In last week’s thrilling episode of The Kek Wars, we saw how thousands of disaffected young people who’d been shut out of our society’s circles of privilege and denied the ordinary routes to adult independence turned to magic, for the same reasons that their equivalents have always turned to magic. As we discussed in the first post in this series, magic is the politics of the excluded; the art and science of causing changes in consciousness according to will—Dion Fortune’s classic definition of magic—is one logical resource for those who’d been denied any other means of getting their needs and wants noticed or seeking redress of their grievances; and a particular and distinctly postmodern version of magic, chaos magic, was readily accessible and well suited to the work at hand.
To make sense of what followed, it’s going to be necessary to plunge into a corner of internet culture that most of my readers have probably never encountered in person: the online forums known collectively as “the chans.” These started out innocuously enough with Futaba Channel, a Japanese-language electronic meeting place for fans of anime, which came to be called “2chan” in online slang. In 2003, in much the same way that an amoeba breeds, a group of anime fans hived off onto a new site, 4chan, which did the same thing in the English language.
In the same way, other sites such as 8chan spun off 4chan in due time. 4chan and all its offspring are venues for anonymous unmoderated talk, places where anything goes—the more offensive to the conventional wisdom, the better. Long before Trump announced his candidacy, the chans were already having a significant impact on internet culture. Most of my readers will know, for example, what a lolcat is; 4chan invented lolcats. One of the subdivisions of 4chan and many of its offshoots is /pol/, short for “politically incorrect,” and that’s one of the places where the young and disgruntled gathered to talk about the things you can’t talk about in the workplace or the academy these days.
That’s a phenomenon that deserves a quick note here. One of the lessons of the history of morals is that the more stridently you repress something, the more desperately people want to do it. In Victorian England, when sex was utterly unmentionable in polite company, the streets of London swarmed with prostitutes and brothels thrived, so that people could do in private what they wouldn’t dream of talking about in public. The drug abuse epidemic in the US today, similarly, is almost entirely a product of the much-ballyhooed War On Drugs—countries that treat drug addiction as an ordinary medical issue, not a subject for moral grandstanding, have much lower rates of drug use.
Recent crusades against “hate speech” have had exactly the same effect in today’s America. Those who attend university classes or work in white-collar jobs know that their every word is scrutinized by jealous rivals ready to use accusations of sexism, racism, or the like as a weapon in the competition for status. Most people, forced into so stifling an environment, will end up desperately longing for a place where they can take a deep breath and say absolutely anything, no matter how offensive. The chans were among the internet venues that offered them that freedom. Posts on the chans are anonymous, so there was no risk of reprisal, and the culture of the chans (and especially of /pol/) tended to applaud extreme statements, so they became a magnet for the people we discussed in last week’s post: those who for one reason or another lost out in the struggle to become flunkeys of the established order of society, who were locked out of what had been the normal trajectory of adult independence by plunging wages and soaring rents, and who were incensed by the smug superiority of a system that assumed that it had all the answers.
It’s become pretty much de rigueur to denounce the chans as racist, sexist, and anti-Semitic. Is there racism, sexism, and anti-Semitism in /pol/ and its many equivalents? You bet, but that’s far from the whole story. A venue that allows people to say anything anonymously is going to field whatever kinds of speech are most loudly forbidden. What was going on in the chans was considerably broader than those categories suggest: every value, every bias, every presupposition of the cultural mainstream was being shouted down with maximum glee. That’s what you get in outsider culture.
You also get running jokes, strange mascots, and odd little bits of in-group slang. That’s where Pepe the Frog came in. He started out in 2005 as a character in Matt Furie’s comic strip Boy’s Club, an archetypal slacker who just didn’t care about anything. He got splashed across the internet in the usual fashion, and ended up being adopted by /pol/ as its mascot. Then there was the word “kek,” which is what you get due to a software oddity when you try to send the message LOL to one of the factions in the online World of Warcraft game. In the chans, “kek” became the sound of laughter—which oddly enough is what the word means in Korean.
There’s one more detail of chan culture you need to know to follow what happened. Each post on a chan site gets assigned an eight digit number by the board software. The poster has no way of knowing what the number will be until the post goes up, and it became first a running joke and then a minor obsession to look for repeated digits—say, the 333 in 14186333. A doubled digit is a “dub,” a tripled digit a “trip,” and so on. Any repeating digit is a “get.”
The moment Donald Trump declared his candidacy, a significant number of /pol/ participants rallied to his cause. It was a match made in—well, probably not heaven, but you get the point: Trump’s brashness and the sheer parodic potential of a reality TV star running for US president made him an instant favorite on /pol/, and so did his loud rejection of the conventional wisdom of US politics. There Was No Alternative until Trump offered one, calling for a massive pruning of Federal regulation, a rejection of free-trade ideology, and an end to the tacit encouragement of illegal immigration: the elimination, that is, of the three core elements of the policies that crushed the American working class. For obvious reasons, all this went over extremely well in the venues we’re discussing.
Then people on /pol/ started noticing that posts referencing Trump were fielding an unusually high number of “gets.”
By this time some of the Trump supporters on /pol/ were learning chaos magic and putting it to work on behalf of their candidate. Memes putting Trump’s hair on Pepe the Frog, setting Trump and Pepe side by side as running mates, or involving Pepe in the Trump campaign in other ways, were blossoming all over the chans and spreading out into the internet. Loud kekking arose as pro-Trump posts fielded “get” after “get”—and then June 19, 2016 came around, and some anonymous user typed in “Trump will win” in response to a long string of irrelevant posts, and hit the enter button.
That turned out to be post number 77777777.
It was somewhere around this same time, too, that someone on the chans noticed that “kek” wasn’t just a funny way of saying LOL. It was also the name of an ancient Egyptian god, a god of the primeval darkness that gave birth to the light, who was worshiped in the city of Hermopolis—and who was very often portrayed as an anthropomorphic frog. Like Pepe, in other words. Following up this clue, another anonymous user found on the internet the photo of an ancient Egyptian statue of a frog, mislabeled as a statue of Kek. It was actually a statue of the frog goddess Heqet, but no one realized that at first—and the hieroglyphics of the name Heqet look rather unnervingly like a person sitting in front of a computer screen, with a swirling shape like magical energies on the far side of the screen.
By the time this finished percolating through the chans, a great many people there were convinced, or ironically pretended to be convinced, and at all events acted as though they were convinced, that Donald Trump was the anointed candidate of the god Kek, bringer of daylight, who had manifested as Pepe the Frog and was communicating his approval to them with “gets.” In response, the chaos magicians of /pol/ flung themselves into action. Those of my readers who followed the 2016 US election will remember that rumors were swirling around the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton by this point, claiming that she had a debilitating health condition that she was hiding from the media and the voters. The operative mages on /pol/ focused their efforts on a single goal: making Hillary Clinton collapse in public.
September 11, 2016 duly came, and on that day three things happened. First, Clinton publicly denounced Pepe the Frog as a right-wing hate symbol, to the great delight of the chans—all that free publicity for their mascot! Then, as she left a memorial service for the World Trade Center attacks, in view of the cameras, she swayed, toppled, and had to be hauled into her waiting SUV like a sack of potatoes. The GOP rumor mill went wild, and the chaos magicians of /pol/ did the digital equivalent of looking at each other in shock. There’s a useful acronym in occult circles, TSW—the polite version of its meaning is “this stuff works”—and everyone who’s ever taught magic to novices is used to the inevitable TSW panic, the vertiginous moment at which the student finally grasps that there’s more to magic than make-believe, and usually has to be talked down from a state close to hysteria. The chans went through their own TSW moment that day.
Then there was the third event of the same day. Yet another anonymous poster stumbled on a piece of pop music from the 1980s, an otherwise forgettable song titled “Shadilay.” The record label had a cartoon frog on it, waving a magic wand. Oh, and the band’s name? P.E.P.E. This hit the chans the same day that Hillary Clinton denounced Pepe the Frog and took a tumble. Many people on the chans decided, or ironically pretended to have decided, and at all events acted as though they had decided, that they’d just received a big vote of confidence from Kek the Frog God.
The song “Shadilay” duly became /pol/’s anthem, and the word “Shadilay!” itself took on the same status for Kek’s faithful that “Allahu Akbar!” has among devout Muslims. After that, if Donald Trump had called on his supporters on the chans to walk into the sea, there’s a fair chance they would have done it—and the chaos magicians on /pol/ and its equivalents rallied around the banner of the Frog God with frantic intensity as the campaign entered its most crucial weeks, and kept up that intensity straight through Election Day.
That was one side of the magical conflict that shaped the 2016 election. And the other? This is where things get very interesting indeed.
Back in the first episode of The Kek Wars, we talked about the way that societies can fissure into the excluded and the excluders, and the way that each of these separate and unequal halves turn to magic: the excluded to seek change, the excluders to convince themselves that there’s no need for change. Under most circumstances these paired magical intentions find a relatively stable balance. The aristocracy bumbles along merrily in its self-referential bubble, convinced that truth and decency are on their side and all is right with the world, while outside the bubble, those who are prevented from pursuing their needs and wants or seeking redress for their grievances apply magic on a case-by-case basis to improve their own lives.
That’s business as usual in a society in which the privileged classes have convinced themselves that There Is No Alternative to a set of policies that benefit them at everyone else’s expense. It becomes business as unusual once the mistake mentioned in last week’s episode—the habit of educating far more people for managerial jobs than there are jobs to employ them—builds a large enough intellectual underclass of young people who have plenty of skills and no prospects for the future, and who turn to one of the available strategies to try to overturn the system.
It’s at this point that the magic of the excluders can turn into a disastrous liability. It’s quite easy to use the fashionable spirituality of the privileged to make yourself completely oblivious to what’s happening right under your nose. As mentioned in our first episode, that becomes all the more tempting as the risks of ignoring what’s happening become more severe.
Examples? Here’s Charles I of England, who used the Hermeticism of the late Renaissance and a good solid dose of establishment Christianity to blind himself to the way that his policies were leading his country straight into a civil war he couldn’t win and didn’t survive. Here’s Nicholas II, Tsar of All the Russias, using the mystical end of Russian Orthodox spirituality to back himself into exactly the same corner with exactly the same gory results. Here’s Adolf Hitler, using the pop occultism he learned in his Vienna days to convince himself and his inner circle that he couldn’t possibly lose, and losing all the more catastrophically as a result. There are plenty of others of the same type.
Then there’s Hillary Clinton. While Trump worked hard to win the election, crisscrossing the country from one rally to another in a highly successful effort to go around the mainstream media and get his message directly to the voters, it’s fair to say that his path to the White House was made far easier by Clinton’s stunningly inept campaign.
Some of the failings were pretty clearly Clinton’s own doing. It’s indicative, for example, that her 2016 campaign was all but identical to her failed run for the Democratic nomination in 2008. The only reason that she didn’t suffer an identical defeat in the primaries, with Bernie Sanders reprising the role played by Barack Obama in the earlier campaign, is that Clinton made good and sure to get the party apparatchiks on her side, and they bent, broke, and trampled the rules to hand her the nomination. Of course that move ended up costing her dearly in the general election, as millions of Democratic voters stayed home rather than cast a vote for a candidate they felt had cheated her way to the nomination, but that kind of own goal was par for the course in her campaign.
Still, I think there was more to it than that. The thing that doomed Clinton’s campaign, more than anything else, was the inability of the candidate and her inner circle of advisers and managers to notice that anything was going wrong. Every time polls showed that a very large percentage of American voters disliked and distrusted their candidate, Clinton’s handlers simply looked blank and set out to reintroduce her to the voters, and when that didn’t work—and it never did—they simply looked blank and tried again. From my perspective, and not from mine alone, it really did look as though they were under a spell.
As the campaign wore on, the Clinton machine’s weird detachment from reality became even more pronounced. People who were involved in local Clinton campaign organizations have written about the way their increasingly desperate attempts to warn the national headquarters that Trump was gaining ground in crucial swing states were brushed aside as irrelevant, while millions of dollars were wasted on venues such as Chicago, which the Democrats would have won easily if they’d nominated Zippy the Pinhead. As Trump held rally after rally in the critically important states of the upper Midwest, and the numbers swung further Trump’s way with every poll, the Clinton campaign ignored those battleground states and lumbered ahead as though going through the right motions would conjure up the victory that they seemed to think the universe owed them.
I’d be interested to know, if anyone kept such statistics, how many people in Clinton’s campaign staff practiced the watered-down versions of mindfulness meditation, yoga, and similar practices that make up a large part of the spirituality of the privileged these days. The problem with such practices, when they’ve been pried loose from their original context and the challenging connections to spiritual realities those include, is that they become very effective at convincing you that everything is wonderful, even when it’s critical to realize that everything isn’t wonderful and drastic action has to be taken right away to avert catastrophe. Such anecdotal evidence as I’ve heard suggests that such practices were at least as widespread among Clinton campaign staff as they are in affluent socially liberal circles generally, and may have been considerably more so.
That may have played a significant role in Clinton’s defeat, in other words. It’s also possible, though I know this is unacceptable to suggest in most corners of today’s industrial culture, that the occult labors of /pol/’s chaos magicians may also have been involved. As occultists like to say, TSW; it doesn’t matter whether or not currently popular notions about the world provide a theory to explain the efficacy of magic, the fact remains that every human society around the planet and throughout time has practiced magic, and the most parsimonious explanation for that reality is that the art and science of causing changes in consciousness in accordance with will really does cause changes in consciousness in accordance with will.
Yet there’s another force at work here, and it shows clearly in the aftermath.
After the chans got over their shock and delight at Donald Trump’s victory, many of the same chaos magicians who’d worked overtime to make that happen decided to use the same techniques to further similar projects. More magical workings, calling on Kek through his manifestation as Pepe the Frog, got launched for the next project: winning the upcoming French presidential election for Front National candidate Marine Le Pen. She lost. Several similar projects were launched and heavily backed by /pol/ chaos magicians, and they failed just as badly. As far as I know, none of these other projects were answered by torrents of “gets” and cascades of meaningful coincidences.
Meanwhile, the same weird paralysis that seized the Clinton campaign has remained frozen in place among her supporters, and more generally Trump’s opposition in the US and elsewhere. Day after day, the self-proclaimed “Resistance” melts down over whatever Trump happens to have said or done most recently, as though cries of outrage counted as effective political action. It’s reached the point that Trump is pretty clearly using the effect for his own purposes—deliberately saying things to send his opponents into a swivet, so that they don’t notice that his administration is doing something else on another subject that his opponents would protest if they weren’t too busy shrieking to notice.
What’s more, anyone on the Democratic side who suggests the two actions that could win the upcoming midterm elections for the Democrats—first, figuring out what cost them the 2016 elections so they can stop doing it; and second, finding ways to win back the loyalty of the normally Democratic working class voters who stayed home or voted for Trump in 2016, having been ignored by the Democratic Party once too often—gets shouted down. Instead, Trump’s opponents march around waving signs, exactly the way they’ve been doing since the day after his election, and having precisely as much effect as those previous protests have.
As far as I know, nobody on the chans is working magic to make all this happen, but it’s happening. In next week’s post, the final episode of The Kek Wars, we’ll talk about what may be moving in the darkness beneath the surface of American politics to bring this about.
A brief heads up might be in order here. Normally the second Wednesday of each month is book club week, in which we discuss a classic text of occult philosophy—these days, that’s Dion Fortune’s The Cosmic Doctrine. This month, that’s going to be bumped to the third Wednesday so that the present sequence of posts can run uninterrupted. See you next week!