It’s become commonplace to point out that liberals are struggling to understand contemporary politics. Individuals such as Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin escape rational analysis. These presidents don’t obey the rules when it comes to, say, protectionist economics or international spying.
The latest book from Gary Lachman, historian of esotericism and former bassist with rock group Blondie, offers an alternative framework of comprehension. Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in The Age of Trump suggests why politics feels so out of control. Lachman leads his readers across a web of connections from the populist loathing of neoliberal synarchy, that is “total government” by free markets, to the dark arts of occult philosophy. It’s in these shadows that alternative explanations for today’s confusion can be found.
His knowledge of the links between politics and the esoteric alerted him. These links are longstanding and, in the past, have been associated with the aims of the left and right, and with good and ill. They reach back through the nineteenth century, and the involvement of theosophists with Indian independence, to the sixteenth century when the alchemist, John Dee, conceived the notion of a “British Empire”, a phrase he coined, after conversing with an archangel. Lachman noticed that key players in both Trump and Putin’s camps were, today, referencing similarly strange and unlikely ideas.
It began with reports about Richard Spencer, leader of the National Policy Institute, a far-right movement that supported Trump’s election campaign. At their victory gathering, Spencer greeted the ecstatic activists with an ominous cheer: “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail our victory!” By “our victory”, Spencer meant that the group had willed Trump into office; that they had made their dream reality.
Spencer was nodding to an esoteric type of will to power. It’s called New Thought. It teaches that if someone has an ardent wish, they can, through the exercise of intention, cause it to happen. The claim is that this power brought Trump to office when no-one had expected it.
If you’ve not heard of New Thought before it can come as a surprise to learn that it’s a widespread belief. It actually sells books by the million, often under the radar of the liberal media’s bestseller lists. One of the most successful of recent titles is Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret. Also called Mental Science and Science of Mind, it has one form that has become almost mainstream: the power of positive thinking.
Donald Trump was deeply shaped by it, having been raised in the church led by Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, a book published in 1952 that is still a big seller. Trump’s rhetoric is full of Pealean clichés. He will insist that he’s “a winner”, he “thinks big”, he’s a “can do man”. He also doesn’t pussyfoot with experts and the “loser” establishment.
Now, you might think that positive thinking is dodgy when it comes to ethics but deluded when it comes to the actualité. Surely it can’t work?! But Lachman’s point is that you don’t have to believe it to be worried about it. It’s undoubtedly at play in contemporary politics and, furthermore, it has explicitly malign variants.
It can take another form called chaos magick. Advocates of chaos magick deny there’s such a thing as truth. They set social havoc as a goal, and will a perpetual state of revolution. In its political form, chaos magick also mixes in a detestation of the west, which it sees as decayed and crumbling, and best “helped” by accelerating its decline.
A key esoteric figure, here, is Julius Evola. An Italian, who died in 1974, he developed a philosophy known as Traditionalism. It teaches that civilisation has fallen from a golden age in the distant past to a stage of decadence and degeneracy in the modern world. For Evola, this wasn’t just a cultural analysis. He became a cultural warrior and tried to curry favour with figures such as Mussolini and Hitler. He’s a favourite intellectual amongst the far right today and, according to reports, not least in the New York Times, Steve Bannon is an Evola devotee. He’s the former chief strategy advisor to Trump who, at the time of writing, is touring Europe addressing populist audiences.
A similar trail of occult links can be drawn around Putin, though I got the sense from Lachman that the Russian leader is more calculated in his deployment of chaos than Trump, who is incapable of acting any other way. The book makes for a fascinating read. It casts a different and eerie light across the contemporary political landscape.
It also raises the question of how to respond? Chaos magick slips from the grip of politics-as-usual. It’s a politics not driven by economic hopes and material aspirations, as centre right and left parties assume, but by less conscious and more powerful forces such dignity, self-esteem and pride. Leaders like Trump and Putin are consummate manipulators of them. They understand that “thoughts make reality”, to quote a central tenet of positive thinking, not the promise of growth and goods.
Alternative responses are active in the US. There are the white witches who meet regularly to cast binding spells on Trump’s activities, and so try to limit them. Liberal religious leaders like Bishop Michael Curry, who preached at the recent royal wedding, are championing the “Reclaiming Jesus” movement.
Lachman, himself, argues that we need to think about our imagination. He takes a lead from the Inkling, Owen Barfield, a member of the celebrated Oxford group whom both C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien said had the most penetrating ideas. Barfield realised that postmodernity treats the imagination as a shallow faculty. It teaches us that it is fanciful, inconsequential and ever-changing. But it’s not. It makes worlds and controls what we perceive of things.
Barfield advocated training the imagination so that we can discern what we see and be alert to much more. His point, today, would be that if your consciousness is filled with chaotic tweets and troubling headlines, then these thoughts will shape your mind and you’ll lose touch with what really matters. You’ll stop being able to tell the difference between inane appearances and deeper reality. The worry is that this is what’s happening. It’s certainly the chaos practitioners’ play.