We are used to being unwelcome, hunted, blamed, raped, tortured, dispossessed, disappeared. Now we are an irrelevance, a harmless eccentricity, a fairy ball sporting stick on ears dressing up box deviance, a social joke. Yet as witchcraft is filled with the spirit of the age we will become dangerous again, because witchcraft will have rooted meaning.
— Peter Grey, Apocalyptic Witchcraft
But then, history is written by the victors.
In 1890 Edinburgh-born folklorist David MacRitchie noticed something odd – where Britain was colonising and exterminating in Africa, the remaining indigenous population, though driven to hide in marginal lands and raid settlements, acquired a magical aura in the imaginations of the settlers. The Khoikhoi, the San, people who had previously been formidable opponents in colonial wars began cropping up in settler stories as magical helpers, genii locii, carriers of obscure but valuable knowledge. From this he made an interesting intuitive leap to his own magical imagination: in a series of books he speculated that legends of the faeries in Scotland were similarly the echoes of an invasion and genocide, committed by the Gauls, or the Dalriata, or someone else, against an earlier indigenous populations of Great Britain. This he called the ‘Euhemeric Theory of Fairies‘ after a Greek philosopher who proposed that the gods were in fact long-dead kings to whom magical powers had been attributed.
MacRitchie identified several interesting parallels: the fairies lived under hills; the pre-Brythonic inhabitants of Britain lived in round sod houses. The fairies were afraid of iron; ironworking was brought to England as late as the 6th century BCE, probably by the conquering Celts. The faeries lived on mountains and in bogs; agriculture and agrarian colonists spread most rapidly over plains and river valleys. He even makes a claim that the diminutive ‘fairy herds’ were reindeer – far smaller than cattle or horses, domesticated in Scandinavia and Siberia for millennia, extinct in Britain since 6300BCE. The attribution of magic and the need to leave certain tokens for the fairies mirrors what he observed in South Africa, too.
Being a Victorian, he went on to propose that ‘Lapps’ had cross-bred with ‘Pygmies’ or the Ainu, and that’s why the fairies were so short. This part of his thesis is so ridiculous that it pretty much sunk the Euhemeric idea for good, but let’s pretend that the connection between magic and the knife-edge of annihilation can be extracted, like a bauble, from the matrix of silly racialism. In fact, lets pretend, for a moment, that magic and cultures in crisis are, in fact, natural companions. Let us consider that 2016 was the year that magic returned to politics.
He’sûna’nin hä’ni na’ha’waŭ’,
He’sûna’nin hä’ni na’ha’waŭ’.
The rock, the rock,
I am standing upon it,
I am standing upon it,
By its means I saw our father,
By its means I saw our father,
Arapaho Ghost Dance song, collected in James Mooney’s ‘The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890’
As I write this, several hundred native people and supporters are huddled around whatever improvised heat they can manage, trying to push away cold, fear, and the threats of the Army Corps of Engineers to remove them, again, from treaty lands in North Dakota. Its three hundred miles and 126 years from the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, but really, its not that far at all. Sometimes called ‘the last battle of the Indian wars’ Wounded Knee wasn’t really a battle. On the one side 500 soldiers from the 7th Cavalry, fourteen years past their loss at Little Bighorn, mounted on horseback and armed with rifles and Hotchkiss guns. On the other side, about 400 Indians, of various nations, some armed, some not. The final casualties were 25 cavalrymen, and all but 51 of the Indians; roughly half of the Indian casualties were women and children. If you notice, I’m being ambiguous about numbers, and that’s because nobody at the time bothered to count the Indian dead.
The activity for which the Indians were killed was known as ‘Ghost Dancing’. If like me you learned your history in the US school system, you probably learned that a ‘medicine man’ named Wovoka made shirts that he said would repel bullets but they didn’t; on to the next chapter. In fact, the Ghost Dance was a long lived and well-documented religious movement founded by a Paiute ranch hand who had an ecstatic vision in which he saw all the Indian nations dancing together to bring about a resurrection of the pre-colonial world. The Ghost Dance spread like a revival movement, with different nations holding great, days-long dances across the American West, and singing sad and hopeful songs about the coming age. Many of the lyrics were collected at the time, in different languages, and they range from cheerfully nostalgic recollections of playing shinny-stick (a lacrosse-like game) and eating pemmican, to spooky visions of dead relatives and lost children beckoning the dancers on into a new world.
Ghost Dancing, in short, was a millenarian movement. In fact, Ghost Dancing was such a prototypical millenarian movement that it’s not uncommon to hear any movement in which large groups ritually assemble and dance or sing towards the end of bringing about a sudden and magical new world described as ‘ghost dancing’. The scholarship of millenarianism is extensive and I won’t pretend an exhaustive summary here, but some definition seems necessary. Occasionally – and this seems to be a cross-cultural phenomenon par excellence – a charismatic spirit seizes people in an age of instability and anxiety and grants them visions of a movement capable of overtaking history. The spirits promise that ritual activity, almost always involving rhythmic dancing and singing, often including self-deprivation, trance states and invulnerability, will bring about a great change and free them from their alienated tribulation. In the words of historian Mark Lilla ‘Since the continuity of time has already been broken, they begin to dream of making a second break and escaping from the present.’
The term ‘millenarian’ is often misunderstood to mean ‘relating to the year 1000, or 2000’. In fact, it derives from the Christian belief in The Millennium, the thousand-year rule of Jesus that will allegedly come about at some time in the near future. Similar golden eras have been invoked by other millenarians – Wovoka said that Europeans would disappear; the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist said that, well, that Europeans would disappear; the ‘Yellow Turbans‘ who flit by in the first chapter of the Sanguozhi believed that the Han would leave them alone; the Cathars believed that through ‘Perfection’ they would destroy the rule of the demiurge; the Münsterites saw their city on the verge of becoming the New Jerusalem in New Zion; the True Levellers anticipated an England free of the ‘Norman Yoke’, etc. etc. etc. It is this belief – that of a coming rupture, achievable through belief and motion – that defines millenarianism.
Are millenarian movements magical? More properly, does the dominant culture surrounding a millenarian movement attribute to practitioners magical powers? I began this essay with witchcraft, and perhaps no history quite epitomises this ambiguity better: were the witches, as Jules Michelet suggests, a millenarian peasant uprising? Or, as Anne Barstow and Silvia Federici (separately) argue, were they victims of a wave of consolidation by the powerful, embodied as a moral panic? Norman Cohn, a highly regarded historian of millenarian movements, has argued that those persecuted as witches, whoever they were, were ensnared in a persistent European fantasy that small, secret organisations rule via occult powers and disgusting rituals, and must be stopped with force majeure.
Certainly, a large number of millenarianisms have ended, like the Ghost Dancers, in rivers of blood, victims of a response that seems in retrospect entirely out of scale to the actual danger the movements posed. Often millenarians, dwelling as they do in the penumbra of no-time, cast off the rules of the world they are leaving in a mass act of iconoclasm and break things – churches, laws, marriages – but rarely do they seem capable of forming any real danger to the status quo. Instead, the status quo response is justified by the supernatural – the unreal – danger practitioners pose to those who must be protected, including millenarians’ ability to ‘radicalise’ new followers: to convince good people, like Scottish heroes, to sell their souls in a moment of weakness, to drink from the barilotto, to leave the true church, to let their fields lie fallow and follow the saviour to the city.
And after the killing’s done there is, it seems, a strange echo of magical powers that hovers around the ghosts of these massacres. The Cathars and the Templars, for instance, show up in fiction as mystics and illuminati. Magical Indian counselors and guides are a horrible cliche linking Tom Brown Jr. to Barbara Kingsolver to Carlos Castaneda. The Euhemeric theory that colonial victims of a pre-Celtic genocide were resurrected as magical fairies and giants is not without plausibility. Certainly MacRitchie’s Khoikhoi were only seen as magical after they had been slaughtered to the point of near-irrelevance.
‘Journeymen and unskilled workers, peasants without land or with too little land to support them, beggars and vagabonds, the unemployed and those threatened with unemployment, the many who for one reason or another could find no assured and recognised place- such people, living in a state of chronic frustration and anxiety, formed the most impulsive and unstable elements in medieval society. Any disturbing, frightening or exciting event- any kind of revolt or revolution, a summons to a crusade, an interregnum, a plague or a famine, anything in fact which disrupted the normal routine of social life- acted on these people with peculiar sharpness and called forth reactions of peculiar violence. And the way in which they attempted to deal with their common plight was to form a salvationist group under the leadership of some man whom they regarded as extraordinarily holy.’
Norman Cohn, In Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements
So let’s get down to business: is the rise of Donald Trump a millenarian movement? If so, what the hell does that mean? The similarities are striking: the continuing rallies, the chanting, the iconoclasm and the coming golden age are textbook. So too is the moral panic that has animated his detractors. There are already oddly explicit references to magic or destiny in the emergent nebula of cultural productions that surround the campaign proper. Australian magic writer Gordon White has described ‘Make America Great Again’ as a spell or incantation. Alt-right writer Greg Johnson included ‘neo-paganism‘ on his list of founding principles, alongside ‘race realism’ and ‘anti-feminism’. And why is Richard Spencer writing about paganism at all?
Certainly an atmosphere of great rupture roils and burns above the heartland of America right now, and many of the manifestations seem folkloric, if not outright magical. Lets start with those scary clowns: suddenly over a few months in the fall of 2016, people all across the world were seeing clowns in the woods, clowns near schools, clowns running through the centre of cities threatening… something. Clowns with knives. Clowns with machetes. Clowns with axes. Clowns beating hikers with whisky bottles. A few people were arrested wearing clown masks, but a lot of clown sightings were, as they say, unsubstantiated. Even those who were actually arrested demand further explanation – there are plenty of items one can wear as a disguise when robbing a taco bell, why was it suddenly clown season? A reddit user who goes by the pseudonym -triggerexpert- pointed out a number of resonances to earlier trickster legends: the creepy clowns were ‘magical people that live in the forest and frighten our children,’ either hallucinations springing from a minds that need to witness a true monster – albeit in this case an attenuated, rationalist, scary-person-in-a-costume monster – or a strange spirit that ‘possesses’ people and ‘drives [them] to buy a clown suit and lurk in the forest.’
You might have seen the curious intrusion into the presidential campaign of a long-standing internet cartoon meme called Pepe the Frog. This essay by the possibly-pseudonymous A.T.L. Carver explains that Pepe the Frog isn’t a cartoon character at all, but rather an avatar of Kekuit, a frog-headed Egyptian chaos-god accidentally summoned by a Korean onomatopoeia and manifested primarily on 4Chan. That would be a weird enough claim for a single essay (or, a series of three essays) but apparently this has been an understanding among these people since long before the election. In other words, whatever you may think Pepe the Frog is or represents, or whatever Matt Furie thinks Pepe the Frog is or represents, this is what the people who made Pepe a thing believe. I simply can’t do justice to the phenomenon here, you’re going to have to go read it yourself. Well, read the first link in this paragraph. I wouldn’t recommend anyone go read 4Chan.
But lets get back to the Trump campaign. Wrapped up in the question of whether Trumpism is millenarian is the obvious corollary – is the despair of rural America enough to create a millenarian movement? Certainly compared to a medieval peasant, or a nineteenth century Indian, even the unnecessariat are doing okay. But here’s the estimable Chris Hedges on his Trump-loving Maine relatives:
They live in towns and villages that have been ravaged by deindustrialization. The bank in Mechanic Falls, where my grandparents lived, is boarded up, along with nearly every downtown store. The paper mill closed decades ago. There is a strip club in the center of the town. The jobs, at least the good ones, are gone. Many of my relatives and their neighbors work up to 70 hours a week at three minimum-wage jobs, without benefits, to make perhaps $35,000 a year. Or they have no jobs. They cannot afford adequate health coverage under the scam of Obamacare. Alcoholism is rampant in the region. Heroin addiction is an epidemic. Labs producing the street drug methamphetamine make up a cottage industry. Suicide is common. Domestic abuse and sexual assault destroy families. Despair and rage among the population have fueled an inchoate racism, homophobia and Islamophobia and feed the latent and ever present poison of white supremacy.
Significantly, the remainder of that essay explores the search for ‘magical thinking’ Hedges sees in his family: ‘Those who are cast aside as human refuse often have a psychological need for illusions and scapegoats. They desperately seek the promise of divine intervention. They unplug from a reality that is too hard to bear.’
Hedges blames the Christian right, but not as an unsympathetic outsider. For the past few years, Hedges, Truthdig columnist and author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning has also been serving as a Presbyterian minister – he has an M.Div from Harvard – in New Jersey. Something needs to give us meaning after all. Why shouldn’t the incantation of an America Great Again, ushered in by memes, smash the idols of an America Too Hard To Bear? Why should the ritual mechanisms that consolidate collective action – dancing, singing, rhythm, unison, trance and vision – not stand in for divine intervention?
If Trumpism is apocalyptic, we should be careful. The charming idea that Trump’s more outlandish proclamations have been cynical maneuvers to profit from the rage and unplugging of his movement can be rejected out of hand. Whatever else they may be, the charismatic leaders of millenarian movements are always the truest of true believers; typically they perish in the final bloodbath seemingly amazed that their vision has not, even in its ultimate crisis, manifested in their favor. Similarly, it is not true that millenarian movements always fail without collateral damage. Christianity began as a Jewish heresy after all, a movement among the colonised subjects of Roman Judaea that promised a new age with the return of the dead prophet. It didn’t go well for Judea’s – the Zealots were crushed and the Temple destroyed – but Christianity went on to be a world-altering force.
I have tried, desperately, to avoid breaking Godwin’s law throughout this essay and not mention the obvious millenarian overtones of the Nazis, but the chanting and marching, the thousand-year golden era, the invocations of blood and soil make that impossible. The world indeed does sometimes break to the will of the perfected, even if, like the Batenburgers or the Flagellant Brethren of the Cross, the perfected sometimes paint themselves with the entrails of the damned. Magic and the magical have once again become forces in our era. It is tempting to treat them ironically – Ivan Stang is surely spinning in his grave, except that he’s not dead – but we play with them lightly, or dismiss them entirely, at our peril.
There are going to be people for whom this entire direction of inquiry is anathema. There are those who believe in a political version of Homo economics – that humans are rational actors, and the best possible policies, developed by the smartest people and explained in the clearest terms, will win support from the masses who will consider both their own best interests and the degree to which the expected outcomes are congruent with shared values. These people are feeling utterly shocked and confused right now. There are those who believe that any reference to magic or social egregores is anti-scientific and hence, prima facie wrong. These people are feeling disgusted right now. There are those who feel that they must limit themselves to only those predictions that lead from our present predicament to a glorious, peaceful and enlightened future, and if they ever change the channel the ghosts will get them. These people are terrified.
But to all these people I say – you are living in a world that bends. To pass through the storm, it will be necessary to discuss matters plainly with the wind. If you cannot imagine such a conversation perhaps you would do well to learn from those who already float like leaves…
Notes: Since I wrote the first draft of this, the Army Corps of Engineers has agreed to delay permitting one mile of the Dakota Access Pipeline until an environmental impact statement is completed. I would like to thank Ran Prieur and my professor friend for reading (and not necessarily agreeing with) this essay, and to acknowledge my conversations about millenarian movements with Heathen Chinese. Now, for the list of topics that didn’t make it into this essay:
- While we’re talking about Stanley Cohen, how about Obama as a folk devil?
- Sorcery of the Spectacle: a subreddit taking capitalist glamour back to its etymological roots
- The Mandela Effect– sadly, I think this can be attributed to people confusing Mandela with Steve Biko, whose death in prison was the subject of an Oscar-nominated early-eighties film (about a heroic white guy, natch)
- The context for the Mark Lilla quote is a description of the millenarianism of the Islamic State, who actually are pretty bad people and the subjects of a full-scale moral panic.
- It is too simple to say that cultures in crisis breed millenarian movements, which provoke moral panics, which lead to eradication and posthumous allegations of special powers. Many people have been destroyed quietly offstage throughout history after all.