The hard right has always had the feel of a millenarian cult. From promises of economic and social ‘salvation’ to the charismatic appeal of leaders, one specific type of movement which emerged in newly colonized lands under European imperialism (and which has since been studied by anthropologists) has great resonance for the rise of Donald Trump and Nigel Farage: cargo cults.
Faced with perplexing and relentless change while tantalized by goods beyond their reach, the colonized subjects of Melanesia followed whichever convincing cult leader told them how they could both get some of this elusive wealth and rid their lands of the strange interlopers. Trump and Farage are, to many, convincing. But the authority of this kind of leadership is notoriously unstable.
What is most interesting about the year 2016 is the meaning we’ve projected onto it
We lunge headlong into 2017, after a year in which Syrian communities were bombed into oblivion, cultural figures died in rapid succession, Trump came to power, and the EU was shaken to its core. The feeling abroad that there was something supernaturally awful about 2016 has given us a swelling wave of fear that 2017 will be even worse.
Anyone who’s read my book on apocalyptic movements will know that I’m skeptical of ‘mystical dates’. What is most interesting about such dates is what gets projected onto them. The date in question acts as a giant blank screen on which a myriad of hopes, fears and fantasies get projected.
A deplorable doesn’t care if his hero isn’t themselves a committed fascist because they care about impact more than about coherent ideology. For them the cargo is the chance to attack those they fear and despise.
These movements are also interesting because of the emergence of charismatic leaders, who claim to be pathfinders to a new age. What gets projected onto cult leaders, the mirage that gives them power, is important. Farage and Trump have each offered visions of a new world and a new era, playing on nostalgia, fear, hope and desperation. They themselves are projection screens.
Both Trump and Farage have attracted the support of far-right racists, and what these proud ‘deplorables’ project on their heroes is quite different from what an ordinary decent-but-desperate voter projects. Perhaps in this part of the 21st century, the far-right doesn’t care if its hero isn’t himself a committed fascist because they care about impact and validation on single issues, such as against rights of marginalized people, more than they care about coherent ideology. For them, the cargo is the chance to attack those they fear and despise.
Many readers will scoff at the idea that Trump and Farage are ‘charismatic’, but they certainly are to their devout followers. Others will take exception to Farage and Trump being deemed hard-right. It is a question of perspective but, for me, the promise of sudden social transformation, immigrant-blaming narratives, and attacks on the legitimacy of politicians and the judiciary are characteristic of hard-right politics. Their personal views may not be as extreme as some who follow them, but they would need to be extremely stupid to not realize the impact of their narratives on those already primed for destruction.
There can be no solutions for the world except those uttered by the wise leader
While I worked in mental health care I studied anthropology, with particular interests in medical anthropology, emerging political movements, and the anthropology of religion. From a social science perspective the Trump cult looks much more like a millennarian movement than a viable and sustainable political project. Chanting crowds are swept into a frenzy by the repeated mantras of the prophet, who said he would ‘drain the swamp’, ‘build the wall’, get rid of Muslims, and imprison his political opponent. Only the ‘great leader’ can secure the prosperity and potency of the marginalized. Once his chant is taken up, either at rallies or on social media, there can be no solutions to the problems of the world except those uttered by the wise leader.
This is the pattern of cargo cults, created after locals saw wondrous goods and machines coming from the sky for white colonizers and suddenly felt impoverished. A leader would emerge who claims to know rituals that would grant the faithful a share of the bounty from the sky. The same patterns exist in narratives of Brexiteers, especially from UKIP. The reality of wealth and opportunities not being shared throughout the UK has been twisted into a cult that blames immigration and the EU.
Right-wing cult leaders often claim to be dismantling the existing social order – even when they are part of its elite. When movements are criticized for peddling irrationality and division, experts and the ‘metropolitan elite’ are turned into enemies of society by the glib words of cultists who warn their terrified flock that it will ruin their cargo rituals. Which is, of course, temporarily convenient to the owners of right-wing media.
In the cargo cults of tribal communities there was mystery about how amazing things could come from the sky for colonists not seen to produce them. For societies that associated the sky with spirits rather than planes, supernatural explanations made sense. With the available knowledge, it made more sense than the workings of planes or remote unseen factories. Unlike those downtrodden natives of empire, Trump and Farage do not have that excuse.
When their promises don’t materialize, cult leaders can still shore up their position by becoming more authoritarian
As wealthy people involved with global capitalism for decades, they understand how inequality is perpetuated. They know there is no pie in the sky and they know how opportunities get taken by the wealthy to the detriment of the poor. They know that immigrants contribute significantly to societies in numerous ways. However, there is a danger that simple messages to the faithful have been so effective that some will struggle to see beyond those.
Anthropologists have learned from observing many such cults that charismatic authority is inherently unstable, and therefore dangerous. When their promises fail to materialize, cult leaders can still shore up their position by becoming more authoritarian. In the US, where the vote for the leader was less than 50%, and the UK where the Referendum result was close to 50-50, such a move could spell disaster.
Like elements of the right in the UK, Trump blamed minority groups for the USA’s problems. Mexicans were called rapists, Muslims were called terrorists, and the campaign against Hillary Clinton contained a deep misogyny that was thinly-veiled. The strong following he won among the overtly far-right should have been electoral suicide according to the normal rules – but they no longer apply, and now the Oval Office will lend its ear to groups from the KKK to their media savvy demi-clones the ‘alt-right’, who know how to troll the media rather than play dress-up in sheets.
Trump has a vested interest in EU disintegration
It will be interesting to see how Trump deals with his most earnest deplorables – and how they deal with broken promises. Trump loves a rally, and during his current circle of ‘victory rallies’ his mantra “LOCK HER UP!” is still being chanted by devotees. He, however, has already back-pedaled on that and many other campaign pledges.
Some ‘hard Brexit’ advocates suggest that the UK can get straight out of our spacious EU bed and into bed with Trump. This is more pie in the sky – grotesque pie in the sky. The UK would have to be mad to run into the flailing arms of the most unpredictable American president in modern history. This will annoy Farage cultists, but the least damaging Brexit will be the lightest of Brexits. Bed with Trump and a handful of random despots Theresa May meets in overseas trips will be few people’s cup of tea. Trump has a vested interest in EU disintegration. He might suggest we could be at the front of the queue in relation to a trade deal, which will make hard Brexit look more appetizing. However, it would be foolish to take Trump at his word. He is good at performing the rites but not so good at making the cargo fall from the sky.
I have a feeling that 2017 for the hard-right won’t be as good as 2016 was, and the authority of their cult leaders will be shaken by broken promises. Things may turn nasty if walls are not built, swamps are not drained and Brexit does not happen in the way some envisage. We have already seen anger from those who imagine a hard Brexit (or ‘clean Brexit’, as it has been re-branded) is viable, but a few passive aggressive little Englanders is nothing compared to the hoard of heavily armed miscreants to which Trump has made so many impossible promises.
Will Black’s latest book is Psychopathic Cultures and Toxic Empires