America’s latest “cargo cult”?

John Edward Terrell

In the 16th century, faced with reformers who thought they knew the way forward better than he did, Martin Luther is famous for having said what Jesus once said (Matthew 16:23) “Devil get thee behind me.” Waking up on Wednesday morning, November 9th, the majority of voters in America may have felt the same. Trump hadn’t won the election. Yet he had won the American presidency thanks to the peculiar institution of the Electoral College. Trump and the reformist movement of the seemingly disadvantaged and overlooked in American society he asserted he was leading would now be empowered to drain the swamp in Washington and make America great again.


Or maybe not. Since the election everyone or her brother has come forward with an explanation for what happened to bring about such a cataclysmic realignment of the stars. It’s the economy. No, it’s Neoliberalism. No, it’s racism, pure and evil. No again, it’s the sheer stupidity of the American masses. The list of reasons for the success of The Donald is as lengthy as there are people in the room to offer them.

I am an anthropologist who works in the South Pacific where social movements like Trump’s have been commonplace. Out there we call them “cargo cults” since many of these often short-lived social uprisings have centered on ways to miraculously achieve wealth and Western material goods. Academics also call them “nativistic movements.” Others prefer “millenarian movements,” and suggest Christianity began as just such reformist movement among the discontented Jewish faithful living under yoke of Roman rule. The anthropologist Anthony F. C. Wallace at the University of Pennsylvania, however, preferred instead “revitalization movements.” Whatever label used, Wallace defined such a social movement as a “deliberate, organized, conscious effort by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture.”

Many years ago I had the good fortune to take Wallace’s course on these self-conscious populist efforts by which people seek to recover their sense of self-worth and dignity. If he were alive today—he died in 2015 at 92—my wager would be that he might have predicted the outcome of our recent election. He would have seen Trump for what he is, not the Devil incarnate. But rather a razzle-dazzle Harold Hill kind of prophet, however flawed or sincere you take him to be.

Wallace also might have observed—perhaps even in time to save the day for her—that the way to handle an upstart like Donald J. Trump  is definitely not the way Hillary tackled him. Not by ridicule or tones of elite superiority, but instead by matching his magical vision of what makes America great with an equally visionary (and perhaps similarly magical) wish-dream of her own. In short, she should have fought fire with fire much the way Bernie Sanders did for many months before the Democratic Convention. You don’t have to be Harry Potter to know it takes magic to defeat magic.

Wallace was an authority on the spiritual and social revivalist movement among the Iroquois of upstate New York in the early 19th century inspired and led by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. Here are a few basic facts. A century earlier, the Iroquois had been a powerful political and economic force in the northeastern United States thanks to the fur trade. Then they had the misfortune to side with the British during the American Revolution. Thereafter, they found themselves cramped into small reservations on both sides of Canada-U.S.A. border.

No need to give you details of Handsome Lake’s prophetic message or the religious movement he led until his death in 1815 beyond noting that many today still embrace his message of redemption. Here instead is the lesson for all of us Wallace drew from his scholarly research on Handsome Lake and also several hundred other similar case studies down through history.[1]

Wallace argues that revitalization movements in general, not only what Handsome Lake said he was inspired by the Creator to lead, have a common pattern that can be broken down into five steps or phases of development.[2] Wallace’s own phrasing of these five is academic. I have rewritten them to make them more user-friendly by restating them as if being seen in hindsight by someone participating in such a movement.

  1. Once upon a time life was good. We were happy, hopeful, and successful.
  2. Then things changed, and we started feeling that how we were living was not fulfilling our needs and aspirations.
  3. We entered an increasingly difficult time when our old ways no longer gave us what we want out of life. Many of us cast about for alternative and often unsatisfactory ways to bring meaning back into our lives by turning to alcohol, drugs, or social deviance. Disillusionment and apathy became common.
  4. Then suddenly someone came forward with a transformative vision, a way by which we could rediscover better days—Wallace called such an inspirational experience a prophetic “vision-dream”—setting out what must be done to feel good again, and be as successful as we once were. Here Wallace’s own words directly apply: “Converts are made by the prophet. Some undergo hysterical seizures induced by suggestion in a crowd situation; some experience an ecstatic vision in private circumstances; some are convinced by more or less rational arguments, some by considerations of expediency and opportunity. A small clique of special disciples (often including a few already influential men) clusters about the prophet and an embryonic campaign organization develops with three orders of personnel: the prophet; the disciples; and the followers. Frequently the action program from here on is effectively administered in large part by a political rather than a religious leadership. Like the prophet, many of the converts undergo a revitalizing personality transformation.”
  5. So now it looks like we are in for good times again. Perhaps. As Wallace wrote: “This group program may, however, be more or less realistic and more or less adaptive: some programs are literally suicidal; others represent well-conceived and successful projects of further social, political, or economic reform; some fail, not through any deficiency in conception and execution, but because circumstances made defeat inevitable.”

Who knows whether Donald Trump has ever had anything like a prophetic vision-dream in all his 70 years of life. However, judging by his public performances during the recent campaign, it can be maintained he did begin to see himself as the true prophet (“I am your voice”) of his very own personal revitalization movement.[3]

Is he sincere? Who knows? But here is my first point. What we are now experiencing in America isn’t something new and certainly not something strange. So stop trying to pin down and blame this or that for why The Donald won. People can be unhappy with their lot in life for countless reasons, not just because down deep inside they genuinely loathe immigrants, are racists, are fed up with the same-old, same-old coming out of Washington, or any of the other countless excuses being offered by pundits or exchanged at Starbucks between friends still in shock.

Here’s my second point. It is time to focus on Wallace’s last step. Here there is reason to worry. As Wallace wrote: “In instances where organized hostility to the movement develops, a crystallization of counter-hostility against unbelievers frequently occurs, and emphasis shifts from cultivation of the ideal to combat against the unbeliever and uncertainty.” I am not the first suggest we will be going down a very rocky road to 2020. Since I am almost as old as he is, it is fair for me to say to Bernie Sanders that we will need a new prophet to lead those of us who were in this camp to the Promised Land.

[1] Wallace, Anthony. Death and Rebirth of Seneca. Vintage, 2010.

[2] Wallace, Anthony FC. “Revitalization movements.” American anthropologist58, no. 2 (1956): 264-281.


This post was first published on 1 January 2017 at SCIENCE DIALOGUES, and a link was corrected on 11 January 2017

John Edward Terrell is Regenstein Curator of Pacific Anthropology at The Field Museum, Chicago, IL 60605. His latest book A Talent for Friendship: Rediscovery of a Remarkable Trait was published on December 1, 2014 by Oxford University Press. Email address: terrell[at]

© 2017 John Edward Terrell. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited. The statements and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not constitute official statements or positions of the Editors and others associated with SCIENCE DIALOGUES.

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