I recently spoke with prolific author, professor and esoteric scholar Gary Lachman about his new book, Dark Star Rising: Magic and Power in the Age of Trump. Gary explored the connections between Trump and mind metaphysics (did the US election break reality?) as well as the rise of the alt-right and that weird new media occultism that is “meme magic” (think Pepe the Frog and other strange internet iconographies). We also explored a bright side of this dark star: how we might navigate this tricky phase space in the evolution of consciousness toward a better—more integrated—tomorrow.
Let’s start with the big question. Was there an occult dimension to Trump gaining the presidency?
It seems that certain Trump supporters believed there was. One was Richard Spencer, founder of the alt-right. At a meeting of the National Policy Institute – a far-right think tank – held soon after Trump’s election, Spencer, then head of the NPI, got things going with a bang. Opening the meeting he addressed the crowd, declaring “Hail Trump. Hail our hero. Hail our victory. We made this happen. We willed Trump into office. We made this dream a reality!” It was, Spencer said, their “victory of the will.” The crowd responded with enthusiastic Nazi – or Roman – salutes.
This was covered by all the media – it was headline news. But one report caught my attention. It was by Harv Bishop, a New Thought blogger. New Thought is a generic name for several philosophies of mind that share the common idea that “thoughts are causative.” They can make things happen. Through the power of the mind alone, we can effect changes in the world. But while most New Thought devotees pursue relatively innocuous aims – prosperity, health – Bishop wondered if the alt-right were using New Thought techniques for aims of a different sort.
When I followed up Bishop’s lead it quickly became clear that in different but related ways, the idea that reality is malleable, that we can “create our own reality” – the basis of magic – runs through much of the politics in the world today, in the US but also in Russia.
What’s the connection between Trump, Norman Vincent Peale and the New Thought movement? Or–excuse this clickbait question–does Trump essentially use The Secret?
Norman Vincent Peale was a very important person in Trump’s life, a mentor of sorts. Peale became rich and famous in 1952 with the publication of his book The Power of Positive Thinking. His sermons at the Marble Collegiate Church on Fifth Avenue and Twenty-Ninth Street in NYC were very popular. Trump’s family attended them; his father was a great fan of Peale. Peale’s message was that with the right kind of attitude, nothing should stand in the way of one achieving one’s goals, one’s success. Trump heard this as a child and then as an adult; two of his weddings took place in the church. He learned from Peale that it isn’t facts that matter, but our attitude toward them. That’s what counts. We can see here an early expression of our current post-truth alternative fact world.
Peale’s philosophy of positive thinking is rooted in New Thought. He was a great reader of New Thought philosophers like Ernest Holmes, Ralph Waldo Trine, Napoleon Hill and others. His own technique of “prayer power” uses New Thought ideas. So it seems that not only are some Trump fellow-travelers engaging in New Thought tactics – if what Harv Bishop says is true – Trump himself is deep into a very effective version of New Thought too.
Trump’s election still feels dizzingly unreal when I really think about it sometimes, and in his wake the tenor of reality has become more about attitude than fact (“It’s gonna be huge”). But, this transcendence from factual reality seems to be integral to his ascendancy. Is this what you mean when you’ve joked, elsewhere, that Trump is the singularity?
I say Trump is the singularity because as you say, things feel somehow different since he’s in office. A singularity is where the normal, usual rules for things break down and no longer apply. So a black hole is a singularity because in one the laws of physics no longer work and things like time and space are radically different. In New Age thinking the singularity is some event in the future toward which we are progressing. When it arrives, the world as we know it will be radically different. It seemed to me and to others that this is rather what happened with Trump’s election. Not in some quantum or quasi-religious way, but in terms of how we understand reality, a shift in how we interpret things, what criteria we apply to determine truth or value. Again the idea of “creating” your own reality comes in. This time it’s in the form of postmodernism.
I say in the book that we are experiencing the effects of what I call “trickle down metaphysics.” We are experiencing today on an everyday level the kind of epistemological nihilism that Nietzsche saw coming more than a century ago. In the late 19thcentury, Nietzsche recognized that a kind of nihilism was inevitable because the very search for Truth, that fueled both science and religion, had arrived at the truth that there is no Truth, only “truths”. That is, “truth” is relative. There is no objective, absolute standard by which we can gauge the value of each truth, and the very belief that there was, had itself arrived at this revelation.
Nietzsche recognized that the people of his time or even those of the next generation would not be ready for this, and that it would take some time for the insight of the heights to reach the lowlands. He spoke not for today or tomorrow, but for the day after tomorrow. I’d say that means us. But where Nietzsche tried to find a way to overcome this nihilism – hence Zarathustra – we seem more like the people in the market place who want to hear about the Last Men, not the Overman. They accept the meaninglessness and relativity. They’re quite happy with it. It lets them off the hook. If nothing – or everything – is true, what matters? This more or less is the kind of outlook presented by deconstructionism and postmodernism, two mainstream philosophical movements that share with New Thought and positive thinking the idea that reality is malleable. Trump shares in this. As in postmodernism, reality for him is something he can play with and mold to his requirements. Truths are relative, facts negligible. Reality is different now.
What is meme magic, and where did it come from? Do you think there’s some validity behind the admittedly playful claims of “synchro-mysticism?”
Meme magic is the technique supposedly used by Spencer and Co. to “will” Trump into office. Basically it’s about using internet memes to effect changes in the real world. The story is that some people posting on 4chan noticed some odd coincidences between memes they had posted about film The Dark Knight Rises and the 2015 German Wings Flight 9525 crash in the Alps. They had posted about the scene where Bain, the villain, takes over the plane flying him to prison, escapes and crashes it. There seemed to be some similarities between this scene and the German Wings crash. The crash happened in the Alps near a town called Bains. One of the crash site investigators was named Bruce Robin. The pilot crashed the plane, just as Bain does in the film. Did their posts somehow make the crash happenthey wondered? Those who thought it was possible christened the phenomena “synchromysticism,” which means when something on the net bleeds into the “real” world and effects it in some way. It is a techno retread of Jung’s synchronicity, where instead of one’s consciousness or inner world, the “meaningful coincidence” happens between the internet and the world. If we think of the internet as a kind of exteriorized collective imagination, we can see how it could work.
If it happened by chance, could it happen on purpose? Could one intentionally use internet memes to “make things happen”? The idea of using memes for magical purposes suggests that meme magic is an offshoot of chaos magic, a kind of Do It Yourself approach to magic that started in the 1970s. Briefly, instead of relying on the traditional magical implements – wands, circles, spells, etc. – the chaos magician relies on imagination, initiative, and will, and makes use of whatever is at hand. Chaos magic has a long history of adopting elements of pop culture in its practice – the famous eight pointed chaos star comes from Michael Moorcock’s Eternal Champion series of novels, which charts a never-ending battle between the forces of Order and Chaos. Nowadays, what is at hand are internet memes.
The meme in question here is Pepe the Frog. Pepe started out as an amphibian slacker but he was abducted by the dark side – the alt-right and Trump supporters – and became their mascot. But he was something more than a mascot. The idea was that Pepe would become a sigil – a hyper-sigil, in fact, a magical symbol charged with imagination and intent – the intent being to put Trump in office. Pepe appeared alongside Trump, as Trump, as one of the Deplorables, even as Aleister Crowley, a magician with whom some feel Trump has much in common. Then the weirdness started.
Posts on 4chan are anonymous, but each one receives an eight digit number. Pepeists began to notice that they seemed to be getting double, triple, or even quadruple numbers in their eight digit tag. It seemed that their posts about Pepe or Trump were being acknowledged in some way and approved of. They began to bet whether a post would receive a “dub” or a “trip”. But who or what was acknowledging them?
The answer to that question came from two incongruous sources: the World of Warcraft video game and ancient Egypt.
4channers were fond of World of Warcraft and they were aware of a strange glitch in the program. Whenever they wanted to write LOL it invariably came out KEK. Oddly enough, this ihad something to do with the Korean language. In any case, they eventually just went with it, and so whenever anything tickled them – like one of Trump’s tweets – they burst out kekking.
The odd thing is that Kek happens to be the name of an ancient Egyptian frog headed deity of – chaos.
So it seemed that the Pepeists were getting approval from Kek, ancient god of Chaos, who had been incarnated among them – at least electronically – in the form of Pepe.
If that wasn’t enough, in the book I suggest that although he most likely never heard of it, Trump is a kind of natural born chaos magician. Certainly chaos is something many people associate with him. And one of the odd coincidences I came across is that positive thinking, New Thought, and chaos magic share one central element: they are all results driven. They each want to make things happen.
Chaos magic and other occult traditions (both new and old) are clearly able to be picked up and re-interpreted by the left or the right, for purposes good or ill. This lends me to believe magic is a neutral tool and that we can do with it “what thou wilt” as it were. (Maybe comment on this if you have a thought).
I’d say that is absolutely correct. Power can be turned to different ends. Even Spiderman knows the responsibility involved.
In your works you write about McGilchrist and the evolution of human consciousness. I’m sure I am over simplifying, but for the sake of brevity in this question: Occult traditions typically retrieve or restore neglected, imaginative right hemisphere after centuries of dominance by the left. These can be reactionary (against the modern world but for traditional values, like Guenon), or experimental and progressive (against the modern world but for new, future values). What do current global events tell you is happening right now? Are we seeing an occult re-integration? A kind of “revenge” of a neglected magical reality? Is there a bright side to this dark star?
I think we are going through what Jean Gebser calls the “breakdown of the mental-rational structure of consciousness.” The kind of nihilism associated with postmodernism is a symptom and agent of this. What this means is that the vision of the world typical of western consciousness since what Jaspers called the Axial Age – rational, scientific – is dismantling itself. It reached a kind of peak in the Renaissance, hardened in the nineteenth century into the reductive, materialist vision associated with “scientism,” and, with deconstructionism and postmodernism, is doing a Humpty Dumpty act. There are opportunities and dangers here, as there are whenever a dominant structure weakens and the new structure is yet in place. In fact, it is by going through the breakdown that the agents of the new structure can lay its foundations. I do think that we can see the rise of “occult politics” and the post-truth etc. world as a kind of unintegrated expression of the marginalized imaginative side of ourselves. Gebser said that if we did not participate in the shift from the old structure to the new consciously, we would do so nevertheless, but under its terms, not ours. There is something I call the Goldilocks effect, when the two sides work together, when things are neither right or left but “just right.” I think we have an opportunity now to take a shot at this. The need to is obvious.
Go further down the rabbit hole and check out my essay on Evolve and Ascend on Memes, Magic and Mysticism. Also see our interview with Mitch Horowitz on the fascinating subject and history of mental causation.