Dark Star Rising: Magic and Power in the Age of Trump
Gary Lachman | 256 pages | TarcherPerigree | May 2018 | ISBN: 978-0143132066 | ~$17.00
It’s a bit challenging for me to review former Blondie band member and occult historian Gary Lachman’s Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump because it straddles the borderline between the serious and the ridiculous in a way that makes me uncomfortable. Lachman’s thesis is that Trump’s rise, and that of the alt-right in general, has been made possible by and helped resuscitate particular strains of occultism. That this is partially true cannot be denied. Trump received support from Richard Spencer, the white nationalist whose erstwhile business partner, Aryan supremacist Jason Reza Jorjani, openly calls for a rejection of monotheism and an embrace Aryan paganism, with its magical rituals and spirituality. But on the other hand, Lachman actually believes in the power of magic and the occult, or seems to, and alludes to supernatural implications that I simply cannot accept. This is half a sober book about right-wing interest in the occult to justify hateful policies, and it is half a bizarre panic attack over fears that evil spiritual entities are pushing the world toward war.
Let’s start with what Lachman gets quite right. It’s true that the far right has an infatuation with the dark side of the occult, and that occult notions have entered into extreme rightwing beliefs, particularly among white supremacists. It’s also true that Trump-adjacent figures like Steve Bannon have shown an affinity for fascistic or dark occult philosophers and that Trump himself believes in a Secret-like philosophy called “New Thought,” a Victorian pantheistic philosophy that held all creation to be God and right thinking the cure to all disease. He also admirably traces connections between occult philosophy, fringe history, and justifications for racism and xenophobia. He wishes to declare this to be a misunderstanding of the true nature of the occult, but at a certain point one must recognize that it is not a bug but a feature—a belief system born in an imperial age to justify the unconscionable with an appeal to the supernatural.
The trouble is that Lachman immediately follows a factual statement with an unproveable interpretation that undoes any sober assessment of fact. This occurs for a reason that is also a key weakness in the book. To really prove his case, Lachman would need to be embedded in the Alt-Right, or at least, to interview key figure about their beliefs. Instead, he relies largely on news reports, with all their flaws, and imposes an interpretation on them based upon his own preexisting belief in magical powers. For example, he quotes Spencer as saying that “We willed Donald Trump into office, we made this dream our reality.” He links this to, of all things, The Secret and other New Age occult ideas about willing reality into existence, and he declares this an example of “meme magic.”
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.
Nothing in Spencer’s statement suggests that he was practicing ritual magic (which I refuse to grant a “k” as though it were a serious science). It is, in context, a prima facie figure of speech about the making plans and seeing them through. An interview with Spencer might resolve the problem, but Lachman stands outside of his subject, unlike in his previous books where he is more actively embedded in the world of magic and theosophy. But, similarly, Lachman seems to stand outside conventional understandings of communication as well. “Meme magic” is an attempt to supernaturalize what in communication theory we would call “social influence.” Lachman isn’t describing magical powers released by posting hate speech online; he is describing the use of Robert Cialdini’s six weapons of social influence to nudge the audience in a preferred direction. While Lachman is right that Aleister Crowley’s dictum to “do as thou wilt and that shall be the whole of the law” did emerge from and influence the cultural forces that created postmodernism, that doesn’t make postmodernism a chaotic arrival from a magical plane beyond our ken. No magic is needed to explain why certain groups of people wanted to become “free and wild and beyond good and evil,” as another famous racist once put it.
That’s what it pains me in my heart of hearts to have to defend Donald Trump for any reason, but Lachman is wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong to declare Trump a “‘natural’ chaos magician” or to suggest that there are any supernatural attributes to his use of postmodern, post-truth lying to influence his audience to adopt his inconsistent and ever-shifting set of positions. These are the same arguments that were once used, notably by Lachman’s shameful predecessors Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier in Morning of the Magicians, to imagine Adolf Hitler as the embodiment of supernatural evil. (They, at least, had the excuse that they meant their claims satirically, even if no one realized it.) When we attribute the unpalatable or the unforgiveable to supernatural evil rather than the very human impulses that actually allow evil to grow and thrive, we risk absolving those that support horrific policies for their own choices. Donald Trump does not make anyone hate. He does not control demons, nor can his word salad conjure spells. He says things a large number of people want to believe, and that is all.
Similarly, Lachman stretches beyond plausibility when he tries to attribute most major political developments to the influence of occult societies. He sees Trump staff as being in thrall to fascistic philosophers, and he believes that the E.U. came to fruition due to the work of “synarchy,” an occult philosophy related to the work of Schwaller de Lubicz, the French fantasist who recycled Belle Époque speculation about the age of the Sphinx (by Gaston Maspero and Francois Lenormant) and spawned the “alternative history” industry when the late John Anthony West recycled Schwaller and Graham Hancock recycled him. But all of this rises to the level of the ridiculous when Lachman uses his magical worldview to imagine that the very real political tensions that have emerged due to the resurgence of extreme right views are supernatural manifestations of a Manichean spiritual power:
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, although conspiracy consciousness will play a large part in the account that follows. 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?
This kind of thinking does no one any good because it imagines that the world’s problems can be fixed by magic rather than the hard work of advocating for real change.
Lachman promiscuously mixes philosophy, spirituality, and the occult, turning them all into manifestations of one impulse, all the better to declare any philosophical musings a secret backdoor into magic. But they aren’t the same thing. It doesn’t matter to current White House policy that Ralph Waldo Emerson was interested in Hermetic philosophy, because Donald Trump couldn’t name Emerson, nor does he know Hermes as anything but a handbag. The deeper issue is also the more important one: There is a difference between taking inspiration from an ancient philosophy and imagining a world impregnated by demons and angels, where magical rituals control physical reality. What does Lachman mean by the occult? In the strictest sense, it refers to anything paranormal, and I suppose it is in this sense that Lachman uses it. But when something as blandly useless as “the power of positive thinking” becomes the occult and is used to suggest that the political right use magical powers, it’s just ridiculous. By that measure, everyone is using magic, and therefore no one is. Similarly, when he takes the alt-right literally in claiming that a “red pill” will shake away an illusory (P.C.) world, he compares this to the Gnostic idea that reality is an illusion, seemingly without recognizing that the alt-right don’t believe they are living in a liberal simulation of reality but are speaking metaphorically—though wrongly—about seeing the underlying systems of the world for what they are.
I’ll be honest: By the time Lachman brought in the Watchers—in their occult form as egregores—I had about had enough. Lachman imagines Pepe the Frog, the alt-right cartoon mascot, as a Watcher, or a (fake) Buddhist tulpa, a thought-form possessed of magical powers. “Perhaps some entity’s entry into our plane is facilitated by agents unaware of their participation, who think their activities are just for ‘lulz’?” No. He is a cartoon frog. He does not have magic powers. He barely has recognition beyond the fever swamps of the alt-right internet. His influence is purely the social influence of symbolism.
Lachman’s book is predominantly a potted history of various occult movements, especially New Thought and Chaos Magic, and some rightist thinkers like Evola, but it never truly connects beyond the superficial with the Trump Administration, largely because there isn’t anything there. A whole chapter compares Trump to Hitler and Mussolini, but Lachman’s analysis of charismatic leadership owes nothing to the occult that cannot be explained purely by psychology and sociology. More of the book is devoted to Russian politics than American politics, perhaps because Lachman doesn’t actually have much to say about the nitty gritty of American life, or perhaps because it’s harder to attribute the boring workaday failures of Trump policy to demonic forces than the politics of another country glimpsed only from afar, where the daily struggle to grind out policy is obscured by distance. Once again, the lack of direct access to right-wing figures hampers Lachman’s ability to be more than an outside observer spinning stories from the tea leaves pressed into newspapers.
Ultimately, here is where my problem emerges: Parts of Lachman’s book are clearly correct. Are some right-wing political types interested in dark philosophies? Yes. That is beyond dispute. Do some in the alt-right think that they are engaged in a mystical battle for the soul of (white) civilization? Yes, they do. But the George W. Bush people thought they were living out the Christian End Times, so it is not just an occult perspective. Too much of Lachman’s book is implication and innuendo, predicated on an acceptance of the idea that the dark side of the occult isn’t just an empowerment fantasy for the angry but a real and puissant force manipulating the world. If you do not believe that there are Watchers and bogeys and evil little Trump thought-rays permeating reality, then the analysis falls apart. Lachman never makes the case that the occult drives the right rather than serves, when convenient, as a justification for the actions and beliefs of a small subset of right-wing believers, nor can does he do the obvious and compare the influence of the occult to that of extreme rightist Christianity, an arguably more influential force claiming supernatural warrant for specific and unpopular policies.
Dark Star Rising is, essentially, worthless wish-fulfillment for disaffected liberals who want to imagine that only supernatural evil could explain how a minority of American voters could select Trump, or why a minority of the public continues to support him.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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