Monthly Archives: January 2021

The Witches Invade Washington

They should have asked an anthropologist.

The political and military professionals ignored the warnings presaging last week’s Capitol invasion.  But many who conduct research in rural Africa, while untrained in cyber-espionage, could have predicted the attack.

From living in small, rain-forest villages hosted by the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire for nearly two years, here’s what I learned about the risks of the interregnum. 

African villagers know that any transfer of power is always fraught—sociopolitically, ritually, emotionally.  This liminal period–“betwixt-and-between,” as anthropologist Victor Turner described it–leaves the nation neither fully in one political space nor another.  Whether they last minutes or months, liminal moments beyond life’s normal categories invite creativity, artistic license—and danger.

In Ivory Coast, Beng practices for seating a new king are a study in (ritual) risk management.  Spiritual peril precedes every king’s inauguration.  Before the installation, it is said that witches roam freely during the daylight hours, exploiting the temporary power vacuum.  Normally, witches reportedly wreak havoc only at night; their daytime boldness is taken as especially disquieting. 

Nevertheless, Beng witches are neighbors.  At night, they may transform into animal familiars or other abnormal forms, but by day, they revert to their normal human appearance.  One might not know that the ordinary-looking person next door, or even one’s cousin or uncle, is plotting evil using mystical means.

As the king’s ritual seating approaches—the Beng equivalent of hand-on-the-Bible-swearing—the witches’ work reaches a fever pitch, culminating in maximal damage during the moments preceding the climactic ritual.  A Beng friend claimed that more people die from witchcraft during the interregnum than any other time.  Babies, children, and pregnant women never attend a king’s investiture: youth of all ages are considered especially vulnerable to the witches’ power.  

King Bonde Chomo of Bengland (photo: Alma Gottlieb)

One might dismiss such accounts as irrelevant to a modern democracy.  I suggest otherwise.

Let’s take “witchcraft” as a metaphor for any illegitimate power unleashed by evil and spiritually powerful actors aimed at harming regular humans.  (That’s the Beng perception.)  Defined thus, the ritual drama of Beng kingship illuminates last week’s insurrection in Washington.  

The insurgents might as well have been witches.  Like Beng witches, they plotted their moves secretly, online.  The Internet served as the high-tech equivalent of the Beng witches’ night—complete with mysterious spaces known colloquially (with its undertone of racist imagery) as the “dark Web.”  

After stealthy planning, the insurgents accomplished acts of violence ranging from physical to moral to spiritual.  After all, the building they assailed was, as American schoolchildren learn, the quintessential symbol of America. 

In their rampage, the insurgents obeyed their outgoing, would-be god-emperor.  Crafting the persona of a religious cult leader, Trump has referred to himself as the “King of Israel” and “the second coming of God.”  He once re-Tweeted a follower’s Tweet that he was “heaven sent.”  Former Energy secretary Rick Perry praised Trump as “God’s chosen one,” and plenty of other self-described Christian devotees have referred to him, implicitly or explicitly, as “the Messiah.”  

Trump even attracts acolytes espousing outlier religious traditions.  One much-photographed participant in last week’s assault—a buffalo horn- and bearskin-toting QAnon follower–called himself a “QAnon shaman,” ostensibly impersonating the classic shamans of the Mongolian steppes.  Such flashy devotees merely exaggerate the religious fervor Trump himself ignites; his toxic narcissism flaunts the charismatic charlatanism in which religious cult leaders often specialize.  

Last week, the energy of Trump’s mob erupted so intensely that the great French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, might have termed it positively effervescent.  Over a century ago, Durkheim took the explosive bubbles of a champagne bottle as an apt metaphor for the religious excitement generated by large crowds of worshippers.  Durkheim had in mind large ceremonial gatherings of Aboriginal peoples of Australia convened to venerate ancestral spirits of the land.  Tragically, the religious fervor we witnessed in the U.S. capital aimed at murder, not spiritual enlightenment.

Until January 6th, the genius of the American political system had managed to contain the potent energy of previous interregnums, accomplishing handovers peacefully.  Following last week’s attempted coup d’état, the relevance of Beng kings’ installation rituals becomes urgently clear: moments of political transition pose the most perilous times of civic life. 

Modern-day witches sport all manner of dress.  Most appear commonplace, while some appropriate intimidating regalia ranging from would-be garb of the military to pseudo-shamanic adornment of Mongolia.  Like their African counterparts, these American witches—unnervingly, our neighbors and relatives–simultaneously wield and mock potent symbols to perform sedition.

Two Lessons I Learned about the Transfer of Power while Living in Africa

1. The moment that any transfer of power occurs from one individual or regime to another is fraughtritually, sociologically, emotionally.

Why? This is a liminal period–“betwixt and between,” as the great anthropologist Victor Turner described it–neither fully in one political space, nor in another. Liminal moments offer options for creativity, inviting artistic license. They also represent spaces of danger.

Here’s what I’ve learned about the liminal times of interregnum–those intervals between political regimes–from West Africa.

For the better part of two years, I lived in small, rain-forest villages hosted by the Beng people of Côte d’Ivoire. Their practices for seating a new king are a study in (ritual) risk management.

The late King Bonde Chomo of Bengland, Côte d’Ivoire
(photo by Alma Gottlieb)

Beng people rank a king’s inauguration as an extended moment of extreme spiritual danger. During the days and, especially, hours before the installation concludes, witches reportedly roam freely during the daylight hours, taking advantage of the temporary power vacuum. As the time approaches for the king to be ritually seated, the witches’ work increases to a fever pitch, culminating in maximal damage during the moments right before the climactic ritual. It is said that more people die during the interregnum period than at any other time. Babies and children never attend a king’s investiture: parents fear that their weakness and youthfulness would render them especially vulnerable to the power of witches. Likewise, a pregnant woman assiduously avoids the event, protecting her fragile fetus.

Some in the modern world might dismiss such accounts as anachronistic relics of an ancient era. I suggest otherwise.

At the broadest level, let’s take “witchcraft” as a metaphor for the unleashing of any illegitimate and mystical power aimed at causing harm in the lives of ordinary humans. (That’s how the Beng perceive witches.) It becomes clear how the ritual drama of Beng kingship illuminates the events of last week in the American capital. The insurgents attacking the U.S. Capitol building played the role of witches, spreading spiritual chaos.

The much-photographed costume of the fiercest-looking insurgent was worn by one Jacob Anthony Chansley–an Arizonan man who forsook his prosaic name in favor of “Jake Angeli,” with its obvious religious reference to “angel.” But his attempt to wield spiritual power was not only through reference to Christianity. In a second perverse act of cultural appropriation, the terrorist also drew on indigenous religious traditions, calling himself a “QAnon Shaman.”

Voice actor/conspiracy group QAnon follower appropriating stereotypical image of a shaman to visually persuade others of his power (spiritual and otherwise)
(Getty Images–source here)

That is not just a meaningless moniker. The now-notorious Arizonan claims spiritual powers equivalent to those of the classic shamans of the Mongolian steppes. Chansley has categorized himself as a “multi-dimensional or hyper dimensional being” and claims he can “see into these other higher dimensions that these entities – these pedophiles, these rapists, these really high up people … that they can almost hide in the shadows in.” 

Beyond Chansley, QAnon–the amorphous collection of groups with which Chansley associates himself–itself displays many qualities of a religious cult. For one thing, its strangely spelt name hints at a secret identity: Anon[ymous]. The secrecy encoded in its very name implies mystical foundations.

Then, too, the conspiracy-oriented group promotes hyperbolic but vague claims drenched in sensationalist innuendo: Satanic kidnapping, pedophilia, child trafficking.

Moreover, according to NY Times reporter Kevin Roose, QAnon followers have also been “flooding social media with false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election.” Some have, additionally, embraced anti-vaccine and anti-child-trafficking movements; others make further “claims about the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the existence of U.F.O.s, and the 9/11 ‘truther’ movement.”

What’s more, its messages are sometimes penned in cryptic language.

All these features smack of religious cults.

Dare I point out that this shambolic collection of creative but unrealistic fears constitutes a veritable witches’ brew?

Chansley is now in custody. I’m guessing that the higher powers with which he claims to be in touch may not prove persuasive in a court of law.


But Chansley is just the side show. The main act, of course, is Donald Trump. These past four years. Trump has turned into a religious cult leader par excellence.

Trump may not drape himself flamboyantly in bearskins or sport buffalo horns, but his toxic narcissism produces just the sort of charismatic charlatanism in which certain types of religious cult leaders have long specialized. Allying himself with flashier devotees merely highlights the religious fervor he ignites on his own.

As I watch reruns of the mob scene that Trump incited, I imagine that the great French sociologist, Emil Durkheim, would have recognized the energy as effervescent, when large gatherings of people create great emotional intensity dedicated to serving ancestral spirits. Tragically, the religious fervor we witnessed in the U.S. capital produced tragedy rather than spiritual enlightenment.


Last week in Washington, D.C., the bureaucrats in charge of security failed our nation miserably. Eventually, a systematic inquiry will determine whether this failure originated in inattentive incompetence or coordinated sedition. (All signs are currently pointing toward the latter.)

For now, I humbly point out what those in charge might have learned from Beng villagers (assuming they actually wanted to protect the nation): moments of political transition represent the most dangerous times of civic life.

During periods of political interregnum, society cannot be too cautious. Leaders must take all conceivable steps to protect the vulnerable and safeguard the polity, lest the forces of chaos–modern-day witches–avail themselves of the power vacuum and take charge.

2. The institution of democratic rule is strong, sturdy, and stable–until it’s not.

In the village, my Beng friend Yacouba once told me, “When the walls have holes, the cockroaches get in.”

Yacouba had in mind the ravages of his two co-wives. In his view, their endless bitter arguments were causing all their children to constantly fall sick; one had even died.

Yacouba’s cockroach lesson might be applied to the broader house of civil society. Once foes scratch cracks into the walls of an institution, elements of destruction expand those chips and find their way in.

In Côte d’Ivoire, the initial challenge to the modern nation’s first democratic elections occurred in 1994. The past 26 years have seen more failed coup attempts than I have counted, punctuated frequently by violent civil unrest and two periods of out-and-out civil war. Today, the nation remains as unstable as it was at the beginning of those early political challenges. Côte d’Ivoire’s recent history should serve America as a warning.

During the past week, we have heard many journalists and political experts write that America is on a precipice. But, if we want to be honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that, from the nation’s earliest days, America began in violent efforts to either subjugate or annihilate people of color–first, native peoples; then, Africans kidnapped and brought to these shores while enslaved. To claim that we are on a precipice now implies that this is the first time we face stark choices concerning racism. In truth, we have been balancing uneasily on that precipice since the founding of the republic.

Nevertheless, each time we venture farther out on that cliff, we come closer to toppling over its edge.

The lessons of Côte d’Ivoire’s difficult modern history are still something from which it’s not too late to learn. There’s still time to conduct thorough inquiries into who organized last week’s insurrection and then prosecute them. All of them. Even if he neither resigns nor is removed from office via the 25th amendment nor is impeached, Donald Trump can, and should, ultimately be judged–ideally in court, but certainly by history.

Meanwhile, we have an interregnum to plow through.

Long Past Time for the 25th Amendment*

There will be plenty of time for Biden to use his extraordinary faith and energy and creativity to think about how this divided nation might be healed.

For now, there is only one first step to be taken, and taken today. Trump must be removed from office. Now.

* “. . . the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office. . .”