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 peace and serenity. 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 renowned 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 they 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.
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 form 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.”(24) 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”. (4)
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.” (99)
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.” (90) 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!; look 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.
“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 mob.” A mass movement can do without a god “but never without belief in a devil.” (85) 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 WW II detention camps. The more acute the atrocities revealed, the greater the escapist reaction.
7. 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.
8. ‘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.
Can the Trumpian movement succeed? NO – in the sense that it’s not possible to summon back the past. YES – in the sense that it can inflict irreparable damage on our liberal democracy, it can hurt persons and institutions. In short, it can destroy both the America that is and the essence of the original America that they presume to cherish and long for but never have understood or appreciated. Already, the harm to our public institutions is so great – at the state as well as national level – that it is not hyperbolic to say that we are living in post-Constitutional America. In short, the Trumpites whose ecstasies supposedly embrace
their version of the Great Spirit are in effect devotees of Kali’s danse macabre.
There is ample evidence that a peculiar form of American Fascism is now implanted in the body politic. The Trump phenomenon, to use a shorthand expression, is unprecedented in breadth and depth. It has penetrated the very marrow of our public institutions and political culture. The open question is how far it will spread, the strength of the antibodies it generates and the society’s capacity for regeneration. There are three protagonists in this drama. One is the Americo-Fascist movement itself. The second is the traditional opposition by which we mean the Democratic Party. Sadly, there is little reason to place much faith in it. Sclerotic, poorly led, bereft of conviction, timid, unable to promote an alternative vision or narrative, it serves in this year’s election as little more than the lever you pull if you wish to vote ‘NO” on what is more a referendum on Trump than a conventional presidential election.
The third, and probably critical element, are the Republican loyalists who have demonstrated an unbecoming readiness to accept their party’s (and the country’s) bondage to the Trumpites. A few prominent names aside, the mass of Republican voters seem prepared, by all accounts, to remain loyal to the standard-bearer. The polls clearly support that conclusion. So, too, does the lock-up step discipline of Congressional Republicans who resemble the old Communist Party delegates to the Supreme Soviet. Who they are – and why they have sold out so totally – are the great unanswered questions. Functionally, this silent party majority forms a league of Franz von Papens.
The hard core Trumpites, spawn of the Tea Party, represent probably no more than 10-15% of the public. Let’s add most members of the top 10% whose monetary self-interest overshadows all other considerations. Since their turnout exceeds that of any other socio-economic stratum, let’s make that a total of 12%. Then there are the conglomeration of small government ideologues, those who distain support for the poor and indigent (a majority of whom happen to be people of color), the Right-to-Life single issue fanatics, the paranoid security obsessives. Together, do they constitute 20-25% of the electorate, so loyal to the Republican Party and obsessed with what agitates them, that they will set aside good sense and the good of the Republic to subject the country to an obviously deranged, corrupt and lawless ego-maniac? To state it bluntly, they have little social conscience. Many are ambitious, many are grasping, many are selfish, and most important – like the ‘deplorables’ – they too lack the core self-respect that forces them to act responsibly. **
We must keep in mind a central feature in the picture that tinges everything having do with public life. That is the extent to which the collective American super-ego has shriveled. The implicit guidelines that shape and constrain behavior no longer exercise the influence that they did. We think and act in a quasi-nihilist environment. The absence of a generally recognized, logical order means that many of us inhabit a variety of make-believe worlds. All of us experience the resultant static – static that makes it difficult to think more-or-less clearly and to act more-or-less rationally. In this setting, the most disadvantaged commodity is the truth. For truth-telling means forcing ourselves to recognize that we are mistaking a hall of mirrors for reality. And those mirrors – if ever aligned – form an infinite regression to nowhere.
Who will be performing the GHOST DANCE a decade from now?
It will not be the Trumpites. If he were to lose the election, the movement will continue unabated. In fact, it may gather strength from a widespread belief that it was rigged against him. If the Republicans were to retain control of the Senate, they will use their power to block the Biden administration at every turn – no holds barred. If he were to lose the election, the movement will continue unabated. In fact, it may gather strength from a widespread belief that it was rigged against him. If the Republicans were to retain control of the Senate, they will use their power to block the Biden administration at every turn – no holds barred. Were they to lose control, they would make every effort to buy-off or intimidate the one or two Democrats needed to neutralize that nominal majority – as they did under Obama. In any circumstances, the Trumpites will redouble their nation-wide guerrilla war. They are well-placed to do so. A large part of the federal judiciary already is prepared to do their bidding at the drop of a legal appeal. They have 4 or 5 propagandistic ‘news’ networks at their disposal along with an even denser network of talk-radio outlets. Funding is unlimited. They are highly organized at every level of government. In every one of these respects, their battle fleet vastly outguns the Democrats’ scattered flotilla.
If the opposition were to unseat Trump, they will enthusiastically launch into a celebratory jig. Joyful that the Republic has been saved, that democracy has triumphed, and that the country has rediscovered its good sense. Only slowly will it dawn on some that a demonstrable reconstitution of a decent liberal polity has not been achieved. Their only certain achievement will be in the realm of ‘identity politics’ through executive action.
As for the non-Trumpite Republicans, they will smile contentedly secure in their financial status, looking on indifferently as the Democrats struggle to advance an agenda recognizable from its ‘moderate’ Republican ancestry, and complacent in the assurance that their daughters could always get an abortion in Canada. In short – they don’t give a damn!
There will be GHOST DANCERS. Scattered bands of downcast greybeards with faded memories and pale visions of what might have been – of what should have been. Their step will be slowed by age and their rueful knowledge that there is no Great Spirit coming to rescue them.
**Let’s make a brief digression to note some salient facts of political demography. The overwhelming majority of Trumpites are died-in-the-wool Republicans. While his rabid core probably represents no more than 10-15% of the electorate, his 2016 vote totals and current favorability ratings derive from party loyalists. There is no evidence of a dramatic shift in partisan preferences. The radical transformation that has occurred in American political is the takeover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party militants – AND, above all, the readiness of the old-time Republican voters to go along with their radical reactionary agenda, while tolerating Trump’s assaults on democratic institutions and his blatant racism. That is the big question, the complex answer to which is beyond the scope of this essay.
There is much mythology about this. Conventional wisdom has it that the white working class has abandoned the Democratic Party and thrown in their lot with Trump. We should recall that Hillary not only polled 3 million votes more than did Trump, but her percentage of the total was only a few percentage points lower than Obama’s (48.2 vs 51.1%). That hardly constitutes a political sea change. The differential would have been half that had black voters turned out in the same numbers as they did for Obama. Moreover, the Democrats were handicapped by a maladroit candidate and an overall party leadership that was, and is, abject.