Anyone who has followed the rise of Donald Trump knows that as a child and later he attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York, where Norman Vincent Peale was famously preaching what he called the "power of positive thinking."
Trump has acknowledged how formative Peale's message was for him and how, as a result, he has sought to create or change reality through the concentration of the mind. As Lachman writes, "the philosophy of New Thought is based on the idea that the mind can influence reality directly, that mental effort alone can make things happen."
Over the years this has taken on such forms as Mental Science, Science of the Mind and Creative Visualization. And "the beliefs of New Thought are rooted in ancient occult ideas, insights into the magical nature of the mind and the reality that informed the philosophers of second-century Alexandria and the geniuses of the Renaissance. . ."
But where did Peale get the idea and how does positive thinking fit into the long, complicated history of philosophical and mystical ideas that have found their way into public discourse or at least have influenced public affairs even when the people behind those public affairs have been secretive about their attachment to such ideas?
A disturbing, engaging and enlightening new book by Gary Lachman, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump, explores those questions in fascinating detail. Here we get new insights into the so-called alt-right, into Vladimir Putin's czarist approach to governing Russia, into a strange and wide range of occult and spiritual practices that have found their way into the lives of people who are influencing world affairs today. (The official publication date for Lachman's book is May 29, but it can be pre-ordered now.)
This is not a conspiracy-theory book that suggests that what I think of as woo-wooism (way-off-brand spirituality) has taken over the world. Rather, it's an intriguing account of the history of various movements -- from New Thought to Traditionalism to Chaos Magick (spelled with an extra k) to Objectivism (associated with the late Ayn Rand) to various spiritualist movements. Lachman tries to help us see any connections between all that and today's postmodern, post-fact world, but he does so acknowledging that such connections are sometimes hard to prove.
What, for instance, can it mean that the white nationalist and racist leader Richard Spencer claimed of him and his followers that "We willed Donald Trump into office, we made this dream our reality"? Making dreams reality is what New Thought was all about, after all, and Peale's power of positive thinking has roots in it.
Lachman is careful not to draw airtight conclusions where none is warranted. Rather, he introduces us to the history of thought that falls outside standard fare and he connects some dots between such thinking and, for instance, the people working with Putin to help shape Russia now. And, given the ongoing inquiry into the Trump campaign's possible connections to Russia and Russian interference in our 2016 presidential election, all of that from Lachman is helpful.
Along the way we're introduced to the influential 20th Century Italian occultist and darling of Italian facsists Julius Evola (whom former Trump confidant Steve Bannon sometimes quoted favorably), to the French savant René-Jean-Marie-Joseph Guénon and, of course, to Putin's right-hand man, Alexander Dugin, known for his facist views and his desire for an all-out war to bring on the end times.
"Politics and the occult may seem strange bedfellows," Lachman writes. "But in a post-truth world what's strange anymore? If reality today is up for grabs, shouldn't we take hold of it before someone else does?"
Some of the thinking explored in this book has direct connections to religion, as you might expect. Some early Transcendentalists and members of the Theosophical Society, for instance, believed that "the power with which God produced creation also resides in our own minds," Lachman notes. That's the kind of thinking that found its way to Peale and, through Peale, to Trump and to purveyors of the so-called Prosperity Gospel -- proponents of which have been quite visible supporters of Trump. (I wrote about that here.) As Lachman notes, what remains of New Thought in the U.S. has focused on "the drive to self-improvement and the right to prosperity. Both involve the power of the mind to alter reality."
The author writes that this was "a doctrine that Donald J. Trump heard from an early age, and the message seemed to take hold."
Although, as I say, Lachman points to possible links between all this nonstandard way of thinking and Trump, one of the real values of this book is the history it offers of some of these thought movements. We learn of the origins, for instance, of chaos magick in the 1970s in London. And we learn a lot about the cartoon frog Pepe meme that is popular among alt-right followers.
Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini show up in this book with some frequency because of the way they were influenced by or sought to control a lot of this nonstandard thinking in their time. But Lachman is reasonably careful to avoid making the kind of direct charge that one still sometimes hears today in political discourse about Trump being the new one of those three -- or all three together. Rather, Lachman is interested in how these thought movements worked themselves into the reigns of such leaders, though sometimes Lachman drifts too close to drawing unnecessary and unattractive parallels between Trump and the others. Such direct comparisons should be avoided, given that it's hard to raise the names of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini for comparative purposes because each of them achieved a special rank of awfulness.
The question should not be whether Trump is a new Stalin, say, or even a Putin wannabe. Rather, the question should be where his ideas come from and how and why the alt-right decided to make him its hero.
Lachman is especially helpful in describing the various forces in league with Putin, especially Dugin and, earlier, Vladislav Surkov, who was Putin's deputy chief of staff and deputy prime minister from 1999 to 2013. Anyone who wants to try to understand Russia today and the harsh regime that rules it must get a grasp on these men and the often-bizarre roots of their thinking.
After all, it is their thinking that has moved the Russian leadership to stand hard against what it considers a decadent West that Russians think is, as Lachman writes, "eager to spread its permissive liberal ideology through 'globalization' and a rising new Holy Russia that stood for order and tradition and a 'multipolar' world." Russia, says Lachman, now is seeking to expand the idea of itself not just as Russia but as a larger Eurasia, and it seems to be making headway in that regard. And speaking of a "new Holy Russia," Putin has created a close and distressing alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, which I wrote about here.
A lot of the thinkers who have influenced Putin today, Lachman writes, have agreed that the Western idea of the rugged individual is at the root of the world's problems. They have convinced Dugin, Putin and others that the answer is a collectivist society in which the individual essentially disappears in favor of the whole body politic.
In the end, Lachman is willing to speculate that "Trump's election may have been the kind of 'event,' the 'singularity,' that Dugin and many others have anticipated, which would end the old world and clear a path for the new. . .(R)eality after Trump's election certainly seems different from reality before it."
And yet Lachman says that "I am perfectly happy to accept that all this might be nonsense and that an economic, sociological or some other rational explanation -- like Russian intervention -- can account for Trump's victory. Such a conclusion would be preferable. But after considering everything I've read over the months writing this book, I have to say it is not completely satisfying. My own experience has shown that the partitions between the mind and the world are not always strong. . .If positive thinking can put someone in the White House and chaos magick can help in the rise of a new Russia, then this power is considerable. . .The future perhaps is not only in our hands, but in our minds, and the reality that awaits us in the time ahead may be germinating there now. Let us hope that when it arrives we will be equal to it and that it will bring clearer skies and brighter stars on the horizon."
Indeed, let us hope (and maybe think) that.
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WHAT SHRINKAGE ALSO MEANS
A big new survey done for ABC News shows a continued decline in the percentage of Americans who identify as Protestant Christians. One disadvantage is that there's now less variety at our potluck dinners.