Two years after Donald Trump’s once-unthinkable election victory, social scientists and other researchers have reached some clear conclusions about how and why it happened. Racism, sexism, nativism, and social-dominance behavior were key factors in Trump’s support among white voters. Christian nationalism, along with the fear white people will soon lose demographic power and control in America was also a factor. “Economic anxiety” among the “white working class” was necessary condition in the rise of Trump, yet by itself not sufficient to explain how it happened.
For all the excellent analysis of the 2016 presidential election, these analyses do not have enough focus on the role of emotions, symbols, and mass psychology in how Trump was able to defeat Hillary Clinton. Trump can be said to lead a political cult, and most analysts and commentators still struggle to explain his almost unbreakable power over his voters and others supporters.
Drawing on his expertise in the occult and other esoteric knowledge, historian and cultural critic Gary Lachman makes an unusual argument in his provocative new book “Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump.” He suggests Trump and his followers and supporters on the racist far right are actually master manipulators of human emotion, storytelling, collective psychology, symbolism and memes, with a remarkable ability to create chaos.
Lachman is the author of several books and has lectured across the United States, Britain and Europe on the relationship between consciousness, esoteric knowledge, politics, history and culture. He is perhaps best known as a founding member of the New York new wave band Blondie, in which he played bass from 1975 to 1977. He later led a Los Angeles band called The Know, and played guitar with Iggy Pop in the early 1980s.
Lachman explains how Donald Trump uses the “power of positive thinking” to will himself to victory and to charm and influence others, in much the way that the “alt-right” was able to weaponize the cartoon figure Pepe the Frog in the service of white supremacy. He also discusses how the Donald Trump cult builds power because it seems to provide meaning to the lives of his followers, and how Vladimir Putin has created a “post-truth” alternate reality in Russia, now being emulated by Trump and his allies in the United States.
Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
CHAUNCEY DEVEGA (BOLD): How did this moment with Donald Trump come to be?
Gary Lachman: I certainly think that one of the things happening is we’re inheriting the world that the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche predicted was on its way, shortly before he went mad himself in the late 1880s. He basically saw that a type of nihilism was coming and that there is no such thing as capital-T truth.
This has trickled down from the metaphysical heights into our everyday world. Hence the post-truth, “alternative facts” world we live in. Reality and unreality, the invented world of television and the real world are exchanging roles.
The singularity that people have been waiting for is taking place. As I explain in the book, I argue that Trump is the singularity, in the sense that he’s been the reality-changer. He got elected, and suddenly our criteria for all these things that used to hold everything in place became very loose and shaky.
You also have to factor in the disaffection that blue-collar voters had with the Democrats on labor issues and the like. So all these things came into the mix and it seemed like somehow the time was primed for this change. Reality TV certainly played a role. Trump seems to have been the right man at the right place who knew how to take advantage of this moment. A great deal of what’s recently been taking place in the United States has actually been going on in Russia for a longer time.
Trumpism is a type of political cult. Given this reality, how do we make sense of the political imagination of the so-called alt-right and Donald Trump’s movement?
One of the things you need to understand is that it’s not necessarily a political platform that Trump is providing for his followers. He’s creating an emotional state for them. This is something that George Orwell noticed in the 1930s when he was in Germany. He saw the rise of National Socialism and what was clear to him, but also very disturbing, was that people were not necessarily entranced by the trains being on time or by becoming more economically prosperous, but by the idea that they were becoming involved with some great mighty heroic endeavor.
Their lives were given meaning. They were part of some larger overarching movement. They were fulfilling a destiny. Orwell was a very critical fellow, but he was well aware that these emotions and this hunger for meaning, if it’s not fed, if it’s not satisfied, can be easily manipulated. This is what Hitler did. This is what Mussolini did. This is also what gurus do — or at least the bad ones — as well.
In this way Trump can be compared to Hitler and Mussolini, but also to some gurus like Rajneesh. Trump is also an entertainer.
Donald Trump has the charisma of a cult leader. He is a master communicator for his public.
Well, we know that Trump was a devotee of Norman Vincent Peale and his book “The Power of Positive Thinking.” Its very optimistic, forward-looking “never say die” perspective informed him from an early age. It was something that was also part of Trump’s family upbringing. His father was very influenced by Peale as well. He carries that through in his own series of self-help books, “The Art of The Deal” and a variety of others, in which he can share with you his insights into how you can recreate yourself: “You too can become like me if you follow these rules.” This is a version of the “prosperity gospel.”
An additional part of Trump’s life mantra and approach is chaos. Most people say, “Oh, well he’s an idiot. He doesn’t know what he’s doing.” Or they make excuses: “Well, he’s new to the game and he’s coming in from a different arena.” In many ways Trump is obviously intentional.
It’s something that he aims to do and it’s something he makes clear in his books, where he talks about how he doesn’t like things to be too set and he doesn’t want things to be too planned and he wants to be able to change his plan at the last minute and keep people on edge. He creates a type of glamour that he then offers to others to share in. It is also mystifying. That too is part of this magician’s bag of tricks. He is a master of chaos.
You basically use whatever is at hand. It’s the same principle as in found art. You can take something and suddenly put it in some other context and then it’s a piece of art. You can do the same thing and it turns into a magical implement. Part of it is creating this fluidity of things, not being stable, not being fixed into some set pattern or set identity. These are all things that Trump seems to do naturally.
When you talk about “magic,” you may be using the term in a different way than most people would understand it. Can you explain more?
When you talk about magic, the first thing people usually ask is, “Oh, does it work? Can you make something happen?” Then the response is, “That depends on what you mean by ‘make something happen.'” But, I mean, there’s two ways you can go. You can go down a long psychological route about setting and expectations and all that sort of thing. To talk about the magic that people really want to know about. I would offer one thing, if you know the phenomenon of synchronicity.
This is the term that the psychologist C.G. Jung gave to what we call “meaningful coincidence.” That’s basically when something is going on in your head and it’s reflected in the outer world, with there being no causal relationship.
So I would say that if you accept the phenomenon of synchronicity, then there are times when the partition between the inner and the outer world is not as stable or as strong as it usually is. I would say that one of the definitions of magic is willing things to happen in the real world. That is one of the crudest, most simplistic definitions of magic. The next question follows: Is there a way to make it happen? Is there a way to induce synchronicities?
This is what is positive thinking and “chaos magic” and a variety of different types of magical practices are trying to do.
How does Steve Bannon fit into Trump and the far right’s political imagination? He has written screenplays which are quite dark and disturbing. This is an underreported aspect of this political moment and Bannon’s influence over Trump and the “alt-right.”
He was Trump’s strategist. Bannon also brought in the ultra-right and gave them a platform on Breitbart. He is an ideologue with a collection of ideas that also manifest in film and the arts.
Bannon has an aesthetic sense. It’s crude and heavy. Bannon has called himself a “Leninist” and said he wants to break down “the system.” His films are generally a barrage of disturbing imagery and explosions that supposedly have some type of grand intent and message. In reference to the war on reality, the New York Times ran a story in 2017 about Bannon giving a private talk to a select group of people at the Vatican. One of the names Bannon mentioned in the talk was Julius Evola, an Italian far-right esoteric thinker who tried to ingratiate himself first with Mussolini and then with Hitler. Evola is also read by people around Vladimir Putin.
Images have power. Bannon and his allies understand this in a way that is much more sophisticated than do many Democrats, mainstream liberals and progressives. One example would be alt-right mascot Pepe the Frog.
Well, this is an example of what we can call “meme magic.” Pepe the Frog started life as the creation of a cartoonist named Matt Furie. He was basically a kind of an amphibian slacker. There’s an image or a panel of him taking a leak somewhere and somebody walks by and says, “Oh, hey, what are you doing that for?” He says, “Feels good, man.” Apparently that got picked up online. This is Meme 101. A meme is some symbol, image, phrase or little cultural unit or concept that spreads.
There is a whole subculture of internet trolls who circulated the Pepe the Frog image. Someone starts appropriating Pepe and using him as a mouthpiece for their, let’s say, “politically incorrect” views. What also happens is that the Trump people get ahold of it, and then it’s like Hillary Clinton gave her enemies a stick to beat her with.
Pepe the Frog became like a brand name for the alt-right, and then when Hillary did her “deplorables” speech, Pepe the Frog became even more widely spread and almost like a postmodern amphibian swastika.
If you remember, right after Trump’s election, at the National Policy Institute — a very innocuous name for what many people believe is a dangerous and racist organization — Richard Spencer, who is the president of the group, gave a speech.
He began the meeting by saying, “Hail Trump! Hail our hero. Hail our victory. We made this happen. We dreamed him into office,” and so on. What happened was that Pepe the Frog became a sigil. He was a type of magical symbol for people who wanted Trump to get elected. They basically wanted to create chaos and to have some effect on the world.
So they’re just doing it for kicks as it were. They flood the net with all these images, with the intention that it will somehow affect the real world.
Somehow the internet has become this exteriorized imagination. If you think about this dynamic, it actually goes back to old occult ideas about the “astral plane” and things of that nature.
It is a powerful symbol. It was used online to create rage and empower white supremacists, neo-Nazis and the like. For those who are on the other side, liberals or progressives who care about human rights, it debilitates them. It’s repulsive and that takes emotional energy from them. So right there you have this exchange of energy around that image.
It’s true. Images and symbols are very powerful. One of the things about postmodernism is that it unhinged symbols from where they were initially. You can mix and match them to create your own meanings.
The picture of a green frog on the internet does not have to necessarily provoke a response, but now it does. The swastika was around for a long time before the Nazis and Hitler.
I can imagine people in the 1930s saying, “No, it’s not like that. It’s not really an evil symbol.” But once an image becomes tainted you can’t change that.
In terms of using the mass media filtered through a twisted version of postmodernism to manipulate reality and the truth, how has Vladimir Putin applied those principles and theories?
Putin, as we know, has been in power for much longer than Trump. Putin has had a long time in which to establish himself and his control. There is an important person in this story about Putin’s power. His name is Vladislav Surkov. He is Putin’s public relations and propaganda expert. He was charged with creating an alternative reality for Russia.
One of the first things Putin did when he took office was to take over control of the media and television, newspapers and the like.
There’s a small internet community in Russia as well, but not one with the same freedom or size as in the West. Most Russians get their news through state media channels and Surkov had complete control over that. He basically knew his postmodern theory and how to apply it. He took the whole idea of “we create a reality” and went for it full-on. Surkov created a simulacrum of a real democracy. His execution of the plan was brilliant. He was able to create the appearance of a democracy while basically Putin and his United Russia Party remained in control.
One of the things Surkov would do is invent opposition political parties and movements — or support equally two sides that were in opposition — and then have them debate on a television show so it looks like there’s a real democracy. There would be real questions being asked — invented by Surkov — and then the show would end and that would be it. For Surkov, truth is what you can get away with, more or less.
Even something like the intervention in Ukraine, in Crimea, had all the tactics of a type of artistic assault on reality: “Russians” who are living in Ukraine and want to be “liberated,” things of that sort.
Once you control the media you have power over the epistemological organ in a society, meaning the way that people know truth and reality. Putin and other leaders can create their own version of reality. After [the incursion into] Ukraine, Putin is now reviving this idea of Holy Russia, with the country having an almost religious worldwide mission in history. America’s day is out, the West is going down: Now it’s the rise of this New Russia. Putin is tapping into this tradition.
Another important figure in terms of this nationalist moment is Alexander Dugin. Can you elaborate on who he is?
Alexander Dugin is a very interesting character. He started out as a late 1980s punk dissident in Russia. He actually got arrested and brought to the Lubyanka, the infamous KGB prison, for singing an anti-Soviet song at a party. This was in the years before perestroika and Mikhail Gorbachev.
Dugin was a radical thinker, a very bright individual. He was also very extreme. He had a fascination with totalitarian regimes and was moving in a crowd that included these strange beatnik occultists, but also far-right politicos.
Gradually, his ideological compass started changing direction, especially after the attempted coup in 1991 against [then-president] Boris Yeltsin, which was basically the collapse of the Soviet Union. Dugin did a complete flip around, and felt that he was actually for the Soviet Union.
Dugin is very much into the occult. He is reading people like Julius Evola [mentioned earlier], the Italian far-right esoteric thinker who is behind much of the ideology of the alt-right.
In the late ’90s, Dugin became very famous and influential with the book “Foundations of Geopolitics,”which argues that there is a basic primal struggle between two fundamental civilizations on the planet.
There are what he calls the “Atlanticists,” which are the seafaring nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom and most of Western Europe. Then there are the “Eurasianists,” in the vast heartland continent of Eurasia. Dugin sees America, Europe and the UK as basically agents of this decadent, Western, materialist, individualist, atomizing culture, “the me culture.” It is clear that these ideas have seeped through to Putin.
What are you afraid of for the future? What are you hopeful about?
Part of me wonders if, say, Trump wins in 2020 but then he’s out after that, would there be a politically correct backlash in the opposite direction? I’m also concerned about the erosion of dialogue and how we in the public are saying less and less about more and more. There is an erosion of meaning and critical discourse. The hope is maybe that out of this loosening of our ideas of the limits of reality — which many of us wanted — that some good can come of it, some positive outcome or more human freedom.