Tlon, who publish Dark Star Rising in Italy, have asked me for some comments on recent events in America to post on their blog. I’m posting here my reply to Michele Trionfera, who was an indispensable guide on my mini-Italian book tour back in 2019.
Many thanks for asking me to comment on recent events in America. I have to say that I was deeply saddened and dismayed at what took place at the Capitol, but the saddest thing was that I was not surprised. The only thing that did surprise me is that events didn’t take an even worse turn. That may be because of the nature of these sudden, volcanic social eruptions: pressure builds up and then the lid blows off the cooker. But after the initial explosion, unless there is some plan or guidance to lead it, the energy dissipates and dies down: the pot boils over and puts out the fire… I am reminded of something the Joker says in the film The Dark Knight, when he compares himself to a dog that chases after a car, biting at the hubcap. If the dog ever got the hubcap, the Joker says, he wouldn’t know what to do with it. If you look at the faces of the ‘patriots’ who stormed the Capitol last Wednesday, on the CCTV recording, you can see them looking around, half like tourists amazed to be there, half like looters who didn’t know what to take first, or ‘iconoclasts’ who don’t which statute to smash. We could also say they were like people who play around with magic and then, when it actually works, say to themselves “What the f**k! This is real?” It was a good thing that among the crazies who broke into the place, there wasn’t anyone who could have organised an “occupy the Capitol” event in the way that other people occupied Wall Street.
Many things came to mind when I watched the news reports here in London. As you know, I’m American, but I’ve lived in London now for twenty-five years; in fact today, 10 January, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of my relocation here. During that time I’ve seen America go through some remarkable, extraordinary changes – the UK has too – but if anything brought home the idea that in the twenty-first century, things would be different, what I saw on the BBC Wednesday night did. Many have said that the twentieth century was the American century. Well, the twenty-first isn’t. The end of the twentieth century may have been 9/11, in the way that the true end of the nineteenth century was the First World War. I would say confirmation of this was Trump’s election – with the years of Obama’s administration a brief stopgap in the process. But the final nail in the coffin, as it were, were the ‘patriots’ party-crashing the Capitol. I want to say “Olympus has fallen,” but I don’t want to draw attention to a bad film. One hopes that similar ‘patriots’ don’t recognize the need to organise. They’ve seen that it can be done. If there’s a next time, it may be more purposeful.
One of the things that Trump’s refusal to admit his election defeat brought home to me is that he is a perfect example of the psychological type that in Dark Star Rising I call “the Right Man.” I borrow the idea from the writer Colin Wilson, who first heard of it from the science fiction writer A.E. Van Vogt. Simply put, the Right Man is someone who under no circumstances will admit to being wrong, and who will stop at practically nothing to get his way, even resorting to violence. This is why Van Vogt also called him “the Violent Man.” This is not an example of so-called “toxic masculinity,” as there are Right Women too. We can see this in Trump’s refusal to accept any “reality” that does not suit his purposes. Trump’s whole agenda has been about “creating” his own reality. He has been very good at it. More than 70 million Americans like his reality, and some of them have taken it to the streets.
Like other demagogues, Trump has been able to project some of his seemingly inexhaustible self-confidence into his followers, which is what all demagogues and, I should add, gurus do. In Dark Star Rising I speak of a gradient ranging from the magician, to the guru, and to the demagogue. Each operates in a similar way; what is different is the size of the audience, as it were. The magician puts a spell on one person, the guru controls a cult, and the demagogue hypnotizes a whole nation. (There are, of course, good magicians and gurus; I’m talking about the bad ones. I don’t think there can be a good demagogue; that would be the benevolent dictator.) When thus under the sway of the guru or demagogue, the individual can temporarily rise above himself, become something “more,” filled with the guru’s power or with the sense of mission given to him by the demagogue. (He or she can’t generate this themselves, hence the need for someone who can. If they could, they wouldn’t need him.) Clearly, many people who have got behind Trump had an interest and background in far-right political ideas. But many also did because, for better or worse, he gave their life a meaning it didn’t have.
This is something that progressive critics don’t get. Many people who voted for Trump were not necessarily gun-loving, racist red-necks. They were people who lacked some sense of their life being about something more than decent housing and having enough to eat, which, of course, are important but not enough. Men, and women, we know, do not live by bread alone – if I can quote scripture when speaking of a devil… For better or worse, Trump gave them a sense of purpose. A misguided, misdirected purpose, to be sure, but something that, in a warped way, was something of an ideal. As I say in the book, this is something that Hitler and Mussolini did too. We have an appetite for this just as much as we have an appetite for food, and we can satisfy that appetite with the equivalent of a healthy meal or junk food. This is something that progressives don’t get because it smacks of religion or mysticism – and that, we know, is the “opium of the people.” But sadly, people need a kind of opium in the sense that they need dreams, and opium or the equivalent provides them. I would say what we need is to find a way to provide the meaning, the dream, without the drug. We also need better dreams.
Another thing I talk about in the book, is the way in which what we can call the “acceptability barrier” has moved during Trump’s years. This is the Overton Window, or what is considered “acceptable discourse.” We can say it is the measure of what you can “get away with.” (I want to say that people have been “getting away with” a great deal in the art world for years; has the fashion now moved into the sphere of politics?) The Alt-Right, who were for a time fashionable – where are they now? Richard Spencer supported Biden! – raised that window considerably, and Trump pretty much threw a brick through it. The barbarians (I am thinking of the fellow with the horns) who broke into the Capitol took advantage of this. From what I saw on the news, it looks like they broke some real windows too.
In a way, the images I saw of the ‘patriots’ in strange costumes and bizarre get ups, reminded me of two leftists outbreaks in the 1960s: the anti-Viet Nam War march on Washington in October, 1967, and May ’68 in Paris. If we want to say that what happened at the Capitol was an expression of the ‘occult politics’ that has surrounded Trump’s administration – and I believe it was – then it has antecedents in what happened in ’67 and ’68. In ’67 Abbie Hoffman tried to levitate the Pentagon, while the filmmaker Kenneth Anger, a devotee of Aleister Crowley, tried to exorcise it. May ’68 was all about “creating reality.” “Take Your Desires for Reality,” and “Power to the Imagination!” were some of the slogans that brought Paris to a standstill. Trump has always “taken his desires for reality,” and he has had decades of practice in bringing “power” to his imagination, being a devotee of “positive thinking.” The imagination is a tremendous force, kept in check by reason, and when it is unleashed and allowed to let rip, it is difficult to control, and it has no political allegiance. That the gate crashers were followers of Qanon secures the link with the occult politics of the 60s even more: ironically, many today who would have found themselves among the hippies now share an online “alternative reality” with far-right advocates the flower children would have abhorred.
Something else that Trump has helped undermine is our ability to distinguish reality from fantasy, or truth from falsehood. This is not limited to the right side of the political spectrum. People who deny biology in favour of what they see as an individual’s “right” to be whatever sex he or she wants, can be said to be “taking their desires for reality.” This has left us, I believe, in what I call a “war of all against all,” in the sense that there is no common ground, no shared baseline reality, but instead a kind of continuous battle on all sides among competing causes, again, rather like one of the “survivalist” Reality TV shows, in which participants contest each other on a deserted island.
In a recent essay, “Trickle Down Metaphysics: From Nietzsche to Trump,” I show how Trump took advantage of the erosion of our belief in a stable, ‘objective’ truth or reality that had been underway since the late nineteenth century and which became de rigueur, in American universities at least, in 1980s and 90s, with the rise of intellectual fashions like deconstructionism and postmodernism. Trump no doubt has never heard of deconstructionism or postmodernism – both of which are decidedly of the left – but he nevertheless took advantage of the atmosphere of epistemological uncertainty they created. (Odd how intellectual fashions, arising among “men of the left,” helped to put a “man of the right” in power; is it too much to see a kind of intellectual French Revolution followed by a Reality TV Napoleon in this?)
Postmodernism aligned nicely with Trump’s embrace of “positive thinking,” which likewise ignores or rejects the idea of any ‘truth’ that is not malleable. Postmodernism was dealing in “post truth” and “alternative facts” well before Trump hit the campaign trail. Norman Vincent Peale, the author of The Power of Positive Thinking, and Trump’s mentor, impressed upon him the idea that “Facts don’t matter. What matters is our attitude toward the facts.” This is a belief shared by what is known as “chaos magick.” I hastened to add that Trump most likely never heard of chaos magick, and in no way is it responsible for him. But as I point out in the book, he seems to have a natural talent for it, and if anything can serve as a example of this, I’d say what happened at the Capitol can be seen as a kind of chaos magick run wild. It was a transfer of what was happening online to the “real” world, the tweet made flesh, as it were. And this is what was supposed to have helped him get in the White House in the first place, the “synchromysticism” that the devotees of Kek and Pepe the Frog engaged in.
Trump’s years as a Reality TV star also contributed to the strange ontological milieu we now inhabit, in which once again there is no clear demarcation line between “reality” and “fantasy.” Watching the CCTV footage of the mob in the Capitol, they reminded me of contestants on Big Brother or Love Island. Yet perhaps the most drastic expression of our seeming inability to distinguish truth from falsehood is the dramatic rise in “conspiracy consciousness,” which is a direct result on the “assault on truth.” Let me quote from the essay I mention above. I write that:
At the same time as the postmodern party was turning into a somewhat disheartening morning after, an ambience of general distrust had taken hold of the popular mind. A “hermeneutics of suspicion,” as the philosopher Paul Ricoeur had called it, had settled in, a cynicism that, in its desire not to be taken in, subjected everything to doubt. Yet the popular mind had also acquiesced in a kind of discontented fatalism, convinced that the individual is at the mercy of forces well beyond his control, in the world and in himself, something that both postmodernism and deconstructionism had repeatedly repeated. The individual as such no longer existed; he was merely an empty space in which vague but omnipotent “social forces” operated. Ironically, this suspicion of once trusted sources was allied with a mind so open to a variety of “conspiracy theories” that it was ready to swallow practically any “alternative” account, as long as it contradicted whatever the “official” one was.
Which is to say that we live in a time when everything is plausible but nothing is definite.
This susceptibility to conspiracies is, in a way, a good sign, in the sense that the psychologist C.G. Jung thought neurosis was a sign that the patient was trying in some way to deal with his problem. It was an ineffectual way, but it at least was an attempt. I would say that conspiracy theories are collective neuroses, in the sense that in the face of a world that seems increasingly out of control, they posit some kind of control, some intelligence, however insidious, behind the course of things. In other words, they posit some meaning behind what would otherwise seem real, true chaos. This is an expression of the hunger for meaning I mentioned earlier. Religion used to provide this, but we’ve outgrown it without gaining something to take its place. (This is the challenge we’ve faced for the past two centuries.) In the vacuum left behind, any powerful idea that can grip the individual takes hold. Unfortunately for many, in Trump’s case, one vacuum was filled by another.
Sadly, I don’t see this as the end of Trump or Trumpism. Back in November, after the election, I found myself thinking: “Was that all it took? An election?” I found it hard to believe that the Trump Show had been cancelled. I don’t think it has. I think that just as Brexit was seen as the prelude to Trump’s presidency, what happened in the Capitol may be the opener for something else. What, I don’t know. But some barrier has been breached. “All things will be possible,” Ivanka Trump said when she introduced her father to the Republic National Convention in 2016. I’ll say. Those images from the Capitol alone, which will be turning up as memes and gifs soon enough, tell us that. Whom will they inspire? To be honest, I don’t really want to know. I don’t want to appear an alarmist, but Nancy Pelosi was right to want to make sure Trump couldn’t get at the nukes. I am wondering now if anyone has or can keep him away from them. Why do I say this? One thing I learned when researching my book is that Trump is driven by a need to do something bigger or better than it’s been done before, or, more to the point, to do something no one has done before. He also suffers from what is known as “gigantomania,” the need to create huge structures – like Trump Towers and his failed attempt to build the biggest casino in Atlantic City and other megastructures. It’s an affliction he shared with Hitler and Mussolini, who both enjoyed creating huge monuments to their power. One of the first things Trump did in office was to drop the “mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear explosive in the US arsenal, on Isis in Afghanistan. He can go kicking and screaming and saying its fake news to the end, but given he came in with one, someone really should make sure he doesn’t go out with a bang.