In last week’s thrilling episode of The Kek Wars, we saw how a band of outsiders linked by the network of online forums loosely called “the chans,” and armed with the tools of chaos magic, found themselves in the midst of a cascade of meaningful coincidences and strange happenings, more or less clustered around Pepe the Frog, the ancient Egyptian god Kek, and the triumphant presidential ambitions of Donald Trump. Those of my readers who know their way around a particular school of depth psychology with close connections to the occult will already have figured out what to make of all this, but the knowledge in question isn’t that common these days.
With that in mind, dear reader, permit me to take you on a virtual journey to a stone tower by the shores of Lake Zurich in Switzerland, where we’ll make the acquaintance of Carl Jung.
Depending on who you ask, Jung was either a psychologist who knew a lot about occultism or an occultist who managed to fool people into thinking he was talking about psychology. (Me, I tend toward the latter explanation.) Either way, he was one of the twentieth century’s most intriguing thinkers, and some of his teachings cast a great deal of light on the events we’ve been discussing.
One of the things he discussed in detail, for example, was exactly the kind of cascade of strange but meaningful coincidences we discussed in last week’s episode. He called these patterns synchronicities, and argued—in a book co-written by Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli—that they demonstrate the existence of a pattern of connections that bind the universe together, and are entirely separate from ordinary cause and effect. In Jung’s own clinical practice, he watched synchronicities pile up around patients under certain kinds of serious mental strain, indicating the roots of their problems and pointing the way to healing.
Jung had a lot to say about synchronicity, but the point that’s relevant here is that synchroniticies don’t show up at random. When you get a flurry of them, especially when they cluster around specific images and ideas, you know that something is moving in the dark places of the psyche. What that “something” is, in turn, was the focus of Jung’s researches. He called it an archetype.
If ordinary thoughts are the little fish that swim near the surface of the mind’s sea, archetypes are the great whales that sound the depths. They are clusters of nonrational images knotted together with potent emotional energies, and they provide the human mind with the most basic raw material of thought. They never surface into the bright light of consciousness; at most, an image or two will come floating up for a while, sweeping up all the contents of the conscious mind willy-nilly in its wake and giving them a shape that has nothing to do with conscious reason.
The easiest way to understand how archetypes work is to follow one of the most common ones as it sweeps through the mind. Perhaps the easiest to track is the one Jung called the Shadow. That’s the archetype of the enemy, the rival, the hated and feared Other, and what makes it so easy to follow is a detail that psychologists noticed a very long time ago: people consistently assign to the Shadow all the things they absolutely can’t bear to face about themselves.
Perhaps, dear reader, you’ll take a moment to think about a very common human experience that we might as well call “falling in hate.” You encounter someone, either in person or via the media, and something about that person rubs you the wrong way. Quickly or slowly, depending on circumstances—some people fall in hate faster than others—that person stands out from among all the ordinarily annoying people you know. Every word from his mouth and every expression on his features grates on your nerves; he radiates hatefulness from every pore; you can’t see his face without thinking about how much it needs to be punched. No matter how hard you try, you can’t be objective where the object of your hate is concerned, and if the process goes far enough, you stop being able to have conversations with people who don’t share your views—for some reason they keep on acting as though your reasonable criticism of the object of your dislike is saliva-flecked ranting full of seething hatred.
From Jung’s perspective, what’s happened here is that the archetype of the Shadow has seized your thinking and projected itself through you onto another person. While that projection is in force, you literally can’t think clearly about the other person, because every thought you have concerning him is swept up in the movement of the archetype. It’s as though a rage-colored filter suddenly drops over your eyes the moment you look at the target of the projection. The secret of that rage, in turn, is that everything you say about the target of your projections is actually something you can’t stand about yourself. If you scream “Liar!” at him, anyone who knows how projection works will realize that you’re acutely uncomfortable about your own dishonesty; if you shriek “Bully!” at him, your own bullying propensities are on display, and so on.
It’s worth noting here that the things that get projected onto the Shadow needn’t be morally bad in any conventional sense. In an earlier episode of this series, for example, I mentioned the Traditionalist thinker Julius Evola. Read his writings and you’ll find them full of sneering contempt toward the modern world for its softness and its humanitarianism—this latter is a dirty word in Evola’s vocabulary. What was going on, to judge from accounts written by people who knew Evola in person, was that he loathed his own capacities for kindness, gentleness, and compassion, and so loaded them onto the Shadow he projected onto the society around him. The Revolt Against the Modern World he wrote about in his most famous book, as such things always are, was ultimately a revolt against himself.
How do you tell the difference between ordinary reasonable dislike and the projection of the Shadow? It’s quite simple, really, though “simple” is not the same thing as “easy.” Archetypes are absolute, while human beings never are; in the worst human being there are still admirable features, just as there are despicable features in the best of our species. If you can look at the object of your hatred and, with a little thought, list a number of things about that person you find admirable—not ironically, not sarcastically, but honestly admirable—you’re probably not caught up in the Shadow archetype. If you can’t do this, you’re probably projecting the Shadow; if you get furiously angry at the very thought that anyone would suggest that there’s even the smallest thing admirable about the person you hate…well, you can fill in the blank here as well as I can.
The Shadow is just one of the archetypes; there are many others. When you fall head over heels in love, for example, what’s happened is that a different archetype—Jung calls it the Anima or Animus, depending on gender—has been projected onto the other person, with effects that have the same potency but the opposite emotional charge as in a Shadow projection. All of the most intense human interactions are mediated by one or more archetypes. Yet not all archetypes apply to all people; there are universal human archetypes, and then there are archetypes that are specific to smaller subsets of humanity.
Jung wrote about one of these in his famous 1936 essay “Wotan.” At a time when most people in Europe believed that the funny little man with the Charlie Chaplin mustache who’d recently become Chancellor of Germany was a third-rate Mussolini wannabe who would be out of office as soon as German politics went through another of its routine convulsions, Jung grasped that something far deeper and more terrifying was at work: “A hurricane has broken loose in Germany,” he wrote, “while we still believe it is fine weather.”
That hurricane, Jung suggested, was the activation of an archetype that belonged not to all of humanity but specifically to the people who live in central Europe, where the immense sweep of the Eurasian plains breaks against the rumpled hills and river valleys that run between the Alps and the North Sea. That archetype was associated with the myths of the archaic god Wotan. These days, most people who remember the deity in question think of his near-equivalent Odin, whose deeds and impending doom are celebrated in Old Norse poetry, or of the literary creation who plays a central role in Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung operas, but there is also a distinctive version of Wotan in German folklore, a terrifying huntsman-figure who rides the stormwinds, leading a vast army of ghosts through the midnight skies.
Whether gods are the reflections of archetypes or archetypes are the reflections of gods is a question we can discuss some other day. The point that’s relevant here is that Jung caught something that nearly everyone else missed. For decades, since the twilight years of the 19th century, something had been stirring in the German-speaking lands of central Europe, something that shook off the heavy-handed rationalism of a confident age and plunged into the deep places where human consciousness merged with the forces of nature. In the wake of a lost war and a bitter economic depression, that archetypal force seized on an unlikely vehicle—an Austrian artist turned political agitator named Adolf Hitler—and swept up most of Europe into a maelstrom that ended, as the myths of Wotan always end, in Götterdammerung.
The cascade of synchronicities that surrounded Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign suggest to me that something not completely dissimilar is at work in today’s America. Wotan, though, is not an American archetype; while the Wild Hunt has its American equivalent—fans of old-fashioned country music will recall the classic piece “Ghost Riders in the Sky”—the Lord of the Slain on his eight-legged horse Sleipnir is absent in that song, and in American myth and folklore generally. We must look elsewhere for the archetype at work in today’s politics.
The brilliant Native American philosopher and activist Vine Deloria Jr. offered an important hint in his most influential work, God is Red. He pointed out that in the wake of the Reformation, Western spirituality lost track of a crucial variable—the spiritual importance of place. To most spiritual traditions, and to Native American traditions even more than most, specific places on the land have their own unique spiritual properties and powers, which are not dependent on the people who happen to live there. He went on to argue that much of the reason why modern American society stumbles so blindly from one preventable disaster to another is that we have not yet learned to relate in a sacred manner to the powers of place, the spirits of the land on which we live—and that those powers remain the ones that native peoples reverenced.
Thus it seems to me that there’s a specific mythic figure whose archetype is in play just now.
A great many native myths, from across the length and breadth of North America, tell of a being or a category of beings whose task it is to change the world so that the people can live there. Among the Salish-speaking tribes of southern Puget Sound, for example, the Changer is Moon; among the Takelma, who live in far southwestern Oregon, he’s Daldal the dragonfly; in some parts of the dryland West he’s Coyote, and so on. In some stories he’s a hero, in some he’s a buffoon, in some he’s an incomprehensible force of nature; the details vary, but the basic theme remains the same. The world was different once, say the tales, and then the Changer came and made it the way it is now.
The versions of the Changer story I know best have a distinctive shape. They’re episodic, and follow the Changer on his journey as he proceeds from the mouth of the local river to its source.
In the southern Puget Sound version, for example, after a long and intricate backstory, Moon leaves the land of the salmon people under the sea and starts walking up the river toward the mountains. All the beings who live there know that he’s coming, and they prepare various weapons and traps to stop him, because they don’t want him to change the world. So he meets a man who’s sitting at the water’s edge carving a big flat board out of wood. “What are you doing?” Moon asks him, and he says, “There’s someone coming who’s going to change things, and I’m going to hit him over the head with this board and kill him.” Moon takes the board, sticks it onto the man’s rump, and says, “From now on your name is Beaver. When the people come they’ll hunt you for your fur.”
Moon goes further up the valley, and he meets another man who’s looking anxiously around from the top of a hill. He has two weapons, one in each hand, and they have many sharp points. “What are you doing?” Moon asks him, and he says, “There’s someone coming who’s going to change things, and I’m going to stab him with all these points and kill him.” Moon takes the weapons, sticks them on the man’s head, and says, “From now on your name is Deer. When the people come they’ll hunt you for your meat and your hide.”
And so the story goes. In the hands of a skilled storyteller—and storytelling was one of the fine arts in Native American cultures—the story of the Changer would be spun out to whatever length circumstances permitted, with any number of lively incidents meant to point up morals or pass on nuggets of wisdom. There’s no rising spiral of action leading to a grand battle between the Changer and the beings whose world he has come to change; there’s just one incident after another, until the Changer finally reaches the source of the river and leaps into the sky to become the Moon, or turns into a mountain, or goes to whatever his destiny might be, leaving the world forever changed in his wake.
Notice, dear reader, just how often this pattern is repeated in American history, in the great changes that transform our public life for good or ill. Almost never do you see a single great struggle in which everything is decided. Where the battle of Waterloo came at the end of the Napoleonic Wars and settled them once and for all, our nearest equivalent, Gettysburg, came only a little more than midway through the Civil War, and simply marked the high tide of the Confederacy, the point from which all roads finally led to Appomattox. The changes that matter very often focus around one person who becomes the focus of change, and who proceeds up the river of our national life, encountering one crisis after another and somehow overcoming each one of them, until death or retirement ends the tale—and by the time that happens, the world has changed decisively and nothing will ever be the same again.
That’s the archetypal pattern I see unfolding in American life right now. I don’t happen to know of a Native American myth in which the Changer’s role is played by a frog with magic powers, but that does seem to be the situation we’re in now.
Two features of the Changer myth seem particularly relevant at the moment. The first is pointed up skillfully in the stories. The beings who try to stop the Changer and keep the world the same just keep doing whatever they were doing when the Changer arrives: the man with the board keeps carving tree trunks, the man with the many-pointed weapons keeps looking around—and there they are today, the beaver beside his dam, the deer on the hill. Having refused change, they become unable to change, and keep on going through the motions of their failed plans forever. That’s exactly what Trump’s opponents have been doing since his candidacy hit its stride, and more particularly since his inauguration. “From now on your name is Protester,” says the Changer, and sticks a pussy hat on the person’s head and a placard in her hands…
The flipside of the same narrative can be traced in Trump’s own trajectory. Ever since the beginning of his campaign, his opponents have convinced themselves that this or that or the other thing will surely stop him; incident follows incident, and he just keeps going up the river and changing things. There’s never the grand dénouement they want so desperately. The crisis never comes—and what’s more, it never will come.
That’s one of the things about archetypes. When one of them finds a human vehicle and begins to reshape the collective life of a society in its image, if you know the archetype you can predict exactly how things will unfold. Jung didn’t make many predictions in the essay of his I cited earlier, but it should have been obvious from the start that once the Wotan-archetype found its vehicle and seized the German imagination, it would make a beeline for Ragnarok. What’s more, after his death, Hitler continued to fulfill the myth in classic style, becoming the modern world’s Lord of the Slain, galloping forever through the midnight skies of our collective imagination with six million ghosts following behind him.
Wotan is not the Changer, and different archetypes pursue different destinies. On the basis of the points discussed above, I think it’s safe to predict that no future attempt to stop Trump in his tracks will get any further than the ones we’ve already seen. The efforts to hit Trump over the head with an investigation or stab him with media tirades will doubtless continue—in fact, with an eye toward the legends, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mueller investigation is still lumbering ineffectually onward for a long time to come, and I’d be amazed if there’s the slightest decrease in the sniping from the media and the official intelligentsia—but none of it will affect the outcome. At the beginning of 2025, when Donald Trump hands over the presidency to his successor, he’ll look back on a long string of crises that never quite managed to derail him. By that time, furthermore, the nation and the world will have changed irrevocably.
With an eye to the first two parts of this series of posts, it’s not too hard to see the new realities taking shape on the far side of the Trump era. The drastic pruning of federal regulations, the end of one-sided free trade agreements that encourage the offshoring of working class jobs, and the end of the tacit encouragement of mass illegal immigration and the resulting downward pressure on wages and benefits—all core policies of the Trump administration—represent a dramatic rebalancing of economic power in American society away from the managerial aristocracy. The realities of politics being what they are, that will bring about an equally dramatic rebalancing of political influence. We’re already seeing a lively socialist insurgency threatening the Democratic Party establishment, and a less dramatic but equally far-reaching influx of populist candidates into the GOP is also well under way. Despite all the shrill denunciations of the mainstream media and the official intelligentsia, There Is An Alternative—in fact, more than one—and that in itself shows that the enforced consensus of the last forty years is shattering around us.
That will have equally dramatic effects on the international scene. The managerial aristocracy of the recent past had the power and wealth it did because the United States maintained hegemony over most of the world. Our empire—yes, I know, it’s impolite to use such terms, but let’s please be real—our empire, as I was saying, gave the five per cent of humanity that lived in the United States a quarter of the planet’s resources and a third of its manufactured products, and of course those were by no means equally distributed among Americans. The way that old-money families and tech-stock godzillionaires alike have by and large rallied around the opposition to the Trump administration shows that they know perfectly well which way the wind is blowing.
In the history of every empire, there comes a point when the costs of maintaining the empire exceeds the profits. We got to that point quite some time ago, and the policies that drove the US working class into destitution and misery can best be understood as attempts to keep the privileged classes comfortable by shoving the rising costs of empire onto everyone else. The end of free-trade arrangements, the retreat from foreign military commitments such as NATO, and the first steps toward a modus vivendi with Russia, North Korea, and other rival nations are necessary steps in the retreat from empire. Off in the distance, on the far side of the Changer’s upriver journey, we can see the first dim foreshadowings of post-imperial America, and with any luck, of a nation a little less riven by rigid class barriers and so a little more likely to deal with its many pressing problems.
Mind you, fifty years from now, there will doubtless still be people who get their moth-eaten pussy hats down from a box in the attic, and reminisce fondly about the good old days when the United States could still pretend to be the world’s irreplaceable nation, when Barack Obama used drone strikes to vaporize wedding parties on the other side of the world and the deplorables still knew their place. That’s the nature of outworn aristocracies; on a broader scale, it’s the nature of historical change—especially when the deep patterns of the collective psyche surge into action and leave the presumptions of a fading era shattered in their wake.