Every month or so since the 2016 presidential election campaign hit high tide, somebody has asked me to say something about the weirdest and most interesting aspect of that campaign: the role played in it by a diffuse constellation of right-wing occultists who united for a brief time under the banner of a cartoon frog. A fair number of my readers have probably encountered cryptic references to Pepe the Frog, the ancient Egyptian god Kek, a Euro-pop song from the 1980s titled “Shadilay,” and an assortment of online forums collectively known as “the chans”—4chan.org, 8ch.net, and the like—in connection with Donald Trump’s victory. Those of you who haven’t, well, you’re in for a wild ride.
When the first flurry of requests for a post about what I call the Kek Wars came my way, I decided to wait a while before responding. My thought was that after a year or so, the losing side would get around to dealing with the fact that it lost, the tantrums would subside, and it would then be possible to have a reasoned conversation about what happened and why. One of the more interesting features of the 2016 election and its aftermath is that the tantrums haven’t subsided. That’s not quite unprecedented—as we’ll see, it has some very specific and revealing precedents earlier in American history—but it’s a good indication that something out of the ordinary is in process.
Even though the leftward end of American politics is still busy melting down over Trump’s election twenty months afterward, I think it’s time to go ahead and try to have that conversation. In order to make sense of what happened, though, we’re going to have to cover quite a bit of ground that has no obvious relation to cartoon frogs and internet forums. We’re going to talk about magic, but magic always has a political context.
Magic is the politics of the excluded. It’s also, in an inversion of a kind typical in such situations, the politics of the excluders. We’ll get to the latter point later in this essay; for now, let’s explore the way that magic becomes the default option for those denied access to the political process.
When most people have at least a little influence on day to day politics, and have some chance of getting their needs heard and their grievances addressed, they tend to neglect magic. This is true even if their influence is limited and others have a great deal more than they do. For example, the golden age of African-American folk magic was between 1900 and 1945—the period when Jim Crow laws were most savagely enforced across the American South, and various devices were used to deny African-Americans the civil rights they had theoretically been granted after the Civil War—and built on magical traditions developed by African-Americans during the era of slavery. In those eras when African-Americans had some access to political power—between 1865 and 1900, in the wake of Reconstruction, and from 1945 on, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement—their interest in magic waned.
This makes perfect sense if you understand magic the way that operative mages do. (Operative mages? Those are people who actually practice magic, as opposed to speculative mages, who just theorize about it.) In the words of the great twentieth century mage Dion Fortune, magic is the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will. If you are denied access to any other source of power, you can still exercise power over your own consciousness; what’s more, if you do that and get good at it, you’ll find that some of the techniques you use to shape your own thoughts and feelings will also shape the thoughts and feelings of others, with our without their consent or knowledge. Magic thus becomes the logical fallback option for those who are denied any other way of pursuing their goals or seeking redress for their grievances.
Periods in which magic becomes popular, then, are periods when more people than usual are excluded from whatever mechanisms their societies provide for seeking redress of grievances. It’s important to realize that this isn’t a way of talking about familiar dichotomies such as democracy vs. autocracy. Competent dictators make sure that the people they rule have a variety of channels for making their needs and wants known, and quite often go out of their way to see to it that needs and wants that don’t threaten the regime are promptly met. That’s why the Nazi Party created a whole series of new national parks and introduced paid vacations for most non-Jewish Germans, and why Mussolini’s regime in Italy forced employers to give regular wage increases to their employees. Majorities in both countries remained loyal to the regimes in question precisely because they knew they had at least as good a chance of having their nonpolitical grievances addressed as under democracy.
It’s equally possible, for that matter, for a democracy to make it impossible for the majority to influence the political system or make its wants and needs felt. There are various ways of doing this, but the most popular in recent centuries was given a useful label by Margaret Thatcher’s famous slogan “There Is No Alternative.” If the political establishment of a representative democracy decides that only one set of policies is thinkable, and all major parties sign on to that set of policies, it’s usually possible to shut down any discussion of alternatives even if the policies in question have disastrous consequences for most of the population.
This can be done even if there’s social mobility, so long as you make agreement with the policies in question the requirement for access to influence and wealth. Educational systems are the usual venue for this filtering process. Whether you’re living in the Chinese Empire and aspire to influence and wealth through membership in the mandarinate, or living in the British Empire and aspire to influence and wealth through membership in the imperial civil service, or living in the American empire and aspire to influence and wealth through membership in this or that corporate hierarchy, the same rule applies: your chance of fulfilling those aspirations depends on your unswerving allegiance to whatever set of ideas your superiors want you to have, which are in turn those that maintain your superiors in power.
As I’ve already hinted, this has been the case now for quite a while in the United States, and the nations of the industrial West more broadly. Among the privileged classes, their lackeys and hangers-on, and those who aspire to either status, the approved range of political, economic, social, and cultural attitudes is very narrow and very rigidly defined. Those who have influence and wealth can get away with violating those norms from time to time, so long as none of their rivals decides to use their strayings as a weapon against them. Those who aspire to influence and wealth, though, have to watch their every word and action, knowing that these are being watched by their rivals and superiors as well. Those who succeed in passing that test, who have talents and skills their superiors value, and who also have a larger than usual helping of old-fashioned luck, can hope to enter the lower circles of industrial civilization’s aristocracy.
Yes, I know that’s not a word that sees much use in that context, but it has more than a little to teach. As the term itself implies—it comes from the Greek words aristoi, “the best,” and krateia, “power, rule”—an aristocracy is a group of people who believe that they rule because they’re better than everyone else. The sense in which they consider themselves better is subject to all the usual historical and cultural vagaries, of course, but as an aristocracy ripens, those vagaries give way to an interesting uniformity.
Consider the meanings of the words “noble” and “gentle” in today’s English. Originally, those words meant simply “belonging to the upper class.” Similarly, consider the meanings of the words “churl” and “villain” in today’s English. Originally those words meant nothing more than “belonging to the lower classes.” Those details of linguistic history express the standard pattern just mentioned. Every aristocracy comes to believe that it’s morally superior to the people it rules. Aristocrats inevitably think of themselves as the good people, the morally virtuous people, and they just as inevitably work out an ornate code of virtue signaling that’s used to communicate their notional goodness to others of their class, and to exclude the rabble.
This matter of exclusion is of high importance. Every aristocracy is defined by who it excludes, but tries to excuse that definition in terms of what it excludes. Exactly what criteria are used as a basis for exclusion varies from culture to culture and from age to age. Not much more than a century ago, the US aristocracy was defined strictly by gender and ethnic markers—the highest circles of power were restricted to heterosexual men whose ancestors all came from northwestern Europe, whose cultural background was overwhelmingly Anglo-American, and who went on Sundays to the Episcopalian (or, more rarely, Methodist) church.
As times changed and the American aristocracy caught onto the dangers of excluding too many of the talented, the criteria of exclusion changed. Over the course of the twentieth century, political and cultural markers replaced ethnic and gender markers to a certain extent; while most of the people in the highest circles of power still bear a close resemblance to their equivalents in 1900—look at a group photo of the US Senate sometime—a modest trickle of women and ethnic minorities have been permitted to rise into those same ranks, so long as they embraced all the right opinions and shed all but the thinnest cosmetic veneer of whatever ethnic culture they or their immediate ancestors might have had.
The quest for ways to shut out the rabble has had far-reaching impacts. Consider the way that painters, sculptors, composers, and other producers of fine arts in America devoted the entire twentieth century to a heroic effort to drive away the large audiences their equivalents had in 1900. Back then a gallery opening or the premiere of a new opera attracted the attention and patronage of the general public, and artists deliberately courted success along those lines; Giuseppe Verdi, one of the two supreme opera composers of the late nineteenth century, earnestly advised the man who became the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera in New York to ignore the critics and pay close attention to box-office receipts instead.
What happened? In America, at least, the fine arts became a means of exclusion by which the aristocracy defined itself as different from the rabble. Paintings that any educated person could appreciate became the kiss of death for an artist’s career; what brought the prestigious shows and the financial rewards were objets d’art that looked like a dog’s breakfast the second time around, because no one outside the circles of the elite even pretended to appreciate them. In the same way, young composers were taught to avoid writing anything an audience might enjoy listening to: no melody, no tonality, nothing that would appeal to anybody outside the narrowing circle of the cognoscenti. We can’t have the rabble enjoying our music!
During the twentieth century, maneuvers of this kind ensured that only the privileged classes and their lackeys and hangers-on paid any attention to the fine arts, and so allowed the privileged to use talk of Andy Warhol’s artworks, John Cage’s music, and other products of the same kind as caste markers and signals of their status. Mind you, at this point the quest to drive off the audience has reached such a pitch in art schools, conservatories, and the like that it’s succeeded in driving off most of the privileged classes as well. Painters, composers, and the like are creating works these days solely for each other and a tiny audience that mostly belongs to the academic scene. We’ll probably have to wait until the student loan bubble pops, and takes most of US higher education with it, before artists remember that art is an act of communication, not of exclusion, and that it’s their job to reach out to their audience—not the audience’s job to struggle to wrestle some drop or other of meaning out of an opaque and unappealing product.
That’s only one of the many ways that the American aristocracy and its equivalents in other Western industrial nations have closed ranks against the rest of their societies. The dramatic popularization of magic over the last four decades, I suggest, is a straightforward response to that closure. People turn to magic, again, when they have no other way to pursue their wants and needs or to get a hearing for their grievances. It’s because the privileged classes of the Western industrial nations shut themselves into a self-referential bubble that the gospel of positive thinking got dusted off and put back into circulation, that magic-centered religions such as Wicca rose to unprecedented levels of popularity, and that the venerable traditions of Western occultism have had a heyday unlike any they’ve witnessed since the end of the Renaissance. That has had consequences we’ll be discussing later in this series of posts.
For the moment, though, I want to concentrate on the other end of the equation, and talk about the inmates of the self-referential bubble just mentioned. Retreating into such a bubble is a common occupational hazard of aristocracies, and it’s the most common way for an aristocracy to arrange for its own replacement. I’ve unfortunately lost track of the name of the historian who described the long rhythm of Chinese history as the tramp of mailed boots going up stairs, followed by the whisper of silk slippers going back down; it’s a perfect image, and not only for the history of imperial China.
Every aristocracy begins as a set of tough, capable individuals who come to terms with some reality the previous ruling elite has ignored too long, and use that reality as a battering ram to break down the doors of the status quo and take power from the overly delicate hands that previously held it. As long as the new aristocracy stays in touch with the world outside its own circles, and provides the people it rules with effective ways to seek redress of grievances and communicate their wants and needs, it retains power—but when it retreats from that necessary interaction and closes its ears to the needs of those under it, it writes its own death warrant.
The managerial aristocracy of contemporary America followed exactly that trajectory. It took power from an older aristocracy in the crisis years of the Great Depression, when Franklin Roosevelt spearheaded a not-quite-violent seizure of power and broke the grip of a failed social and economic orthodoxy. There Was No Alternative until FDR created one, and in his wake a new cadre of bureaucrats and intellectuals seized the levers of power and turned the established certainties of American life on their heads. The bare-knuckle international slugging matches of the Second World War and the early Cold War were grist for the new aristocracy’s mill, and when it was in its prime, it had the common sense to pay attention where necessary to the grievances and wants of those outside its circle.
Fast forward to 2000 or so, and the members of this same caste had fallen into the same trap as the elites of the pre-New Deal era, and embraced a social and economic orthodoxy just as toxic as the one their predecessors overthrew. What’s worse, they made the same mistake as their predecessors, and convinced themselves that the policies that furthered their own interests at everyone else’s expense were not only the only alternative, but the only moral alternative.
The policies in question? There were a galaxy of them, but the threefold core was metastatic centralism, economic globalism, and unrestricted illegal immigration. The fantastic proliferation of federal regulations since 1932 choked out small businesses and transferred wealth and power to big corporations and government bureaucracies; the elimination of trade barriers encouraged the offshoring of millions of working class jobs that, despite endless claims in the mainstream media, were never replaced, and were never intended to be replaced; the tacit encouragement of unlimited illegal immigration created a vast underclass of noncitizens who had no rights worth mentioning, and were employed at starvation wages under inhuman conditions, thus driving down wages and working conditions across the whole range of working class jobs.
I’ve discussed the consequences of these policies more than once in the past, but they bear repeating. In 1960, an American family of four with one working class income could afford a home, a car, three square meals a day, and all the other requirements of a decent lifestyle. In 2010, fifty years later, an American family of four with one working class income was struggling to avoid living on the street if they weren’t already there. This didn’t happen by accident, nor was it the product of impersonal economic forces. It was the result of specific, easily identifiable policies carried out by a bipartisan consensus and backed to the hilt by the privileged classes across the political spectrum.
The good people, the morally virtuous people, thus enthusiastically supported policies that plunged tens of millions of Americans into destitution and misery. In the usual fashion of aristocracies, furthermore, they insisted that the policies that benefited them were the only moral options, and that anyone who objected to them could only be motivated by deliberate evil. For those inside the self-referential bubble of elite culture, it all seemed so straightforward: the sufferings of those people whose interests aligned with those of the privileged were all-important and had to be addressed, while the sufferings of those crushed by policies that benefited the privileged were their own fault and didn’t matter anyway.
This sort of thinking doesn’t come easily. It takes, in fact, a fairly systematic use of the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will—that is to say, magic. That’s why, while people outside the privileged classes were reading Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, taking up Wicca, and dabbling (or more than dabbling) in classical Western occultism, people within the privileged classes were embracing their own varieties of magic. That’s why Fortune 500 corporations encouraged their high-end employees to take up mindfulness meditation and various other bits of mildly exotic spiritual practice that had been carefully stripped of all their original moral and religious content. It’s why a great deal of similarly sanitized spirituality found its way into general circulation among the well-to-do.
Some cultural critics have dismissed these things as a slightly less chemical form of tranquilizer, and while there’s a good sharp point to that jab, it’s not the whole story. The magic of the privileged exists to convince its practitioners that nothing can possibly be wrong with the world, that everything is as it should be, and that any remaining problems can be counted on to go away in good time once the right reforms get put into place and the right people get elected. It’s a tool that assists the comfortable to stay comfortable by excluding unwelcome realities.
Here again, though, the magic of the privileged becomes more popular as the number of unwelcome realities to exclude goes up. That happens, in turn, when the number of people whose needs and grievances aren’t being addressed by the existing political order goes up. Thus a society in the face of certain kinds of crisis experiences a double upsurge in magic: among the excluded, as a way of changing things, and among the privileged, as a way of hiding from the need to change things.
It was when those two kinds of magic collided that the Kek Wars broke out. We’ll talk about that next week.