A Fascist Tulpa in the White House? Right-wing ‘Meme Magic’ and the Rise of Trump
A review article of ‘Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump’ by Gary Lachman, 2018
Friday 13th July 2018 – The US President is on a visit to Britain and on the streets of London one of the biggest week day demonstrations in living memory is taking place, with as many as 250,000 people marching to Trafalgar Square to oppose Donald Trump. There is a wide range of banners, portable sound systems, marching bands (including ‘Trumpets Against Trump’) and home made placards weird and wonderful. It seems that every contemporary cultural reference point is being mobilised. A group of women in red are dressed as characters from the Handmaid’s Tale with a sign declaring ‘Gilead steals our babies too’ alluding to the caging of children of migrants caught crossing the Mexican border. Trump is satirised as a baby, as the devil (a placard pictures him with the caption ‘Not today Satan’) and as an evil dementor from the Harry Potter tales with the words ‘Expecto Patronum’ – the magic charm used by Potter to raise a spirit guardian to defend against the dark forces of Voldemort. )
But supposing occult forces really are at work in the Trump aeon? That is the thesis of Gary Lachman’s ‘Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump’ (2018), which sets out to explore the ‘new incursion of far-right occultism into the contemporary political landscape’ both in the USA and in Putin’s Russia.
There’s not a great deal of original research here into the currents of the contemporary ‘Alt Right’ – better sources for that include Neiwart and Reid Ross. Rather what Lachman brings to the table is his specialist knowledge of the history of occult ideas. He has previously written books on esoteric luminaries including Steiner, Blavatsky, Crowley and Gurdjieff, not to mention his role as early bass guitarist for Blondie for whom he wrote the paranormal-themed ‘I am always touched by your presence dear’.
Lachman’s main focus is on how forms of magical thinking and practice might have shaped the rise of both Trump and his Russian counterpart and helped enable their form of ‘postmodern dictatorship that uses the language and institutions of democratic capitalism for authoritarian ends’ (Lachman is quoting here from Peter Pomerantsev’s ‘Nothing is True and Everything is Possible: Adventures in Modern Russia’, 2017).
In particular he is interested in the influence of the ‘New Thought’ current which holds that our thoughts can directly shape the world. This has found expression in diverse belief systems going back to the 19th century including Christian Science (thoughts can overcome sickness), the Prosperity Gospel (praying can make you rich) and the contemporary New Age (‘you create your own reality’). One of the most popular expressions of this in 20th century America was ‘The Power of Positive Thinking’ by Norman Vincent Peale, a best seller originally published in 1952. As Lachman observes, ‘Peale played a large role in Trump’s life. His parents attended Peale’s services at the Marble Collegiate Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue and Trump himself was a familiar face among the parishioners there for more than fifty years. Trump was married to his first wife, Ivana’ in this church. Trump seems to have followed Peale’s teachings in his business and political careers, seemingly including the latter’s claim that ‘a confident and optimistic thought pattern can modify or overcome the fact altogether’.
While ‘New Thought’ may have its origins in esoteric ideas the notion that people’s attitude determines their success or otherwise is now the mainstream American ideology, as Lachman acknowledges – ‘The importance of thinking positively, of having a “can do” attitude and an “affirmative” outlook on life seems as American as apple pie’. ‘Just Do it’ (Nike) is ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ (Crowley) for the masses.
The belief in the efficacy of thoughts as things also underpins much ‘results magic’, which can include various attempts to shape events in accordance with the will through rituals and/or spells that aim to supercharge a desire or wish with emotional/spiritual energy. In respect of this Lachman traces a line from the sigils of south London sorcerer Austin Osman Spare to Chaos Magic(k) as it developed from the late 1970s and on to Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth who he describes somewhat misleadingly as ‘the most famous chaos organization’ (chaos magic was only one strand influencing TOPY, originally associated with the band Psychic TV when both were formed in the early 1980s).
It is unclear why Lachman hangs so much of his thesis on Chaos Magic – he does not suggest that there’s a legion of chaos magicians aiding Trump even if he suggests that ‘Alexander Dugin, Vladimir Putin’s Traditionalist adviser, is a Chaote himself’. Dugin has certainly used the ‘chaosphere’ eight-pointed star symbol, including proposing it as a possible flag for his hypothetical Eurasian superstate. But Dugin is a political magpie who gathers together fragments from all kinds of ideas – including Stalinism, Fascism and the Russian Orthodox Church – so while he may have plundered Chaos Magic literature for some imagery, it is not clear how much weight should be given to this.
Lachman seems to find the Chaos paradigm a useful tool for understanding the present as it does not involve adopting fixed beliefs about the supernatural: ‘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’. Indeed maybe it is not even necessary for people to be aware that they are trying to practice magic for their emotionally charged intentions to have results. The means for this to happen are via the internet which ‘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’.
Prominent US racist Richard Spencer proclaimed Trump’s election to be ‘a victory of the will’ and declared: ‘We willed Donald Trump into office, we made this dream our reality’. Lachman suggests this is at least partly true, with the disgruntled Alt-Right keyboard warriors of 4Chan etc. helping to sweep Trump to power via memes such as Pepe the Frog and conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate. Trump can even be viewed as the creation of this meme magic – ‘Trump we can say is the simulacrum that has become the reality, the tulpa created by his followers who is now on the loose. He has made the transition from representation to fact, from television screen to “real life,” like a meme warping off the internet and into reality. The portals are open, everything is negotiable, and soon “all things will be possible again,” as Ivanka Trump promised when she introduced her father to the Republican National Convention’.
The notion of a ‘Tulpa’ derives from Tibetan Buddhism and has been used to describe thought-forms, creations of magical work that assume an apparent independent reality and could pass for human beings, maybe even Presidents of the United States! As Ian Vincent has demonstrated this conception of a Tulpa bears little relation to the actual meaning of the term in its Tibetan context, but it has been popularised through Western occultism and cultural works influenced by it such as David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return series (2017).
As a metaphor at least, Trump as a political phenomenon is plainly partly the creation of the accumulated grievances of assorted racists, nationalists and anti-feminists (among others), and the internet does provide a mechanism for their desires to be instantly circulated across the globe in a way that does directly affect social reality through influencing people’s thought, behaviour and voting patterns. The internet only appears as ethereal to its users, in reality it is built on a material infrastructure of cables, warehouses full of servers and devices made in factories in China and elsewhere. Nevertheless the magical paradigm of will/intent >symbol>emotional charge>result does kind of describe how internet use helps shapes culture. Whether or not this activity can also give some kind of nudge that affects reality in a non-linear way independently of the internet is another matter – even most serious practitioners who believe in the efficacy of magic would say it takes more than a virally circulated picture of a frog to force the hand of chance and achieve limited results, let alone swing an election.
In any event, results magic is ethically and politically neutral. In its conscious form, it has been used by radical magical activists as well as fascist occultists, and they too have drawn on Chaos Magic, Crowley, Wicca and other currents. Indeed as Lachman himself mentions, since February 2017 witches, pagans and others have been undertaking a monthly ‘mass spell’ aimed at ‘binding’ Trump and his associates and prevent them doing harm. The call for this act of #MagicResistance was first made by Michael M Hughes in Baltimore and has since spread to become a global action undertaken on the waning crescent moon with a ritual including an orange candle, a picture of Trump and the Tower tarot card. Does this get results? Maybe not on its own, but Hughes claims that ‘Far from being ineffectual “slacktivism,” the ritual (and others developed by participants) helps many of us stay focused, committed, and invigorated for our everyday activism and resistance’.
Others have advocated less spectacular approaches for similar ends. Anthony Nine (2017), a contemporary sorcerer with roots in London chaos magic but now a Miami-based Espiritista and Vodouisant, has advised: ‘Aiming directly for the main figurehead is rarely the best angle… You get better results if you break things down into their moving parts and try to identify the fault line’. He suggests focusing on stirring up schisms and tensions within the far right: ‘Keep your ego out of it. Don’t make a big fucking parade out of it and the fact that you are doing it. There is magic designed as performance art and agitprop theatre, and there is magic designed to get a thing done. This is the latter. Do it quietly. Do it effectively. Make it happen. Put these Nazi pricks back down in their hole for another 80 years’.
If we are looking for forms of far right occultism per se, a starting point would be the traditionalist milieu which is the other main focus of Lachman’s book. He describes the history of traditionalist ideas characterised by a rejection of ‘democracy and socialism, all forms of mass culture, and materialism’ and advocating some kind of hierarchical theocratic state. With their taste for self-proclaimed elite secret societies, ritual and uniforms, traditionalists have tended to be drawn to some of the more ceremonial forms of occultism as well as to the most conservative and hierarchical strains of Christianity (whether within Catholic or Orthodox churches).
Lachman looks at the 19th century origins of traditionalism in the work of ‘eccentric French occultist Joseph Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre’ who advocated ‘synarchy’ (that is total government) in opposition to ‘anarchy’ (no government) and dreamed of a ‘totalitarian caste-bound organic social ordering’ headed by a supreme leader. Rene Guenon picked up this mantle in the early 20th century, combining esoteric interests with extreme right wing dabblings including in the interwar years with the proto fascist Action Francaise. Also in France, sometime Theosophist Schwaller de Lubicz founded a group known as Les Veilleurs (the Watchers) in 1919 who combined traditionalism, fervent anti-semitism and wearing a uniform attire of ‘boots, riding pants, and a dark shirt’.
All of this was preparing the way for the traditionalist figure whose ideas have the most current influence -Julius ‘Mussolini wasn’t fascist enough for me’ Evola (1898-1974). As well as arguing in ‘Fascism is not enough’ for ‘more radical, more intrepid Fascism, a really absolute Fascism, made of pure form, inaccessible to compromise’ , Evola wrote numerous charming texts including ‘Aspects of the Jewish Problem’ and ‘Outline of a Racist Education’. He was also involved in the occultist activities of the UR Group and wrote of how ‘the power of an ‘I’ expands from being the power of thought to that of magical imagination and self-persuasion: to that of persuading others and, ultimately, of persuading and altering reality itself’.
Evola’s notion of an occult war between the forces of ‘global subversion’ and the defenders of Tradition seems to find echoes in Dugin’s geopolitical vision of a civilizational confrontation between the forces of liberalism, individualism and globalisation (which he associates with ‘the Atlanticists’) and ‘the defenders of religion, order, and tradition, the people of Eurasia’ (Lachman summarising Dugin’s The Foundations of Geopolitics). Evola has also been name checked by Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, who likewise fantasises about a clash of civilisations, this time between the West and Islam (and possibly China too).
So yes, there is evidence of some direct influence of far right traditionalist currents steeped in occultism on some close at times to Putin and Trump’s camps, but it is doubtful if either can really be termed traditionalists: for both, personal power seems more of a priority than any kind of rules based order let alone one infused by supposedly higher spiritual knowledge. As Neiwert (2017) observes ‘Trump himself is not a fascist primarily because he lacks any kind of coherent, or even semi-coherent, ideology, nor has he agitated for a totalitarian one-party state. What he represents instead is a sort of gut-level reactionism that lacks the rigor and absolutism, the demand for ideological purity, that are characteristic of full-bore fascism’. His significance in this respect is arguably that he is a portal through which wider far right currents including white supremacism and full bore fascism are gaining more respectability – what Reid Ross (2017) refer to as the ‘fascist creep… the porous borders between fascism and the radical right, through which fascism is able to “creep” into mainstream discourse’.
Lachman doesn’t look too much further into more active occultist involvement in the contemporary radical right, but it’s not hard to find. There are figures like the Thelemite Augustus Sol Invictus , a former member of the Ordo Templi Orientis who spoke at the murderous Charlottesville Unite the Right rally and has political ambitions in the Republican Party (having previously run for Senate in the Florida Libertarian Party primary in 2016). There are Trump supporters like David Griffin and Leslie McQuade, chiefs of one of the self-proclaimed inheritors to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (the original body disintegrated before the First World War), who claim to have worked magic to protect Trump from ‘a gaggle of Communist leaning magicians and witches’ (Griffin, 2017).
There are right wing bloggers like Manon Welles (‘Aristocrats of the Soul’) who write about traditionalism, tackling ‘Social Justice Warriors’ and magic – and who put forward a version of Lachman’s thesis that unconsciously waged chaos magic was aiding Trump even as the campaign unfolded: ‘there are so many people posting Pepe memes, using the collective emotions, concentration and intensity of Trump supporters, it’s apparent the Pepe image has moved from a mere cartoon to an actual sigil with a lot of force behind it’. And let’s not even get started on the white supremacist landscape of Odinism which has long been intertwined with US neo-nazi scenes (to the chagrin of anti-racist Heathens – see Syn, 2018). Though they would no doubt be horrified at being tarred with the occultist brush, right wing conservative Christians conducting pro-Trump ‘Spiritual Warfare’ are really engaged in the same kind of activity. A notable example is the pro-Trump pentecostalist ‘POTUS Shield’ which holds prayer gatherings to defend the president in the hope that he will help bring about an anti-LGBT, anti-choice religious dictatorship that sounds about as attractive as Margaret Atwood’s Gilead dystopia.
Lachman may be correct that the ‘meme magic’ of the far right seems to have had some effect, but we should be wary of fanning the omniscient power fantasies of often ineffectual Alt Right social media trolls. When it comes to the digital weapons of Trump’s election campaign, a more significant factor was the use of sophisticated data mining and targeted marketing by well funded specialists, not to mention the probable role of the intelligence services of a world superpower headed by a former KGB officer.
We also need to look beyond the internet to understand where support for the right is coming from. Clearly there is a much wider swamp of racism, gender conservatism and authoritarianism than the fringes of right wing occultism. In a US context Bray (2017) identifies ‘widespread white conservative anxiety’ about factors including ‘the fact that they are losing the demographic “battle” and will no longer constitute a majority of the population in future’ as well as a sense of ‘losing the culture war’ to advances in gay marriage, transgender rights and the challenge to ‘rape culture’. We can no doubt identify similar factors in other parts of the world where the security (for some) of traditionally privileged identities is felt to be threatened at the same time as economic uncertainty and austerity is undermining security in employment and housing.
Whatever the impact of malignant magic and its post-modern social media equivalent, we should not lose sight of some of the more traditional forms of political organising that are fuelling far right movements across the world – including think tanks, wealthy funders, and a loose international of nationalist anti-migrant parties. This was visible during Trump’s visit to Britain, when some of his supporters threw their weight behind the campaign to free Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League, from prison. A far right ‘welcome Trump to London’ demo from the US Embassy attracted an embarrassing turn out of less than 200 the day after the 250,000 strong anti-Trump demo. But it was followed by a Free Tommy demo in central London that included activists from the UK Independence Party, PEGIDA (Germany), Breitbart, Generation Identity, the Swedish Democrats (SD) and France’s Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National), among many others. Steve Bannon has recently announced plans to further these links through establishing a foundation called The Movement to ‘offer polling, advice on messaging and data targeting and research to a network of right-wing parties across Europe’ (The Guardian, 21 July 2018).
Opposition to the racism of Trump and his allies is becoming increasingly organised in the United States and elsewhere. In June 2018, 575 women were arrested in Washington during a protest against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdown and this has been followed by a number of ‘Occupy ICE’ protest camps in Portland, New York, Louisville and other cities. In the UK, this issue was a key focus of the London anti-Trump demo, which included noisy Latin American migrant blocs. The ‘Free Tommy’ demo on the following day was also met with strong opposition from the Anti-Fascist Network and others. The full spectrum of tactics will be needed to combat the international resurgence of the far right. If some want to try and supplement critical arguments, developing political alternatives, street mobilisations and militant anti-fascism with some psychic defence and attack… So mote it be!
Bray, M. (2017) Antifa: the Anti-Fascist Handbook (Brooklyn: Melville House)
Griffin, D., (2017), The Magickal War Update – Summer Solstice 2017. http://hermetic-golden-dawn.blogspot.com/2017/07/the-magickal-war-of-2017.html
Hughes, M.M. (2018), Binding Trump: looking back on one year of #MagicResistance and Looking Ahead https://medium.com/@michaelmhcughes/binding-trump-looking-back-on-one-year-of-magicresistance-and-looking-ahead-46c1f46a264c
Lachman, G. (2018) Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump (New York: TarcherPerigee)
Neiwert, D. (2017) Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump. (London: Verso).
Nine, Anthony (2017) ‘Since people somehow don’t seem to know how to do this shit…’ https://www.reddit.com/r/occult/comments/6uafn5/antifascist_work_resistance_results_magic/
Reid Ross , A. (2017), Against the Fascist Creep (Chico: AK Press).
Right Wing Watch (2017), POTUS Shield: Trump’s Dominionist Prayer Warriors and the ‘Prophetic Order of the United States’ http://www.rightwingwatch.org/report/potus-shield-trumps-dominionist-prayer-warriors-and-the-prophetic-order-of-the-united-states/
Syn (2018) Binding the Wolf: dressing the Odinist Issue Within American Heathenry https://godsandradicals.org/2018/05/19/binding-the-wolf/
Vincent, I. (2015), The Tulpa in the West. http://www.academia.edu/15415518/The_Tulpa_In_The_West
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