One of the most disturbing after effects of billionaire Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 United States presidential contest occurred at the annual meeting of the National Policy Institute, held in the Ronald Reagan Building, not far from the White House, shortly after the election. “National Policy Institute” seems an innocuous name for what many believe is a white nationalist organisation.[i] Trump’s ascendancy has been seen by the far right – in the United States and also in Europe – as a sign that liberal dominance was over and that it was their turn in power. During Trump’s campaign a loosely connected new far right movement emerged on the internet, christened by the National Policy Institute’s leader, Richard Spencer, as the “alternative right,” or “alt-right,” to differentiate it from its unsophisticated predecessors.
Delighted by Trump’s victory, Spencer greeted the NPI meeting with a chilling cheer, which was received with an even more ominous response. As Spencer declaimed “Hail Trump, hail our people, hail our victory!” the crowd responded with enthusiastic applause and not a few Hitler salutes – or, as Spencer later explained, Roman ones.[ii] What is more disturbing is that Spencer and his followers took credit for Trump’s victory. He called it “a victory of the will,” and declared that “We willed Donald Trump into office, we made this dream our reality.”[iii]
As Harv Bishop, a New Thought blogger, pointed out, making dreams a reality is a central aim of New Thought, the philosophy of “mental science” and “positive thinking,” through which we can “create our own reality.” New Thought takes an ardent wish and, through the power of willed intention, materializes it. In his post about the NPI’s meeting, Bishop expressed concern that Spencer and his followers may have taken a leaf from New Thought’s book and turned the power of positive thinking to something that Bishop, and many others, did not consider very positive.
How did Spencer and the alt-right “dream” Trump into office, if indeed they did? It seems they resorted to what is known as “meme magic.” Meme is a term that comes from the biologist Richard Dawkins, of “selfish gene” fame, who argued that memes serve the same function in culture as genes do in organisms. Memes are ideas, behaviours, styles, images, symbols, slogans, or any other cultural development that can be transmitted to and imitated by others. Memes are flexible and are influenced by their transmission, rather like a game of “Chinese whispers” or “telephone,” in which a message gets distorted as it is whispered from one person to another, and in the end, winds up very different from how it began. When Dawkins first coined the term, back in 1989, the main media for the dispersal of memes were books, art, music, television, and films – old school stuff. Today they spread through the internet, rather like the similarly biologically rooted idea of “computer viruses.”
The “magic” end of meme magic comes from its link to what is known as “chaos magic.” Rather than stick to the spells, grimoires, rituals, ceremonies, and symbols of traditional magic, chaos magic prefers a “do-it-yourself” creative approach that favors the magician’s personal initiative and imagination, his ability, that is, to make it up as he goes along. Rather than fuss over wands and bells and incense, and getting the name of that particular demon just right, the chaos magician uses whatever is at hand. For today’s chaos magician, this means the memes that are propagated across the internet.
For chaos magicians and many other contemporary occultists, the internet serves the same purpose that the “astral plane” does for traditional magicians, as a kind of psychic ether that can transmit their willed intentions. Meme magic happens when something created on the internet bleeds into the “real world” and changes it. In effect it is a kind of induced “synchronicity,” the psychologist C. G. Jung’s term for the phenomena of “meaningful coincidence,” when what is happening in our inner world happens in our outer one too, without any apparent causal relation. If you substitute “internet” for “inner world” you can see the connection.
When it comes to the alt-right “magicians” who willed and dreamed Trump into the White House, the meme in question is a frog who goes by the name of Pepe. This may sound a bit confusing, but then the magic we are considering is interested in chaos after all. Suffice it to say that by flooding the internet with memes of Pepe – who for them became a kind of magical talisman – promoting Trump, “synchromysticism” took hold and, voila, we have a winner.
Now, if all of this was limited to a small group of far right enthusiasts who in their excitement over a Trump victory let ideas about the power of positive thinking go to their heads, we could safely relegate it to the lunatic fringe along with believers in a flat earth, fake moon landings and other conspiracies. But that would be leaving out a key ingredient to the story. The president that Spencer and Co. believed they willed into office was, as I said, Donald Trump.
It is no secret that Trump himself is a keen believer in and promoter of conspiracy theories, with his advocacy of the Birther myth, his acceptance of “chemtrails,” and many other equally dubious propositions. What has also come out is that Trump himself is a devotee of “positive thinking.” As he himself said, he is the “greatest student” of the man who popularized the phrase, the Reverend Norman Vincent Peale. Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking, appeared in 1952 and was an immediate success, appropriate for a book that told its readers how they too could succeed in life. From Peale Trump learned the great secret, that “the mind can overcome any obstacle.” [iv] It seems that the president the alt-right “willed” into office through the power of positive thinking, does quite a lot of positive thinking himself.
Yet what is also strange about this very strange development is that Trump seems to be something of a “natural” chaos magician too.
One thing that came through during Trump’s campaign, and which was made even clearer during the first months of his presidency, was that Trump did not operate as other politicians did. Many say this is what attracted voters to him. Opponents of Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House complained that with her, it would be “business as usual,” meaning the standard bureaucracy and all that came with it would remain solidly in place. Trump said that with him, it would not be business as usual, and he was right. If one word captures for many the character of Trump’s time in office so far, it would have to be “chaos.”[v] Yet while many believe the random, “non-linear”, contradictory and frankly confusing atmosphere that has accompanied Trump’s time in office suggests a president out of control, a look at his previous career suggests something different.
“I play it very loose,” Trump admits, in his self-help book The Art of the Deal, a work from beginning to end full of positive thinking. “You can’t be imaginative and entrepreneurial if you’ve got too much structure. I prefer to come to work each day and just see what develops.”[vi] “Sometimes it pays to be a little wild,” Trump confesses. He is always confident of success, but if situations seem to pose problems, he will take his chances and rely on his chutzpa. He’ll “wing it and things will work out.”[vii]
Trump’s faith in his instincts and his ability to “move quickly and decisively when the time is right,” goes hand in hand with his perception of the fundamentally fluid nature of things, their volatile character, an insight that reaches back to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus and which informs recent developments in science, like chaos theory. It also provides the basis for chaos magic.[viii] “Anything can change, without warning,” Trump believes. “And that’s why I try not to take any of what’s happening too seriously.”[ix]
That Trump does not take things too seriously can be gleaned from his many gnomic late-night tweets and non sequitur style interviews, which if nothing else reveal a flexible view of things like “truth” and “reality.” If, as one chaos magician tells us, for chaos magic, “reality becomes a playground,” a make-believe world “chaoticians” temporarily take for real, Trump’s often outrageous pronouncements give the impression that for him reality is a kind of playground too. Yet what is also interesting is that like New Thought, chaos magic is interested in results, in “making things happen.” It pursues “visible results by which the magician demonstrates to himself that he can do things which, a short while ago, never entered his mind as possibilities.” [x] Getting a candidate into office might be one of those things. This is called “shifting the boundary of Achievable Reality,” which seems another way of expressing the desire to create reality itself.
Another characteristic that Trump seems to share with chaos magic is that he is a product of postmodernism. He is, in fact, the first “postmodern president,” in the same way that chaos magic is a kind of “postmodern occultism.”[xi]
Postmodernism is a philosophical perspective that developed in the late twentieth century, having it sources in earlier philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger, both of whom cut away at the notion of a stable, “objective” truth, the kind we use in everyday life and in science. Simply put, the essence of postmodernism – although it would deny that it has an “essence” – can be summed up in the phrase “anything goes.” For postmodernism the kind of scientific, rational certainties that built the modern world, as well as traditional values such as truth, no longer apply; at least they are seen to be much less certain than was believed. Well before it became a political buzz word, postmodernism knew all about being “post-truth,” and was aware of the “alternative facts” and “fake news” that accompany that condition.
It could even be said that postmodernism and related schools like “deconstructionism,” set the ground for the epistemological scepticism pervading western consciousness today, and which Trump both abets and profits by. Rarefied notions of a pliant, flexible, relative “truth” trickled down from the metaphysical heights, and infected the popular mind with what the philosopher Paul Ricouer called the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” a kind of cynical nihilism that we take for granted as part of everyday life, and which Nietzsche, more than a century ago, predicted was on its way. Hence our conspiracy ridden world, to which Trump himself contributes. For postmodernism, the dictum “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” attributed to Hasan–bin- Sabah, “the Old Man of the Mountain,” leader of the ancient Islamic sect of Ismailis called the Hashashin, or Assassins, is taken as given.[xii] The same goes for chaos magic.
As I read through the posts and newspaper articles that came in the wake of Trump’s election, one stood out among the others as a clear indication that what we were engaged with now was certainly not business as usual. One of the clearest signs that with Trump’s election the political world had veered in a very strange direction, taking the rest of us with it, was the report in the New York Times that Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief strategist and for a time a member of the National Security Council, was a devotee of the twentieth century Italian occultist and esoteric philosopher Julius Evola.[xiii] That the New York Times would mention Evola at all was surprising. That it did in the context of the 45th president of the United States was, I think, a game changer.
“Baron” Julius Evola, author of books on the Holy Grail, alchemy, and other arcane subjects, belongs to the school of esoteric philosophy known as Traditionalism. This began in the early twentieth century with the work of the French savant René Guénon. Traditionalism has influenced respected intellectuals such as the historian of religion Mircea Eliade, the philosophers Huston Smith and Jacob Needleman, and the economist E. F. Schumacher, author of the classic Small is Beautiful. The central theme of Traditionalism is that a primordial revelation of the truth about reality was given to mankind in ages past, from which all the major religions have emerged. Since the golden age of that primal revelation, mankind, at least in the west, has descended into decadence, our own modern age being the darkest and lowest stage of descent. As Guénon and Evola repeatedly point out, we are in what the Hindu tradition calls the Kali Yuga, or what the ancient Greeks called the “Iron Age,” having got here after passing through the ages of gold, silver, and bronze.
The modern world revolted Evola – Guénon had no time for it either – and he promoted his own brand of militant Traditionalism in opposition to it. Since his death in 1974, Evola’s “warrior” style Traditionalism has informed some peculiar variants of far-right politics, aimed at taking down the modern liberal civilization he detested. Evola had an interesting career mixing esotericism with politics. He tried to curry favor first with Mussolini, then with Hitler, and is enjoying a posthumous revival today with esoterically inclined readers who find themselves on the political right. With his forceful, articulate, intelligent writing and refined, aristocratic image – photographs show him sporting a monocle – Evola is celebrated by the alt-right as one the “intellectuals” whose ideas make them different from “old school racist skinheads.”[xiv]
As a wide-ranging esoteric scholar and practitioner, in the 1920s Evola edited an occult journal called UR, which focused on a number of magical themes. Evola contributed many articles to UR, under several pseudonyms, and one of the themes he came back to regularly was the magician’s ability to alter reality through the power of the mind alone, something, we’ve seen, that both New Thought and chaos magic are interested in. For Evola, the aim of the magician is to develop his own personal power, his will, which is a kind of force that he can exert in order to refashion the world as he would like it.
That Bannon, Trump’s one-time close adviser, and the alt-right are readers of Evola is curious enough. Things become even more curious when we recognise that it was through the “platform” that Bannon provide for the alt-right during his time at the ultraconservative website Breitbart.com that they were able to propagate the meme magic that Richard Spencer believed helped “will” Trump into office.
As I tried to assimilate this growing web of connections, strands of it radiated out, linking it to other developments, leading into further strangeness. One of them headed east. I remembered some articles I had seen in Fortean Times, about the strange postmodern politics that the Russian president Vladimir Putin had been presiding over for some time. The Russians are believed to have attempted to influence the US presidential election via some cyber-sabotage and by all accounts this is not just a paranoid idea. After looking back at the articles and following them up with several hours on the net, it struck me that Trump and the people around him were playing catch up with the kind of postmodern politics that Putin had been busy with for years. With Trump’s apparent close ties to Russia, he may even have got the idea from him. Where Trump seems to be putting on a kind of one man show aimed at undermining the electorate’s sense of reality, Putin has had a team of “political technologists” busily at work, using a variety of media to create his own reality, aimed at keeping his subjects entertained with electronic bread and circuses and enthused with patriotic nationalist sentiments.[xv] And where Trump had Steve Bannon, who name checks Evola, to advise him, Putin has his very own Traditionalist on board, the geopolitical savant Alexander Dugin.
Dugin, who started out as a teenage Soviet dissident and is now part of the establishment, is interested in Evola too. He seems a kind of ideological quick-change artist, adopting and discarding political ideologies – like National Socialism and Fascism – and mixing them up in the same way that postmodernist art and architecture picks and chooses from an assortment of styles. Dugin has a kind of Lego approach to ideologies, taking them apart and putting them together in different ways, adding a bit of Heidegger here and some Nietzsche there to see what happens. This is also very much how chaos magicians make use of beliefs, not to be taken seriously but as “tools” to effect some outcome, and it came as a kind of expected surprise when I learned that Dugin was keen on chaos magic too. I say “expected surprise” because by this time in my journey down these rabbit holes I had come to expect just about anything to turn up.
One thing that did turn up was the European Union’s place in all this. Many saw Brexit, Great Britain’s exit from the EU, as the opening act for Trump’s election, and nationalists in the UK and Europe took it as a sign that the union was on its way out, something they looked forward to happily. As an American living in London, I could feel the rise of British nationalism, as did the Europeans I knew who lived here as well. For many nationalists here and “on the continent,” the EU is an agent of globalization, which they see as a means by which the capitalist elite – mostly in America – will turn the world into a giant shopping mall, reducing the peoples of different backgrounds and cultures to the bland uniformity of consumers. Hence the rise in recent times of “identity politics,” which is driven not by ideology or economics, but by a fear of losing one’s national identity either through mass immigration or through global consumerism. Russia, too, was not happy with the EU (hence the business in Ukraine and Crimea in 2014), and Dugin’s remarks about globalization are often little short of hysterical.
After Trump’s “America First” inauguration speech, which spelled out an isolationist policy that seemed to put an end to America’s role as policeman of the world – although later developments indicated a change of mind – the EU was held up by some as the last remnant of the New World Order that emerged after the chaos of WWII, and which had secured peace and stability in Europe since then. Something about this rang a bell.
I recalled that I had written about something that seemed connected to these developments. When I found what I was looking for I saw that I was right. There was reason to suspect that the EU itself had its roots in a kind of occult politics, in a strange esoteric socio-political movement called synarchy.
Synarchy came to the world’s attention through the obscure writings of a mysterious nineteenth century French occultist named Saint-Yves d’Alveydre. Synarchy means “total government,” as opposed to “anarchy,” which means “ no government.” After a period of popularity in the years leading up to World War I, in the 1930s and ‘40s a covert synarchic movementreached well into the centers of French government, at least according to some reports. It may even have been the hidden hand behind a new ‘psychogeography’ of Paris, responsible for the pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre Museum and the strange ‘stargate’ at the towering La Grande Arche de la Défense. Synarchy’s aim was a kind of United States of Europe, and some of those who had written about it suggested that it was an echo of this idea – and perhaps more than an echo – that lay at the foundation of the European Union.
Synarchy was informed with the same vision of a primordial revelation that was at the root of the Traditionalism that inspired Julius Evola, whose ideas were finding a place for themselves where Evola always wanted them to, in the “corridors of power.” One name that came up in the context of synarchy was that of René Schwaller de Lubicz, the maverick Egyptologist and esoteric philosopher whose ideas about the true age of the Sphinx have, through bestselling authors like Graham Hancock, inspired a whole genre of alternative “ancient civilization” literature. In his early career Schwaller de Lubicz had moved in the same Parisian occult circles that were familiar to Guénon and which had seen the birth both of Traditionalism and synarchy.
Far Right magical ideas at work in American and Russian politics? With an esoterically based European Union between them, the last redoubt of the by now old New World Order, defiantly hanging on? I am not conspiracy minded, but as I looked at all this and the other material that gathered around it, I began to wonder. Are Order and Chaos gearing up for a magical battle that will change the political landscape of the world? Is some kind of occult war on its way, or has it already begun? Evola seemed to have thought so, and other esoteric thinkers, like Rudolf Steiner thought so too. Are the end times near?
One may well ask, given that Steve Bannon and Alexander Dugin both have apocalyptic visions of some coming decisive conflict and have had influence on the men who could make them a reality. This is a shuddering thought, given how accommodating reality seems to have become in our “post-truth” times. If meme magic can put someone in the White House, what else can it do? Does positive thinking work? What part does it play in all of this? Which side is it on? And what can we do about it?
To find out the answers to these and
other questions, I point to reader to my book, Dark Star Rising: Magick and
Power in the Age of Trump (2018), from which this excerpt has been drawn.
[iv] Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher Trump Revealed: The Definitive Biography of the 45th President (London: Simon & Schuster 2017)p. 81.
[vi] Donald J. Trump with Tony Schwartz The Art of the Deal (London: Century Hutchinson, Ltd., 1987). p. 3.
[vii] Ibid. pp. 5, 11.
[viii] Ibid. p. 20.
[ix] Ibid. p. 43.
[x] Phil Hine Prime Chaos (London: Chaos International, 1993) p. 6.
[xii] Colin Wilson Order of Assassins (St. Albans, UK: Panther Books, 1975) p. 17.
[xv] Peter Pomerantsev Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia (London: Faber & Faber, 2016).