ….is indispensable for effective leadership” of a fanatical mass movement. Deliberate misrepresentation of the facts is necessary because declarations must be simple and direct, unencumbered by qualification or exception. It is the narrative drama that counts, not factual accuracy. The tensile strength of the movement is tempered by the white heat of hostile words and deeds. Blind trust in the demagogic leader requires no collateral.


10] The demagogic leader is at once born and self-made. Born in the sense that it is his twisted personality that disposes him to aberrant ways of viewing himself and the world. Trump’s psyche is deeply scarred by narcissism – exacerbated by an array of other mental disorders. Those perverse traits can lead to sociopathology, a distorted divorce from reality, an infinite ability to manipulate and to hurt others. Initial success in gaining power and a following, facilitated by the tolerance acquiescence of those you abuse and bystanders alike, strengthens all those impulses and actions. You yourself become the true believer in the mad persona you have concocted for yourself. 


(To be concluded…)

The views expressed are personal 

User Comments Post a Comment

Back to Top