“Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.” – Matthew 7:15
In watching aghast the incomprehensible ascendancy of Donald Trump, I am struck with a sense of déjà vu. Where else have I heard of a people, drowning in despair, who clutch for a life raft of false promises? And then it comes back to me.
A college honors class I’ve taught sporadically since 1999 begins with a brief foray into Native American history, culture, and spirituality. It’s eye-opening. Most entry-level college students have been exposed only to sanitized American history. The un-sanitized version is hard to stomach.
An especially poignant period in Native America is that surrounding the Ghost Dance. This strange episode follows on the heels of the “systematic destruction of the American Indian during the second half of the nineteenth century,” as eloquently documented in Dee Brown’s heart-wrenching classic Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970).
In brief, between 1860 and 1890, during the “opening” of the American West to white fortune-seekers and settlers, the region’s Native residents lost everything: their land, the buffalo on which they subsisted, their way of life, their cultures, and their dignity. Into this vacuum stepped Wovoka, the “Paiute Messiah,” with the promise of salvation.
After a prophetic vision in 1889, Wovoka, familiar with Christian theology, claimed to be the second incarnation of Christ and preached an unusual gospel of Indian redemption and resurrection:
In the next springtime, when the grass [is] knee high, the earth [will] be covered with new soil [that will] bury all the white men, and the new land [will] be covered with sweet grass and running water and trees. Great herds of buffalo and horses [will] come back.
Indians who danced the five-day Ghost Dance, according to Wovoka, would be suspended in mid-air when the new wave of earth passed below, following which they would be restored to a fresh earth in the company of their resurrected ancestors.
The Ghost Dance spread across Western Indian reservations “like a prairie fire in a high wind,” a sign of the abject despondency of Native inhabitants.
Wovoka’s prophecy did not hold true. Instead, the peaceful Indian uprising was met by brutal Army suppression “of all fomenters of dissent,” culminating in the December 29, 1890, massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, which claimed 300 Miniconjou and Hunkpapa Lakota (“Sioux”) men, women, and children.
When I hear Trump trumpet “Make America Great Again,” it recalls to mind Wovoka’s promise to resurrect Native America. And when I hear Trump’s hollow proclamation, as in his recent energy speech, that he will re-open coal mines and restore mining jobs in beleaguered Appalachia, it recalls Wovoka’s unfulfilled prophecy of a new wave of earth on which the Buffalo and horses would reappear.
In either case, the odds are implausibly low. Yet hope remains, the faint glimmer of a distant star in a dark night of despair. Such was the despair of Native Americans in the 1890s, and such is the despair of lower and middle class Americans today, hard-working Americans whose livelihoods and dreams have been steamrolled by capitalism run amok, Americans now dying in record numbers from economic dislocation and stress.
But one has to be careful about carrying the analogy between 1890 and 2016 too far. “By their fruits you will know them.”
Wovoka’s teachings were at worst innocuous. The Ghost Dance movement was inclusive and non-violent, rooted in part in the Christian tenets of love and peace. It caused no real harm and is still practiced today in some Native American quarters.
Trumpism, on the other hand, is not benign. It’s authoritarian. It’s belligerent. It bullies. It’s nationalistic. It scapegoats Muslims and immigrants, blaming them for our internal ills. It’s divisive. It builds walls, not bridges. It denies realities: the scientific reality of climate change and the economic reality that fracked gas is cheaper than coal and that renewable energy is now cheaper than both.
Trumpism skates perilously close to fascism.
America indeed is in dire straits. There’s no denying. Inequality is at an all-time high. Our political system is polarized and paralyzed. Our manufacturing jobs are mostly gone, our financial sector is predatory, and our infrastructure is crumbling. We haven’t kicked our addiction to war, and it’s killing our soul. We devalue education and demean educators. We disregard science. Thereby under-educated, when faced with inconvenient truths, we simply deny them. And the media — having abandoned substance for entertainment — are tranquilizing rather than educating the masses.
Our collective mood is foul, for good reasons. Many are desperate for quick and easy answers.
Weimar Germany was also desperate, and look what happened when the Germans put faith in a false prophet.
Now — of all times — beware the false messiahs. “By their fruit you will recognize them.”
The author's book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012) further explores the interface between science, mythology, spirituality, and meaning. According to Ursula King of the Institute for Advanced Studies at the University of Bristol, Dave Pruett's Reason and Wonder (Praeger, 2012) "opens up [an expansive worldview] of true audacity and grandeur that will change your thinking forever."