We need not pretend that constitutional and legal philosophies do not map consistently onto substantive political outcomes.
Historians are going to be spending decades trying to divine the reasons why Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States. But what about divination itself? That’s the explanation given in a new book by occult historian Gary Lachman. Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump argues that the President and his alt-Right followers used positive thinking, magic, and occult practices to defeat Hillary Clinton.
The idea is that Trump came to power through the use of “New Thought,” which is a generic name for “a variety of different beliefs, philosophies, and practices that have as their central theme the idea that the mind can influence reality directly, that through mental effort alone we can ‘make things happen,’” writes Lachman, a musician and the author of critical studies of Karl Jung, Rudolf Steiner, Madame Blavatsky, and other figures in the Western esoteric tradition.
The real-estate magnate and his supporters apparently willed him into the White House by tapping into a non-material realm that allows those with the right skills, or the right amount of willpower and positive thinking, to create their imagined reality.
While the claim does not make rational sense, and many of the facts contradict it, Lachman’s history of American fringe spirituality is fascinating. Lachman is a good researcher and a skilled writer. If read like a science fiction novel, Dark Star Rising is a lot of fun. It offers an engaging tour through the esoteric spiritual beliefs and practices that have been part of America’s history, and that have always been part of human history.
Known as Rejected Knowledge, hermeticism, perennial wisdom and, more recently, the New Thought, heterodox spiritual thinking goes back at least to ancient Greece. Lachman, a veteran of the rock band Blondie, did capacious research for this his 20th (approximately) book. It touches on the Greeks, who believed certain rituals affected the body, and on Hermes Trismegistu, the Egyptian priest whose ideas about conjuring spirits, alchemy, and spells greatly influenced the Transcendentalist movement that was started in America by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Hermes believed that “within God everything lies in the imagination” and that “if you do not make yourself equal to God you cannot understand him.” For Hermes, the imagination was the pathway to the universal mind, and if harnessed right allows one to send one’s soul anywhere and “transcend all of time.” It was a template for much New Age thought to come.
Poets and artists such as William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Butler Yeats were all interested in ghosts, séances, extrasensory perception, astral projection, and other fringe thought and practices. In the 19th century, Emerson coined the term “New Thought” for the old idea that thoughts could affect reality. Inspired by Hinduism, Hermes, and German and English Romanticism, Emerson founded Transcendentalism, the belief that the material world is a manifestation of our thoughts and imagination. The philosopher William James was also a disciple of the New Thought, and founded his own school of thought, Pragmatism, which looked for the “cash value” of Transcendentalism, Spiritism, Idealism and the “optimistic evolutionism” of his time.
While health was always central to occult ritual and then the New Thought, in 20th century America it became about creating not just wellness, but wealth. New Thought was fused with certain variants of Christianity, particularly the gospel of prosperity. One of the giants of American positive thinking was Norman Vincent Peale, who was also one of the major influences on Donald Trump (yes, the connection, however attenuated, does exist).
Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking, a landmark in the American tradition of self-help, was published in 1952. As Lachman notes, he “was able to take the basic principles and concepts of New Thought and repackage them in a modern, Christianized version.” Peale read New Thought authors such as Ernest Holmes, Charles Filmore, and Napoleon Hill, and absorbed the idea that “thoughts are causative.”
Lachman informs us that the President’s parents, Fred and Mary Anne Trump, attended the Reverend Peale’s services at Marble Collegiate Church on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and that the President married his first wife, Ivana Zelnickova, at the church. Fred Trump is quoted in these pages saying that there was “nobody else like Peale.” Donald Trump, too, has praised Peale as “a great preacher and a great public speaker.” Lachman writes that “the idea that winning was everything was brought him in those Sunday services.” The presidential self-praise with which we’ve all become so familiar echoes Peale’s commands: “Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Self-confidence leads to self-realization and successful achievement.”
The author calls Trump a “chaos magician.” Whereas in traditional magic or New Thought, the adherent taps into a platonic form or the collective unconscious, or “eternal vibration of the universe” in order to achieve health or wellbeing, “chaos magic” rejects the traditional rituals and sigils (medieval symbols) of the occult in favor of more direct action, like the imagination or will alone. It’s a focus on what Lachman calls “affecting the now.” He notes that Trump may not have been doing this consciously—that a lot of it may have just been a combination of Peale’s positivism and the hard will of a kid from Queens, New York.
Originating in London in the 1970s, chaos magic attempts to “widen the borders of achievable reality” by grasping the flow of events and “nudging it towards what is wanted.” Trump’s followers on the alt-Right turned to the Internet, a “techno astral plane” in Lachman’s words, to put their candidate over the top. Lachman even adduces what white nationalist leader Richard Spencer has said: “We willed him into office.” Traditionally, New Age disciples have not been so involved in politics.
As may already be evident, the problem with Dark Star Rising—the same problem that exists with occult interpretations in general—is that it’s possible to fit almost anything into a pattern that’s only discernible within a mystical system or unseen world. Lachman’s investigation into X-Files America is captivating and fun, as I say, but it attempts to spread its aura far too wide.
Like a numerologist who can connect the Washington Monument, Pablo Picasso, and Mexican beer into a tight system that makes perfect sense, Lachman sees Trump in every kind of occult movement. Thus the President uses the dark magnetism of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, but also the verbally abusive style of the anti-statist Objectivist Ayn Rand. (Lachman claims that Hitler liked chaos, which seems odd for such a tightly control demagogue.) Trump is simultaneously focused on his will and positive thinking and all over the map. Lachman asks whether Trump is a guru, a chaos magician, or a demagogue—and then answers that it’s a bit of all three. The author leaves out any mention of Barack Obama, who is arguably a much more messianic figure, guru, and cult leader than Trump. (But perhaps that’s a different book.)
Lachman’s biggest blunder comes in his assessment of Trump campaign chief and former White House aide Steve Bannon, who has commended the writings of an esoteric philosopher named Julius Evola. Evola (1898-1974) belonged to the philosophical school called Traditionalism, according to which the primordial revelation of the truth about reality, on which all religions have supposedly been based, was revealed in the distant past. Votaries of this philosophy believe that it has been a long, decadent decline since the golden age of truth. According to Evola, the West is in the Iron Age, having passed through Gold, Silver, and Bronze ages. Combining an affinity for Mussolini and Hitler with esoteric philosophy, Evola saw the magician as someone able to shape reality through the mind alone. Lachman: “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.”
Bannon lasted a year before being bounced as White House chief strategist. He has been making lots of speeches since then, but has faded from the front pages. Apparently this alt-Right leader’s powers of manipulation and mesmerism have failed him. His fall from the peaks of power, which Lachman acknowledges in an afterword, calls into question the entire thesis of Dark Star Rising. It is likely that economic downturns, resistance to punitive liberalism, and the terrible candidacy of Hillary Clinton had more to do with the Trump victory than dark magic or voodoo. Perhaps resistance to the cult of political correctness and a bruising personal style have far more power to affect the world than a Ouija board.